Civil rights leaders met with the Anne Arundel state's attorney yesterday to discuss several racial incidents near the Maryland capital this year: a cross planted in a front yard, a slur etched into the paint of a car, racist fliers scattered on a lawn and the alleged beating of a white student by blacks at a high school at Fort Meade.
They see it as a disquieting trend in a county that has had its share of high-profile racial episodes in recent decades, including the 1981 theft of a plaque honoring black slave Kunta Kinte at the City Dock in Annapolis and a 1998 Ku Klux Klan rally on the State House steps.
The 90-minute meeting, attended by the Anne Arundel sheriff, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, a Justice Department representative and 15 other people, yielded an agreement to "interface a little better with the community," Weathersbee said. "Hopefully, they'll be our eyes and ears, and they'll give us information when these crimes are occurring."
The county police have recorded 29 hate-crime incidents this year, roughly on pace with the 66 reported in all of 2004. But a few jarring incidents in recent weeks have drawn the attention of local civil rights leaders.
They say the recent incidents might have a common spur in the July death of Noah Jamahl Jones, 17, in a brawl at a house party in the Baltimore suburb of Pasadena. The death of the black teenager, and the subsequent acquittal of the sole white defendant tried in the case, polarized much of the county along racial lines.
"If your idea was to exacerbate racial tensions, this is the case to do it with," said Carl O. Snowden, an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens (D) and one of the meeting's organizers.
Snowden said the session led to a breakthrough in dealing with the racist leaflets that have appeared on lawns around Pasadena and other areas of Anne Arundel in the past month, typically packed into baggies and weighted with stones.
The leaflets are considered constitutionally protected speech, so leaving them on lawns is generally not a crime. But Snowden said law officers will look for opportunities to file littering charges against the people who distribute them.
In one recent incident, a white Davidsonville woman reported that she had racist fliers dumped on her lawn because she is dating an African American. That incident could be considered littering, Snowden said, because "it was not one flier, it was hundreds of pieces of literature."
Snowden and county police believe the racist leaflets are the work of the National Alliance, a white supremacy organization that placed fliers around Pasadena for several months after Jones's death. The new fliers don't mention that group by name. Calls placed to its Baltimore office and West Virginia headquarters yesterday were not returned.
According to authorities, the latest wave of hate crimes began May 20, when a black woman in the Ferndale community, not far from where Jones died, found a wooden cross on her lawn with a racist message written on it. On May 30, a Hanover family found a racist epithet carved into the paint of their car; a local teenager later admitted the crime to police.
This month, the principal of Meade High School faced criticism for her handling of a January fight at the school that allegedly involved several black students beating a white student. Prosecutors said the principal, Joan Valentine, and other school officials failed to investigate the fight properly. The case ended in the acquittal of the lone student charged with a hate crime and assault in the beating.
The white teenager was walking past a group of black students during a break between classes when one of the black students began to assault him, Weathersbee said. Other students joined in, beating him until teachers and the principal showed up.
According to Weathersbee, the principal took two statements from witnesses but did not include their names, and she refused to identify the witnesses to prosecutors until ordered to do so by a judicial master. One witness ultimately denied having given a statement.
"The schools do their own investigations," Weathersbee said. "And in this case, the school just completely resisted, and they said, 'We've decided we do not wish to proceed.' It's not their decision."
The incident is under review by the school system, whose policies require a principal to file a report within 24 hours of any racial incident. Generally speaking, a principal would not be authorized to withhold information from a prosecutor, said schools spokeswoman Maneka Wade.
"We would never not cooperate," she said. "We provide full cooperation, especially on a criminal level."
Staff writer Eric Rich contributed to this report.