After white supremacists dropped hundreds of leaflets around the Annapolis Neck peninsula last week, several dozen residents gathered in response on a beach for a candlelight vigil, mobilized by one homeowner's e-mail inviting them to "brighten the darkness of the day."
That sort of grass-roots reaction may be the most effective way for residents to express their outrage over racist leafletings, which seem to have become a part of life in Anne Arundel County, civic leaders said Monday in a town hall-style meeting at the Annapolis courthouse.
The meeting yielded two proposals that could assuage residents victimized by hate literature and hate crimes. One is to create government "rapid response teams" of law enforcement and human relations officials that would sweep in together after an incident to provide both police investigation and social services such as counseling. Another is to hold roundtable meetings in affected communities. Both plans would be implemented by a new group, tentatively titled the Anne Arundel County Race Relations Coordinating Council. Attendees at Monday's meeting were told to consider themselves charter members.
"Everybody has these race relation teams," said Kristin Riggin, spokeswoman for State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee, who helped organize the meeting. "But up to now, all of them have been functioning separately."
Civil rights groups are responding to an apparent surge in hate crimes since the death last summer of Noah Jamahl Jones, a black teen who died in a fight with several young white men.
Monday's meeting focused particularly on racist leaflets, which have appeared on lawns in various parts of the county over the past year. Such literature presents a vexing problem to lawmakers.
Hate literature is legal, falling under the umbrella of constitutionally protected speech. Each so-called "lit drop" affects many homeowners, some of whom inevitably call the police or the county executive to demand action. But no one ever seems to catch the leafleteers in the act.
"I think it is not appropriate for the police to say that this is free speech, and nothing can be done," said Carl O. Snowden, a co-organizer of the meeting and an aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens.
Several residents who attended the meeting challenged law enforcers to act. One, Donna Prokop, likened the distribution of racist literature to scrawling racist graffiti, which can be prosecuted as a hate crime. "Why is not this literature then considered to be a hate crime?" she asked.
Keith Seay, a lawyer from Highland Beach, asked whether it would make a difference if he wrote down the license plate number of a driver dumping racist literature: "Is that something the police would even want to entertain?"
Law enforcement officials explained that in order for a racist act to be a hate crime, it must first be a crime. Someone who spray-paints an epithet on a garage door or scrapes it into the paint of a car is committing a property crime, one to which hate can be ascribed as a motive. The act of dropping a leaflet on a lawn is no more criminal than depositing a pizza coupon or a newspaper.
Emerson Davis, deputy chief of Anne Arundel police, urged residents to report the distribution of hate literature even though it is not, in most cases, criminal.
"Do we want to know who that person is? Yes," he said, alluding to Seay's question about catching the leafleteer in action. "Could that person lead us to an organization? Yes. If you can get us a tag number, if you can get us a description, anything, that piece of information is vital to us."
Davis said police do not know of any county-based hate groups. One resident countered that the national Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, lists a neo-Nazi group called SS Regalia in Edgewater.
There is also some uncertainty about whether any one group is responsible for the various leafleting actions. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists leaflet drops on Aug. 16 and Aug. 20, 2004, in Annapolis, and on Nov. 23 in Pasadena, and attributes all three to the National Alliance, a West Virginia-based group that claims a chapter in Baltimore. According to Snowden, more leaflets appeared in May in Davidsonville.
Others at the meeting said the source of the leaflets was beside the point.
"Anyone can go to the National Alliance Web site, or to any of these Web sites, and download something," said Mary Weidner, chairwoman of the Anne Arundel County Human Relations Commission.
Weidner and others at the meeting said publicity is one goal of the leafleteers; any mention of a group on television or in print can draw new visitors to their Internet site.
"We're caught in a Catch-22," said Kristin Riggin, spokeswoman for Weathersbee. "We want people to know about the hate that they spew. But we don't want to give them free ink."