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When Hatemongers Came for Minorities, Town Said No : Montana: Billings countered harassment of Jews by putting menorahs all over town. When the home of a mixed-race couple was vandalized, the painters union repaired the damage. The effort appears to have cowed the racists--at least for now.

March 06, 1994|TOM LACEKY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BILLINGS, Mont. — Police Chief Wayne Inman has seen what happens when racism and anti-Semitism are allowed to fester. As a cop in Oregon, he watched skinhead hatred turn murderous.

When the swastikas appeared in Billings, Montana's largest city, Inman was determined to halt the hatred early. He and others stirred the community to a roar of outrage that appears to have cowed the racist groups, at least for now.

"Hate crimes are not a police problem; they're a community problem," he said in an interview. "Hate crimes and hate activity will flourish only in communities that allow it to flourish."

The first signs came last year, when fliers started showing up in Billings mailboxes, on doorsteps, under windshield wipers. The fliers and anonymous phone calls vilified Hispanics, Native Americans, blacks, gays, lesbians and welfare recipients, but reserved special venom for the city's Jewish community of 48 families.

Then, a series of seemingly random, isolated incidents:

* In January, a few skinheads slipped into a Martin Luther King Day observance; afterward, participants found their cars papered with Ku Klux Klan material.

* In the spring, skinheads began showing up in twos and threes at Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, glowering in the back pews. As the Rev. Bob Freeman recalls it, "They were trying to intimidate us with 'the stare,' you know."

* In August, a black swastika painted on white poster board was nailed to the door of Beth Aaron Synagogue, and tombstones were toppled in its cemetery.

* In October, swastikas and racial slurs were spray-painted on the home of a mixed-race couple--white and Native American.

From his previous job, Inman recognized an emerging pattern--hate literature to intimidation to vandalism to personal attacks--which in Portland had culminated in the 1988 beating death of Mulugeta Seraw, a young Ethiopian. Seraw's three skinhead attackers were fresh from a meeting of East Side White Pride at which two agents of White Aryan Resistance, a supremacist group, gave a spirited "recruitment" speech.

The skinheads pleaded guilty, and, in a trial two years later, White Aryan Resistance founder Tom Metzger and his son, John, were convicted of inciting Seraw's murder by recruitment.

"I saw the emergence of the hate groups and a community's denial, and I saw a wake-up call that was the death of a black man . . . by baseball bat because he was black," Inman said. "That's what it took to wake up Portland. We didn't have to go through that here to get the wake-up call."

What was different in Billings, a metropolitan area of about 100,000 people, was the united public reaction to the early ugliness.

"There was not silence," Inman said. "There was community outrage, saying, 'If you harass and intimidate one member of this community, you are attacking all of us.' "

Inman kept repeating a message to civic groups and community leaders: Hate groups must be resisted, not ignored.

The resistance was more than bluster. Within five days of the spray-painted vandalism, 27 volunteers from Painters Local 1922 swarmed over the defaced house and obliterated the slurs in 45 minutes.

Bigotry resurfaced the next month. On Nov. 27, a beer bottle was hurled through a glass door at the home of Uri Barnea, conductor of the Billings Symphony. Five nights later, a cinder block thrown through a window sent shards of glass spraying over the bed of 5-year-old Isaac Schnitzer.

Both houses were decorated with Hanukkah menorahs. Both houses had children at home with baby sitters.

The threats to children aroused a fierceness in the city. Christian churches distributed photocopies of menorahs. The Billings Gazette published a black-and-white picture of a menorah with an editorial, then a full-page version in color. Several businesses began providing paper menorahs.

Within days, the nine-candled symbol of Jewish perseverance and resistance from the second century B.C. was displayed in thousands of windows across the city.

The menorah idea started with the Rev. Keith Torney of the First Congregational Church and Margie MacDonald of the Montana Assn. of Churches.

"This was just getting to be too much," Torney said. "At first, the homosexual community was being harassed. First the gays, then the black community, but it seemed to me they kind of hit their stride in the Jewish community. It's like they're searching around to get attention."

Civic leaders, churches and businesses declared their revulsion. Universal Athletics replaced its billboard display on a busy thoroughfare with this message:

"NOT IN OUR TOWN! NO HATE. NO VIOLENCE."

But the hatemongers returned. Over two weeks in December, they broke windows at two Jewish homes and two churches that displayed menorahs, shot bullets through windows at Billings Central Catholic High School, and stomped and battered six vehicles at homes displaying menorahs, telling two owners in phone calls, "Go look at your car, Jew-lover."

The spasm of hate only created more resistance.

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