Saturday, March 25, 2000

Cross-burning horrifies family

Middletown rallies to decry racist act

BY JANET C. WETZEL and KEVIN ALDRIDGE The Cincinnati Enquirer
by BY JANET C. WETZEL and KEVIN ALDRIDGE The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MIDDLETOWN — A cross-burning in their yard, less than three weeks after a racist flier was plastered on their door, might force a black woman and her biracial fiance to flee this city.

        “I've never dealt with such blatant racism,” said Renee Joiner, of the 1700 block of Fleming Road. “They're sending a message. They have a hatred for blacks.”

        Police said Friday they had several suspects but had made no arrests in the cross-burning, which was early Thursday. It appears to be an isolated incident and not the work of some larger group, said Lt. Don Owens.

        Last week, three local teen-agers admitted putting racially offensive fliers on Ms. Joiner's door and area light poles on March 7. But there is no indication they were involved in the cross-burning, Lt. Owens said. The teens were put on probation and ordered to apologize to the victims, he said.

        Police Chief Bill Becker said there have been a few isolated racial incidents or hate crimes in the city over the years, but said he couldn't recall anything of this magnitude.

        “It's horrendous to think that someone would do this,” Chief Becker said. “I think it's disgusting, horrible. I find it hard to believe this is occurring in Middletown in the year 2000. We're not going to tolerate it.”

        Ms. Joiner, 31, speaking in a soft, firm voice, said Friday her initial reaction was “to pack up and go.” Now she's not so sure.

        “I'm angry that another human being is making me feel I should leave where I live,” she said. “I'm still looking over my shoulder; it's a terrible feeling. But I'm more angry now than fearful. We're discussing whether to leave or stay.”

        Ms. Joiner said she was stunned about 3 a.m. Thursday when she discovered the cross burning in the back yard of the apartment she shares with her fiance, Chris Sillet, whom she described as light-skinned, half African-American, half Italian. Mr. Sillet's son, 16, also lives with them.

        “At first I couldn't actually believe my eyes,” she said. “This just could not be a cross burning in my back yard.”

        Lt. Owens said the 5-foot cross was crudely constructed from 1-by-4 lumber discarded behind a neighbor's garage. It was doused with gasoline and lit at the bottom, but did not fully catch fire, he said.

        Their apartment building sits in a modest, older neigh borhood, a mixture of tidy homes and run-down properties. Neighbors say many of the houses are rentals, and the neighborhood has never been segregated. Some expressed shock and outrage over the incident.

        “You hear about these things happening in other parts of the country, but not around here,” said Shirley Sarver. “I've lived here 53 years, and we've never had this kind of trouble in the neighborhood. There's always been at least two or three black families living here.”

        Her daughter, Kim Lovejoy, who lives with her, added: “This is not a racist neighborhood. We don't want things like this happening here.”

        Steve Wilmot and Belinda Hamilton were upset when they came home to find reporters in their neighborhood.

        “You've got blacks all over this neighborhood and there's been no crosses burned before,” Mr. Wilmot said angrily. “This is being blowed clean out of proportion. We get along around here.”

        Chief Becker said about 12 percent of the city's estimated 55,000 residents are African-American. He said most neighborhoods are integrated, but the largest black population is in the city's south end.

        Louie Cox, president of Middletown's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, said Friday the cross-burning took him by surprise. He called it “a sad day” when a family is forced to move out of town because of racist acts.

        “The burning of a cross in any community expresses that racism and racial tensions exist,” he said. “These racist views may be held by only a small segment of the community, but it is a clear indication that something's wrong.”

        Mr. Cox said it is widely known that racism still exists nationwide, but it's usually subtle. This case, however, is “overt racism at its worst,” he said.

        “When the Klan staged a rally downtown a few years ago, the response was so tepid I kind of thought that racial hatred was somewhat behind us,” Mr. Cox said. “I never expected racism to go entirely away, but I didn't expect an incident of this magnitude to ever occur here again.”

        The NAACP will monitor the situ ation closely, Mr. Cox said.

        City Commission Chairman Fred Sennet said the city wants police to work swiftly to bring the culprits to justice.

        “It's a despicable act,” Mr. Sennet said.

        While Ms. Joiner agreed the incident is heinous, she said there is a bright side. Neighbors she didn't know have stopped in to offer apologies and support. And the mother of one of the teens charged earlier stopped Friday to apologize.

        “Most of my neighbors have been great,” Ms. Joiner said. “Chief Becker apologized for the entire city of Middletown.

        “We have a lot of support,” she said. “Ignorance can be dangerous, but it shouldn't be that difficult to defeat.”

        Anyone with information about the case should call police at 425-7738.


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