The Ghosts of Racism Past and Present Are Haunting a Pennsylvania Town

New York Times/May 27, 2001
By Francis X. Clines

York, Pa., -- With the mayor newly indicted on homicide charges in a 32- year-old race riot, the last thing this quiet Colonial town needed was the appearance of white supremacist stickers that were suddenly plastered all around downtown by midnight agitators.

"Earth's Most Endangered Species: The White Race. Help Preserve It," proclaimed the bright orange stickers, the work last weekend of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi organization that experts on hate groups call one of the fastest-growing and most dangerous racist organizations in the country.

The stickers caught York residents short as they sought to restore calm to a city reeling from the sight of their mayor, Charles Robertson, in handcuffs and pleading his innocence, even as he admitted that when he was a city police officer during the 1969 race rioting, he was a "white power" advocate.

The National Alliance has been gravitating to places where racial tension has recently exploded, including street disturbances in Cincinnati and Seattle and the current reinvestigation of two deaths here in the 1969 rioting. National and local human rights specialists tracking the National Alliance emphasize that fast and firm community action is paramount in fighting the alliance message against blacks and "the Jewish media."

"Everyone came out and tore down the stickers," said Cathy L. Ash, executive director of York's Human Relations Commission. "They used clippers, putty knives, fingernails, anything to rip down that message, and I'm very proud of how fast the community did the job."

No less pleased by the attentiveness to the message was Dr. William L. Pierce, the leader of the National Alliance, whose notoriety has grown since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the role that federal investigators suspect was played there by Dr. Pierce's fictional writings on anti government violence. "We are dangerous only to people who are afraid of the truth," Dr. Pierce said in an interview.

>From his base in rural West Virginia, Dr. Pierce confirmed the estimates of watchdog groups that he has doubled the membership of the alliance to about 2,000 members and 30 chapters in the last few years. Five alliance chapters in rural Pennsylvania and Maryland are within an easy drive of York, marked in recent decades by white flight to the suburbs and a rising proportion of minority residents.

"We don't go around killing people, blowing things up," said Dr. Pierce, who is identified by the Anti-Defamation League as the most influential neo-Nazi leader in the United States today.

Dr. Pierce's power as an agitator increased significantly, experts say, after some of his neo-Nazi fiction was found among the possessions of Terry L. Nichols, who was convicted in the Oklahoma City bombing along with Timothy J. McVeigh.

"Pierce rules with an iron fist, demanding discipline from his followers," said Marilyn Mayo, the Anti-Defamation League's associate director of national fact-finding. "What really distinguishes the National Alliance is the range of its members from middle-class professionals to young skinheads."

Mayor Robertson is charged with encouraging white street gangs and supplying them with ammunition before the shooting death of a black woman. The grand jury is also investigating the fatal shooting of a white officer three days before the black woman was killed.

To a casual visitor, news of Mayor Robertson's indictment in the 1969 rioting can seem out of place in the face of the obvious number of interracial families and social relationships gracing Market Street on a sunny midday.

But City Councilman William Lee Smallwood, a black resident, said this was the positive side of a race issue that has long haunted the city. "I remember as a teenager being routinely stopped by the cops when they'd see me with a white girl," Mr. Smallwood said, describing York as a place with a Mason- Dixon mix of racial problems and virtues, and yet also with the underlying community strength to withstand racist agitators.

"As long as we're able to keep our heads together, we'll get through this," he said. Ann Van Dyke, civil rights investigator for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said that York "obviously has a long history of distrust" between the races.

"But I also emphasize that York County has the highest number of citizens unity coalitions in the state," Ms. Van Dyke added. "It deserves credit for being one of the most diligent at reporting hate crimes."

National Alliance stickers and pamphlets appear regularly in state trouble spots, Ms. Van Dyke said, along with provocations from a wide assortment of other groups seeking to exploit local frustrations over changing demographics and problems with government like prison and highway proposals. "Even the environmentalist Ku Klux Klan, with green stripes on their sheets," she said. "I'm not kidding," she continued, noting that the state's high number of waste dumps is an endless source of local fears.

"Anywhere you've got change happening and people are scared, you'll find fodder for bigotry, even a dump, for Pete's sake. We've seen messages of `The Jews are running the dump.' "

The only answer to such provocations is healthy community organizing, said Ms. Ash, the York human relations director. Two days after the stickers appeared, Ms. Ash announced a new Ad Hoc Coalition for York, a mix of church, civic and business leaders to work over the summer at strengthening intergroup ties.

"We've got to make sure the positive side of York is shown in relation to all the current negativity," Ms. Ash said. "The first trial may begin by November, and we must have community-building events all summer," she said of the legacy of the race riot haunting this city 32 years later.

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