Sunday, September 02, 2007

Racial Tensions

Racism fears flare after fatal stabbing in Dubuque
A reader posts photos of a lynched black man to the local newspaper's Web site.



September 1, 2007

Dubuque police believe a small number of anonymous white supremacists may be trying to use a fatal stabbing that happened last weekend to fuel a racial backlash.

The victim in the stabbing is white and the suspect is black.

No evidence has been made public that the stabbing was racially motivated, but inflammatory reader postings on a local newspaper's Web site became a catalyst for racial tension earlier this week. One reader posted multiple copies of a photo of a lynched black man.

The insults spread to the streets, and police logged reports of rumors that the Ku Klux Klan and Hell's Angels would be descending on the town.

Now, leaders are pleading for calm.

The NAACP called an emergency meeting to promote unity. The City Council, whose members are all white, released a statement urging people to take a stand against racist language and behavior.

John Burgart, superintendent of the Dubuque school district, denounced acts of hate and discouraged the spreading of "ugly rumors." The city's human rights commission asked dozens of churches and other groups to spread a message this weekend of "No violence, no hate talk."

Police are on alert and have beefed up night-time patrols to try to put fears to rest.

Assistant Dubuque Police Chief Terry Tobin said Friday that there have been no outbursts of violence since the stabbing, and there is no evidence that any white supremacy or black militant groups are coming to Dubuque. Officers are keeping tabs on hotel parking lots for cars with suspicious markings, and are monitoring the Internet for rumblings about Dubuque.

"It's our belief that there were a few select people who are attempting to use this incident as a springboard to justify or bring out their agenda," Tobin said.

On Aug. 25, Kenyatta Harlston, a 39-year-old black man who had been living in various places in Dubuque over the past few months, was charged with second-degree murder in the stabbing death of Nick Blackburn, a 24-year-old white man from Dubuque.

The incident took place in the Central Avenue bar district.

Police have so far declined to comment on a motive or whether the victim or the suspect were intoxicated. "I think those things will come out at the trial," Tobin said.

A small segment of the black population fears retaliation, and a small segment of the white population fears blacks will be "ready to go up in arms if anything happens," said Tobin.

The nervousness is real, said Cammie Dean, president of the Dubuque chapter of the NAACP.

"I'm concerned about this weekend," said Dean, a former school board member who said she is the only black person to be elected to public office in Dubuque. "It's a long weekend, with lots of people with time on their hands and, maybe, too much alcohol.

"Some considered that photo of the lynching a pretty clear threat," she added.

Last Sunday, a police officer and several readers notified the Dubuque Telegraph Herald after seeing on its Web site a color photo of a lynched black man wearing blue jeans, hanging from a tree in front of a house with seemingly modern siding.

A reader had posted the photo 73 times within seven minutes, but only 10 images made it through a security filter, said Randy Rodgers, the newspaper's electronic media director. Rodgers removed the photo, banned the reader from the newspaper's site, and later removed all comments posted in reaction to its articles.

Tobin said police served a subpoena for the newspaper's data about the reader and are working with an Internet service provider to identify the person. They want to determine whether there was any criminal intent, he said.

In the days following the posting of the lynching photo, residents approached police officers with rumors. One was that they heard someone in a convenience store whispering that the KKK is coming, Tobin said.

"But we're getting these reports third- and fourth-hand and they're really not verifiable," Tobin said. "We can't find anyone who admits to saying them."

Blackburn's fiancee, Cher Finzel, 21, publicly expressed intense grief, saying the couple had been together eight years and that he was the father of her two children. "He needs to feel what I'm feeling," she told the Telegraph Herald, referring to Harlston.

The police posted a few officers at Blackburn's funeral Tuesday, Tobin said.

Dubuque resident Tim Trenkle said he was sitting on a street corner with a store owner not far from the stabbing scene Monday. "Someone drove by and screamed 'White power!' " he said Friday.

Kelly Larson, human rights director for the city, said Friday: "People have been making statements that are very racist and seem to imply an unwillingness to have African Americans in the community, particularly people who are lower income."

An influx of black and Hispanic families from larger cities has caused schools that once had minority populations of 10 percent to 15 percent to rise to as high as 20 percent to 30 percent.

The number of discrimination complaints hasn't been heavy in Dubuque, Larson said, "but of more concern than formal complaints is just the phone calls from people who say, 'I was walking down the street, or my child was walking down the street and somebody told her to go back to Chicago.' It's not something anyone can investigate or prove or disprove."

Larson said she thinks most people in the Dubuque area are appalled at the racist comments - and they're reacting with strong concern because of the cross burnings that plagued the city in 1991.

"People don't want to go back there," Larson said. "They don't want to see that happening again. Racial tensions have been a simmering issue in some of our neighborhoods for a while and this is bringing it to the fore."

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