March 13, 2010

Don't honor hateful signs with silence

— STANDISH — The door to the Oak Hill General Store was locked Monday morning. In the window hung a sign that said: ''Gone Fishing.''

click image to enlarge

Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer: Owen Williams, 3, of Portland jumps over the gaps in the floats with the help of his father Jason at the East End Boat Launch in Portland on November 17, 2008. Owen was pretending to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

Tim Greenway

Probably not a bad idea, considering that this out-of-the-way enterprise is now in the full glare of the national spotlight.

It all started 11 days ago when The Associated Press in Portland received an anonymous tip of a sign inside the store announcing the ''Osama Obama Shotgun Pool.''

AP writer Jerry Harkavy and photographer Bob Bukaty took a ride out and, sure enough, saw those very words scrawled across a whiteboard inside the store.

Before they were rebuffed by a man behind the counter who wouldn't give his name, Harkavy said, they also noted that to win the $1-per-entry pool, a contestant had to pick the date that President-elect Barack Obama would be assassinated.

''Stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count,'' the sign said. And at the bottom of the board were the words: ''Let's hope someone wins.''

Harkavy filed his account with AP headquarters in New York. There, it was folded into a national roundup of post-election venom, most of it racially tinged, decrying the election of the nation's first black president.

The story hit the wire late last week. Suddenly, Standish found itself lumped right in there with Snelville, Ga.; Kilgore, Texas; Forest Hills, Pa., and other places where the actions of a few have tarnished an entire town.

All of which raises a thorny question: Now what?

While the authorities investigate -- in the Standish case, the Secret Service has been notified and the Maine Attorney General's Office is reviewing a report from the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office -- what can a community do to reclaim its reputation?

And beyond that, is it better for all of us to ignore these isolated instances of ignorance (or worse) in the hope they'll dry up and blow away? Or should we focus as much attention on them as possible?

Stephen Wessler, executive director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, doesn't hesitate when asked that question.

''We can't ignore it,'' Wessler said Monday. ''Because it's not going to go away on its own.''

Wessler spent last week speaking in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Mississippi. In all three states, he said, reports were swirling of post-election trash talk, including schoolchildren telling Obama jokes too racist to repeat here.

Closer to home, a student was suspended from Gray-New Gloucester High School after standing up in class and delivering a racist, anti-Obama rant. And on Mount Desert Island, police are investigating three cases in which all-black, cardboard cut-outs of human figures were hung from trees along roadsides just after the election.

Those incidents already have been met with loud protests -- courtesy of the student civil rights team at the high school and a coalition of citizens and community groups down the coast. And that, Wessler says, is exactly what should happen in Standish.

''We're talking about violence here,'' he said. ''We're way beyond Obama and the 'n' word.''

Thomas Harnett, Maine's assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement, said it's too soon to determine what legal action, if any, might stem from the Oak Hill General Store sign. But he agreed with Wessler that what law enforcement sometimes can't accomplish, community outrage can.

''The best way to counter hateful speech is to assert one's own right to free speech,'' Harnett said. ''It's very important for people to speak out loudly and clearly and powerfully that this is not how Maine feels.''

Back in Standish, the world has yet to hear from Steve Collins, owner of the Oak Hill General Store, about how and why the assassination talk found its way onto his whiteboard in the first place. Mary Hicks, 81, his landlord and a devoted Obama supporter, said Monday that Collins told her he'd be up in northern Maine hunting this week.

But it already appears that Standish (which, for the record, voted for Obama) isn't about to ignore this smear on its good name.

''It's a sad situation to hear something like that,'' said Wayne Newbegin, chairman of the Standish Town Council. ''Standish is not like that, believe me. And I'm sure things are going to be said and things are going to be done'' to prove it.

That would be just fine with Hicks, who likes Collins very much as a tenant but has had trouble getting to sleep at night since hearing about the ''Osama Obama Shotgun Pool.''

''I'm so sorry it happened,'' she said. ''Ever since it came up, I've been heartsick.''

Who isn't?

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

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