A bid to legislate love splits a New England town

It started simply enough, with an eighth-grader's inspiration for a community-service project. Hannah Hoy wanted her small town north of Boston to proclaim itself a "No Place for Hate" zone – just like 54 other Massachusetts communities.

But town leaders refused to sign such a proclamation. Soon, newspapers covering the issue began to hint at anti-Semitism. Sensing opportunity, a white-supremacist group handed out leaflets, and headlines appeared claiming that hate was on the rise in Hamilton. A national outcry climaxed with Hannah's appearance on the "Today Show."

The conclusion to the story won't be written till later this summer, when the town plans to adopt some sort of tolerance policy. But already, this enclave of gracious estates and Sunday polo has been forced to reexamine itself.

Residents who might normally reserve harsh words for the beavers whose dams occasionally flood their backyards are now probing the limits of government, the meaning of diversity, and the nature of hate. And they're discovering they have strong and conflicting opinions – a reminder of how even the most pastoral of bedroom communities can be polarized by accusations of hate.

Leaving Boston on the commuter rail, it's a 40-minute ride through industrial tract and swamp to reach Hamilton. The Myopia Hunt Club, a golf course, and a seminary have helped keep it greener than other fast-growing suburbs. But its modest downtown, which can be scanned in two blinks, is largely indistinguishable from other pristine and prosperous New England hamlets. Here, there are more churches than bars, more Volvos than Volkswagens.

Unlike most of Massachusetts, however, there are also more registered Republicans than Democrats. And when the No Place for Hate proclamation, a creation of the Anti-Defamation League, came before town officials in late February, their immediate reaction was to assert the boundary between public and private interests.

Towns certified as No Place for Hate zones receive a placard and choose from 30 ADL initiatives, such as making a peace quilt. Programs created by the ADL, a Jewish organization, are endorsed by numerous religious and community groups nationally, and about a dozen towns in Massachusetts are currently on a waiting list to become No Place for Hate zones.

The first to hesitate

Hamilton was the first community in the state to look at the proclamation and pause: What kinds of demands would it place on them? Would the town be forced to post signs in public places? Would the ADL closely monitor it or hold it to impossible standards?

David Neill will soon become the new chairman of the board of selectmen, the group of three elected officials who govern Hamilton. He thinks this point of departure was lost in accusations of bigotry and intolerance.

"For private groups, we tend not to lend official sanction, official endorsement," Mr. Neill says. He points out that two years ago, the board used the same logic to turn down an organization that sought to post safety rules for children in public parks.

In fact, at a time when many towns are adorning themselves with the equivalent of municipal bumper stickers – claiming, for example, to be a "Tree City" or a "Safe Kids" community – Hamilton bears no such label. Moreover, many of its 8,300 residents backed the selectmen's decision, interpreting the move as a defiant defense of democratic values against a knee-jerk political correctness.

Take Carol Mazzetta, a small but punchy woman behind the counter at the Dunkin' Donuts – Hamilton's melting pot, if there had to be one.

Ms. Mazzetta says she is a grandmother of eight who raised her own children here. Among the selectmen's most strident supporters, she believes that no matter how well-intentioned the initiative may be, fighting hate is a job for parents, not the government. Pointing at a young mother and her son seated nearby, she says matter-of-factly: "I'm sure she's teaching her son not to hate."

In turning down the proclamation, the selectmen also invoked the First Amendment, saying it was not their place to tell residents what to think. For a group of teens parked outside the Hamilton House of Pizza, their arms hanging limp through the windows of a Jeep Cherokee, that's the most compelling argument against No Place for Hate.

"Everyone has a right to what they want to believe," says Ben Durrell, an 11th-grader at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School.

Even white supremacists? He and classmates Jen Mattern and Pete Flint all nod – a gesture made, it should be said, with all the languor of bored youth and none of the enthusiasm of future politicians.

Others sound simply indignant at the mention that their peaceful town should need such a program. After all, Police Chief Walter Cullen says, Hamilton hasn't prosecuted a single hate crime in his three decades with the department. And although most families are extremely busy, with both parents often leaving for work early and returning late, there's still a great deal of trust and security in the community, many say.

"We didn't feel a need for their blessing or certification of our town's way of life," says selectmen chairman John Serafini, a key force behind rejecting the proclamation.

The dissenters

But along these pastoral byways that often double as crosswalks for horses, another segment of the population is ruffled, even angered by the selectmen's decision.

"It's embarrassing how we shot [the measure] down before it had a chance," says Wendy Mulcahy, whose two children attend elementary school in Hamilton.

Some can't help suspecting petty politics or personal agendas. "You're never sure in a small community whether a selectman doesn't do something to get back at someone," says 17-year resident Rod Fowkes, perched onf a barstool at the upscale Black Cow.

More, however, express serious concerns about the ambiguous message sent to kids. David Shopper, who is Jewish and has lived in Hamilton for almost a decade, has a daughter who goes to school with Hannah. He says it may be "a sheltered, somewhat homogenous community," but he hasn't experienced discrimination first hand.

Still, even if Hamilton doesn't have an acute problem with hate, he adds: "It's a world issue."

As for the town endorsing a private group: "If many communities have [already] adopted it, then I don't think it's binding their hands.... Unless there's some egregious thing [the ADL] is asking [the town] to do, then they should try to figure out a way to get behind it."

Some see discrimination

Others are not so sure discrimination isn't a problem. High-schoolers waiting to catch the train to Boston say homophobia is rampant, as is general stereotyping of groups like Jews and Arab-Americans.

Annie Gardner, an 11th-grader with preacher hands and the spirit of a young Janis Joplin, belongs to the school's diversity club. She gets worked up recalling a recent incident in which students tore down a rainbow banner hung in the school to promote gay rights.

Ultimately, behind these conflicting reviews of the community and the officials' decision, may lie different notions of what it means to be divefrse and tolerant.

When the town's Health Advisory Council, working with Hannah, brought the proclamation to the selectmen, they were expecting a pro forma signature.

Instead, the selectmen took the one-page pledge and deconstructed it like zealous undergraduates majoring in philosophy.

How do town officials, they wondered, "interrupt prejudice" that may go on behind closed doors, inside classrooms? They were bothered by how to define other phrases like "subtle acts of racism."

By their own admission, the Hamilton selectmen read the proclamation very literally. Shopper, for one, thinks the town overanalyzed a well-meaning document. But whether officials may have allowed semantics to get the better of them, their questions raise tough issues.

Ben and his friends in the Jeep all seem to favor a narrow interpretation of hate. They are resentful of excessive tiptoeing around ethnic and racial issues – an atmosphere they think wrongly eliminates harmless joking between students.

But for Jerry Schwartz, a Hamilton father and psychologist, it's too easy to cross the line between innocuous teasing and slander. He says he was the victim of an antisemitic remark a few years ago. "We're all subjected to messages of prejudice and bias," especially from the media. For that reason, Mr. Schwartz and others say communities can't rely on parents alone, but need to proactively fight hate.

That's not to say Hamilton, predominantly white and Christian, has any greater need than other towns for efforts against hate. But the link between diversity and tolerance is one many residents are wrestling with.

On the one hand, the town may be homogeneous – but it's a highly educated and worldly homogeneity. On the other hand, it's hard for students to be open-minded when, as Annie's friend Luke Smith puts it, "they live in a town where everybody is the same as them."

It is true that few blacks, Jews, and other minorities live in Hamilton, but there is economic diversity – more than a Talbots store, the first thing one sees stepping off the train, might suggest. Beyond the Hunt Club lie many distinctly middle-class homes, and tax rates are often a top concern at annual town meetings. Jean Jones, a high school guidance counselor, interprets diversity broadly. "We have a wide range of opinions about the way things should be," says Ms. Jones, a proponent of No Place for Hate.

Then there's Kathy Bradford, who returned to Hamilton after years of traveling and owns a downtown video-rental store. She sees tolerance and diversity as an intangible: "It's a [general] ambiance that everyone should be aware of."

Are people in Hamilton aware of it? "We're not always realistic," she says.

Shortly after turning down the proclamation, the selectmen issued their own statement against hate. Mr. Serafini says he hasn't regretted his decision, but Neill has had a slight change of heart.

In discussions with residents, Neill says he's come to realize that Hamilton has "generally earnest people who need this kind of program." He seems eager to find some kind of community-based effort to fill the need. He and others are looking at alternatives to the ADL initiative.

Candice Wheeler has been the town administrator for 20 years and seems to know what the selectmen will say even before they say it. To her, the controversy has deeply affected the town. "One thing that's clear," she says, "is that we are going to do something."

• Send e-mail to farahs@csps.com

Antihate proclamation

Now, therefore, I, ___________ do hereby proclaim that _________ will maintain a policy of zero tolerance for hate crimes and will do our best to interrupt prejudice and stop those who, because of hate, would hurt, harass, or violate the civil rights of anyone. We also pledge ourselves to undertake a serious year-round program to mobilize key leadership segments in our community to creatively address any issue that will help promote a recognition and encouragement of diversity.

– from the ADL antihate proclamation

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