Racism flaring, Northwest fights back

The number of skinheads in the US has doubled in the past year.

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It was a Saturday morning recently when Jason Martin heard a knock at his front door. As he stepped outside, he was astounded to find 200 people there cheering, then singing "God Bless America," and praying the "Lord's Prayer" together.

"It made me feel very humble, very received, very respected, very encouraged," he recalls. Later that day, more than 500 people in town marched and rallied in support of Mr. Martin, an African-American minister who had wakened up three nights earlier to find a cross burning on his front lawn.

Pastor Martin's story - especially how his community responded to a frightening example of bigotry - is an important chapter in the Pacific Northwest's evolution from recurring racism and hate to what experts say is an inspiring model of how communities can reverse this troubling legacy of national life.

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There is clear evidence that such models are needed.

There's been a second cross-burning in Washington State. Racial profiling has become an issue in Portland, Ore., where there have been two recent instances in which black motorists pulled over by white police officers were shot and killed. There have been several episodes of hateful literature distributed in the region, most recently last week in a suburb of Portland where white supremacist tracts were included in bags of candy meant to attract kids.

Also, the West Virginia-based National Alliance - one of the largest and most active white supremacist groups in the country (it inspired Timothy McVeigh and is behind much of the "white power" music aimed at young people) - has become very active in the Northwest, leafleting in many communities and showing up at antiwar rallies with big signs saying "No More Wars for Israel." The idea here, says one observer who tracks hate groups, is that 9/11's massive attack on the United States, plus fighting in Iraq against people described as unchristian and nonwhite, will attract those with racist attitudes.

Why the recent activity among racist groups in the Northwest?

"I think much of it is that the Northwest is the last part of the US to experience diversity," says Randy Blazak, a sociologist at Portland State University who studies such groups. "They've been relatively immune to it but suddenly the 'white homeland' ain't as white."

Growing numbers

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) last week issued its annual report on hate groups. The number of racist skinhead groups in the United States has doubled over the past year, and the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations has 11 new chapters.

The SPLC tracked 751 hate group chapters in 2003, 43 more than the previous year. While more-populous states and the South generally have more such groups, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon (three of the least ethnically diverse states in the US) have significant numbers of neo-Nazi, Christian Identity, and racist skinhead followers. Volksfront, a white supremacist group based in Portland, Ore., grew from five to eight chapters in 2003, according to the SPLC.

Going back to the first days of the Oregon Trail more than 150 years ago, the region has always attracted independent spirits. "Unfortunately, some of these independent spirits also happened to have been bigots," says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Elected officials in Oregon were openly members of the Ku Klux Klan up into the 1920s, and it wasn't until just two years ago that Oregonians finally voted to remove all racist language from the 1857 state constitution.

The Aryan Nations organization was headquartered in northern Idaho until several years ago when the SPLC sued it - literally for all it was worth - on behalf of a woman and her son who had been assaulted by members of the neo-Nazi group. (The group lost its property, but relocated its headquarters in Pennsylvania.)

So-called "covenant communities" with ties to an anti-Semitic and racist theology called "Christian Identity" exist here, as do skinheads and Holocaust deniers.

"But the good side of the independent spirit phenomenon is you also had people who organized spontaneously and locally" to oppose organized bigots, says Mr. Levin. "Also, local law-enforcement agencies were active early on in responding to hate crimes."

Responding to racism

When the Aryan Nations began holding marches and rallies in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, attracting neo-Nazis from around the country, local citizens formed the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force to peacefully confront them. When skinheads attacked African American students at Western Washington University in Bellingham, churches and a local human rights group organized "Not In Our Town" events.

Such events, which have occurred elsewhere in the region in recent years, are patterned after a 1993 episode in Billings, Mont., when thousands of community members demonstrated their opposition to racist and anti-Semitic threats there.

The Hate Crimes Research Network at Portland State University and the Gonzaga Institute for Action Against Hate at Gonzaga University in Spokane provide some of the best research in the country.

While much of his force opposes it, Portland police chief Derrick Foxworth supports the investigation and possible inquest of recent police shootings. "We are at a defining moment in this organization," says Chief Foxworth, who is black.

One of the first to visit Pastor Martin after the cross burning last month was Washington State's Chinese-American Governor Gary Locke. An outpouring of community support for the Martin family followed, particularly notable since only 1 percent of the community is black. Everybody from the judge to the school superintendent to one of the perpetrator's fathers (who refused to put up bail) seemed to see it as a teachable moment.

Community lessons

All in all, says professor Levin of the region's history, "It's really an inspiring picture as well as one that's had some bumps in the road."

And inspiration is what Jason Martin has come to feel when sharing lessons learned from his recent experience.

Sitting on the steps in front of his pulpit at the "Jesus Is Lord Life Tabernacle" in this community an hour north of Seattle, he reflects on the path that brought him to a town where only 63 of the 5,306 public school students are black.

After eight years as a US Navy radioman, he was "called to the ministry" 13 years ago. Those first few years were rough, and for a period Martin, his wife Charmaine, and their seven children were on welfare while he built his "in-the-trenches type of ministry." He recalls being told, "You'll never start a multicultural church here.... It's too white."

Today his Pentecostal congregation in a storefront church numbers 150, and it includes whites, blacks, Hispanics, and native Americans from the nearby Tulalip Indian Reservation. "It's really a miracle," he says.

As for the cross-burning, it was initially shocking, but he quickly saw it as "an opportunity to set an example for my family and my faith community." Remembering his own less-than-perfect past, he says "Mercy was shown to me and I want to show mercy and grace to others."

He quickly forgave the 16-year-old cousins who confessed to the crime of malicious harassment. "I'd really like to help these guys anyway I can," he says.

"If somebody does something wrong to you, send them flowers," he has said many times since he looked out his window and saw the religious symbol he cherishes aflame and meant to frighten. "It says in the Bible the way to conquer evil is to do good. We have to put that into practice."

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