Police Chief Wayne Inman didn't know he was about to make history when he ordered the Park Department in Billings, Mont., to paint over some racist graffiti. But that was the beginning of one town's efforts to stop hate crimes, a campaign that eventually became a nationwide model.
What began as seemingly simple vandalism in 1992 escalated into far more serious incidents, and virtually the entire Billings community united to oppose skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and other right-wing extremists.
Many communities across the country will celebrate this week as ''Not in Our Town Week'' to coincide with the airing of the PBS documentary ''Not in Our Town.'' The program, produced by California Working Group of Oakland, California, shows that determined efforts by labor, church, and community groups can effectively combat hate crimes.
The events in Billings show ''what ordinary people can do to respond to the atmosphere of intolerance in the US,'' says Patrice O'Neill, producer of ''Not in Our Town.'' ''This nationwide campaign is opening doors for people to do something, even if it's only to wear a button or attend a meeting.'' Public showings of the video will be tied to education against recent hate crimes, especially in smaller cities and towns.
* In Kenosha, Wis., white high school students harassed black students and a cross was burned in an African-American minister's front yard.
* In Glenwood, Ore., vandals caused $10,000 damage when they broke into a Jewish synagogue, painting swastikas and breaking windows. Local high school students helped repaint and restore the temple.
* In Los Alamitos, Calif., students have successfully fought against neo-Nazi hate literature circulating in area high schools.
In 1992, Police Chief Inman, who has since retired, had no idea Billings would help spark a nationwide movement against hate. In this town of 81,000 residents, there are fewer than 1,000 people of color and about 100 Jews. When Inman left his job as assistant police chief of Portland, Ore., he thought he had left hate crimes behind. ''I thought it was the problem of the major metropolitan areas,'' he says.
But within two days of arriving in Billings, he saw racist and anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on rocks above the city. He got the Park Department to paint them over. But more graffiti and racist leaflets began appearing.
He had seen a similar group grow in Portland. So Inman alerted community leaders to the existence of skinheads in Billings. ''I wanted the community of Billings to say there is no fertile ground for hate,'' he says.
Some business and political leaders accused Inman of overstating the problem. ''Some even said I brought the skinheads with me from Portland,'' he says. Even his own police department failed to understand the threat. Had these been left-wing or Middle Eastern terrorists, he says, the police would likely have responded rapidly.
Right-wing activities ''aren't necessarily perceived as a threat to [towns such as] Billings,'' he says. Racist rhetoric has little impact on white business people and police, he says, so the problem is ignored.
But the incidents escalated during the next year. The house of a native American was spray-painted with racist graffiti, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated, and a cinder block was tossed through the window of a Jewish home displaying a menorah. So the community began to mobilize.
Labor union members repainted the native American's house. The local newspaper printed a picture of a menorah, and thousands of people put it in their windows as a sign of solidarity. Inman and others successfully sued the KKK for invasion of privacy, based on the false and inflammatory content of its leaflets.
The Billings campaign can serve as a model for other communities, says Loretta Ross, director of the Center for Human Rights Education in Atlanta. Hate crimes increasingly occur in small cities and rural areas, Ms. Ross says, because groups such as the KKK think they can recruit there. In 1989, Pennsylvania had only five hate groups. By 1995 it had 64, all in rural areas, Ross says.
Multiethnic urban centers don't offer the same recruiting prospects, she says. ''Can you imagine the KKK marching in Detroit where so many gang members have guns?''
Many hate crimes occur among youths and high school students, as residents of Somerville, Mass., a mainly white town of 80,000 located near Boston, learned recently. On Oct. 10, a cross was found burning in front of the local high school. ''The community response was swift and angry,'' says the Rev. Ralph Hergert, director of the Mayor's Office of Human Services. Within a week, a multiracial group of about 100 people rallied against the crime in front of the high school. No arrests have been made in the cross burning, but Mr. Hergert says the incident was too amateurish to have come from an organized hate group.
Ross estimates that 52 percent of hate crimes are committed by individuals, often youths, who are not part of any organized group. ''They're copycat crimes,'' she says.
But after the initial incidents, organized hate groups do get involved. In Somerville, police recently found flyers published by the National Alliance, a group called ''neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and racist'' by the Anti-Defamation League. A coalition of community groups plans to continue education about hate crimes to demonstrate a lack of community support for such actions.
That's key to combating hate crime, Ross says. Too many communities want to ignore the problem, ''but keeping silent doesn't work,'' she says. Community leaders should immediately issue statements, hold educational events, and regularly monitor hate groups' meetings, she says.
But in Inman's experience, communities tend to ignore the problem until it's too late. ''Hate activity won't die naturally,'' he says. ''They are terrorists, and the community must respond. Once it escalates, it's too late.''