In East Peoria, an Intolerance for Hate

The New York Times/September 21, 1999
By Jo Thomas

East Peoria, Ill. -- For years, the hard-working residents of this mostly white town on the eastern bank of the Illinois River did not take seriously the white supremacist views of Matthew F. Hale, 27, the son of a retired local policeman.

They recall trying to ignore his leaflets and appearances on public-access television. When he set up the headquarters of the World Church of The Creator in his parents' home, some thought it was a joke.

But after the July 4 weekend, when Benjamin Smith, a former World Church member, went on a two-state rampage against Jews, blacks and Asian-Americans, killing two and injuring nine before shooting himself, the laughter stopped.

"We were sickened," said Dennis Triggs, 54, the city attorney. "We had the sense that benign neglect must come to an end." Triggs called Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit civil rights organization, to ask what East Peoria could do.

Dees sent Triggs and Mayor Charles Dobbelaire, 59, a copy of the center's publication "Ten Ways to Fight Hate," and advised East Peoria city leaders to do two things: Speak out immediately and form a broad-based coalition on race issues.

Dees also put East Peoria leaders in touch with the Rev. David Ostendorf, a United Church of Christ minister in Chicago who leads the Center for a New Community, a group dedicated to fighting white supremacist ideas and organizations in the Midwest.

Ostendorf, who believes "the only way this movement is going to be stopped is if communities stand up and say no and organize to oppose it," added a stop in East Peoria to a civil rights tour that retraced Smith's deadly trip through Illinois and Indiana.

On July 22, with members of Ostendorf's caravan and 200 local residents present, the mayor announced that East Peoria, which has only a few dozen non-whites in its population of 23,400, would set up a Human Relations Commission "to guide us in combating hate and teaching tolerance."

"We will not surrender the minds of our young to Matt Hale," Dobbelaire continued.

"I know that still today there are those who believe we should not attract attention to the hatemongers," he said. "They believe that if we quietly go about our everyday life, those who preach hate will fade slowly into the night. I ask you this: If we do not speak out, loud and clear, when the hate messages spewing forth from this so-called church lead to death, then when do we speak out?"

Dobbelaire's speech was followed by a prayer vigil in front of the Hale family home. On the other side of the ordinary, tree-lined street, a neighbor had posted a sign saying "Hate Has No Home Here."

The mayor, who grew up in East Peoria and said racial issues rarely crossed his mind, appointed a new Human Relations Commission on Aug. 17 and does not intend to let the matter drop. "We're in this for the long haul," he said. He wants the commission to "oppose hate, preach tolerance and celebrate diversity."

East Peoria has survived severe blows before, the worst being the closing of a Caterpillar tractor plant that had been the cornerstone of the economy. But it has enjoyed a comeback in recent years, with a new riverboat casino and jobs in entertainment, tourism and service industries.

The idea that their town might be seen as some kind of hate capital horrified the mayor and the Human Relations commissioners.

"This is really causing a bad image for our tri-county area, not just East Peoria," said David Mingus, the commission chairman. "It's unfortunate and unrealistic. Our towns are good towns."

Mingus, 48, a mental health professional, said the commission intends to take a broad look at diversity and tolerance: "We will keep it open to all areas. It's something nobody has on the scope all the time. We have to change attitudes."

Another member of the commission, Charles Randle, 53, who is black, said he has lived in an upscale neighborhood of East Peoria for 17 years with no difficulty. But Randle said he cannot forget the searing experience of childhood on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, where two of his brothers, then young boys, were once jailed for supposedly whistling at a white woman. To escape that life, their father, a sharecropper, moved his wife and 10 children to Peoria, where he worked at a slaughterhouse and then started a series of successful family businesses.

Randle, the director of economic development for Illinois Central College, said he sees the Human Relations Commission as a chance for East Peoria "to step outside the box and look around."

Other communities have made similar efforts.

Idaho's image began to worry the staff at Hewlett-Packard in Boise several years ago, said Cindy Stanphill, the diversity and staffing manager there. "When we recruit, people know about Idaho potatoes and the Aryan nations," she said. "The image does not necessarily represent the reality, but you have to deal with both."

For three years, the Hewlett-Packard staff has tried to find ways to insure that people they recruit and employ in Boise feel welcome at work and in the community. Staff members are now trying to organize an Idaho Inclusiveness Coalition, a group of major employers and human rights groups to promote tolerance and celebrate diversity.

In Pennsylvania, the state's Human Relations Commission has helped more than 50 communities form groups to do something about hate. One group started in Boyertown, a historically all-white community northwest of Philadelphia where the Ku Klux Klan distributed recruitment literature once a month. Residents formed a unity coalition and asked citizens to pledge 5 to 50 cents for each minute the Klan spent in town. The money went to civil rights groups and helped organize the town's first rally to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The head of the local Klan complained that the group, which was collecting $1,051 an hour, was using the Klan's name to raise money, said Louise Doskow, a member of the coalition. But the group persisted.

"We have raised over $11,000," Ms. Doskow said. "We did it every month for 13 months, then they didn't show up again for a year. One person came to the corner at the end of June, so we did another collection."

The experiences of these communities and others, collected by Jim Carrier, a former Denver Post reporter, have been added to an updated version of "Ten Ways to Fight Hate." Carrier said the Southern Poverty Law Center will distribute a million free copies of the booklet and a companion, "Responding to Hate at School." The booklets will go to every school principal, mayor and police chief in the nation, as well as to human rights groups, religious leaders and interested citizens.

One group profiled, Coloradans United Against Hatred, formed after an African immigrant was murdered by a skinhead in 1997. Seeing the use of the Internet by hate groups, the group set up its own Web site to offer an alternative.

"Are we making a huge impact?" said Anita Fricklas, the Colorado director of the American Jewish Committee, which helped underwrite the project. "It's hard to know. But an impact? Definitely."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.