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SEABROOK – After recruitment pamphlets for a known racist organization appeared in Upper Marlboro, officials stress that racial tensions are not rising in the county.
However, residents are being asked to be diligent after a new FBI study shows hate crimes are up nationwide by 17 percent.
Prince George’s County Police Department (PGPD) officials said that a resident found nine “Loyal Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” propaganda flyers during a walk on Claggett Landing Road on Nov. 11.
Officers arrived and canvassed the neighborhood, locating 30 more pamphlets.
Director of Media Relations Jennifer Donelan confirmed that the flyers are similar in language and nature of other flyers found around the state.
“At this point, we are not investigating this as a crime, but we are continuing to investigate it for intelligence gathering,” Donelan said.
The flyer distribution comes as the FBI released their 2017 hate crime statistics on Nov. 13. The report states that the number of hate crime incidents reported has increased about 17 percent and out of 7,106 single-bias incidents, race/ethnicity/ancestry played a role in 59.6 percent. Maryland had 48 incidents reported as a hate crime in 2017, according to the report.
One reason for the growth of these incidents is the current political climate since the last presidential election, Prince George’s County NAACP President Robert Ross said. The use of discriminatory rhetoric and the lack of taking responsibility for increased tensions by President Donald Trump have allowed others to react to their worst fears.
“If you are in a position of leadership, you have to be responsible in what you say and what you imply because a lot of people take it the wrong way,” Ross said. “And that is what is going on right now; our leadership, from the president down, have set the tone that they can say whatever they want and it has emboldened people.”
The FBI categorizes hate crimes as criminal offenses against a person or property that were motivated, in part or entirely on the “offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity” when completing data collection. Hate itself is not a crime and one voicing opinions on others is considered one using their freedom of speech.
Locally, as of Oct. 31, Prince George’s County has reported 17 hate crimes that were dealt with by county police. This year’s numbers are on par with last year when 18 cases were placed under the same distinction. While the county experiences low numbers of hate crime, police officials stress that they take every case reported very seriously.
“One hate crime is a problem and even if our numbers are low, tell that to the victims of these actions,” Donelan said.
Ross agrees with the findings by the police, stating that the Upper Marlboro NAACP offices tend to receive more calls on housing and employment discrimination than disputes between two people.
However, he stressed the importance of helping communities once they are affected by these incidents, criminal or not, and figuring out the best ways to respond.
“We have to train our community to identify these issues,” Ross said. “We have look for signs, and we need to train people to do that, but as far as the county, other than these flyers, most of the problems we have are more with discrimination.”
The most high-profile case where a hate crime charge was issued is when former University of Maryland student Sean Urbanski murdered Bowie State University student and Lt. Richard Collins III in the College Park campus on May 20, 2017.
An investigation showed that Ubranski was a member of a Facebook group called “Alt-Reich Nation” and posted content containing “extreme bias against women, Latinos, members of the Jewish faith and especially African Americans,” University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell said.
A motion to dismiss the hate crime charge was filed by Urbanski’s lawyers on Nov. 9, claiming that searching through his Facebook activity violates his First Amendment rights. A rescheduled hearing is set for Dec. 17.
“I think justice requires that we charge every charge that applies,” County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said on Oct. 18, 2017. “It is often difficult to build a hate crime case. Developing a motive is always a challenging aspect of a case. In this case, and in any other case, you can’t get it wrong.”
Since the first sighting of recruiting fliers was placed together with candy during Halloween last year in Leesburg, Virginia, pamphlets with similar language have appeared in different parts of the state.
Local and state leadership have condemned the propaganda, with outgoing Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman calling rhetoric in the pamphlets a “disgusting display of antisemitism, racism and intolerance” on Nov. 17.
“The racist flyers distributed in communities throughout Maryland are unacceptable and must be condemned by all,” said Congressman Steny Hoyer. “Hate has no place in our communities. We must come together to denounce this racist and hateful rhetoric and ensure all families in Maryland feel safe in their communities.”
Countywide, work needs to be done to inform people about what a hate crime is and how one can best deal with each situation, Ross said. His chapter plans to set up pieces of training and public forums on hate crimes and overall discrimination in the future.
Since the Collins murder, the University of Maryland established a Hate-Bias Response Team, who reviews cases and works together with officials on the best way to response to incidents.
On Sept. 19, the university announced that the addition of a report log by the response team that will be accessible by only students and faculty on-campus.
“Our overall goals with the newly formed hate-bias report log are to increase transparency around hate-bias incidents that occur on campus and to raise awareness about the actions we’ve taken to support those who’ve been impacted,” said Neijma Celestine-Donnor, hate-bias program manager.