Racial Friction in Concord : Lynching or Suicide? A City Is Gripped by Tension

Times Staff Writer

High-rise office towers sprout like asparagus shoots near the Bay Area Rapid Transit depot here, symbols of the transformation of this sleepy working-class San Francisco suburb into a paragon of the post-industrial city.

But that shining reputation has lately been tarnished by allegations of racial disharmony, knifings and murder--a brutal if familiar byproduct, some people here say, of the very urbanization that is putting Concord back on its feet.

The most grisly event occurred last Nov. 2, in a vacant lot near one of the new office towers adjoining the BART station. On that mud-caked piece of land, an off-duty security guard found the body of a young black man hanging from the branch of an old fig tree.

Police ruled the man's death a suicide. But local black leaders and some white residents are convinced that 23-year-old Timothy Charles Lee was lynched--perhaps by a splinter of the Ku Klux Klan.

After studying the circumstances surrounding Lee's death, chapters of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in surrounding communities persuaded the FBI to investigate. They also made Lee's death the focus of a regional NAACP "racial intolerance task force" studying the growth of racist organizations in California.

As either a lynching or suicide, Lee's death--coming not 12 hours after a pair of white-robed white men knifed two black teen-agers a few blocks away--has touched off an ugly controversy in what was recently lauded as one of the least stressful cities in the nation.

City officials and a number of civic leaders vigorously deny that racism is more of a problem among Concord's 100,000 residents than in any other mid-sized American city with a relatively small (less than 2%) minority of blacks.

But a number of residents--black and white--disagree.

"There is a definite strain," said Tahnjah Poe, a young black woman who moved out of Concord last October because of the harassment she said she and her son suffered at the hands of some local whites.

"It's not the complacent city that city officials want you to think it is. There is a nasty little undercurrent. Certain parts of Concord are like a hick town, but the city doesn't want anyone to know about it."

That assessment is shared by others, such as William Callison, a white man who told police he received an anonymous threatening telephone call after he went to the FBI and challenged the coroner's conclusion that Lee had committed suicide.

"It's a place where the city meets the country," he said. "You have some very rural-type people, and then you have people coming out from the big city. There's friction; some people who are unable to adjust, to put it politely."

'A Lot of Racism'

He paused, then put it more bluntly: "There's a lot of racism in Concord. It's not right on the surface but it's not too deeply buried, either."

Hawley Holmes, staff organizer for the city's 2-month-old Human Relations Subcommittee, acknowledged that "certain levels of socioeconomic strata" are responsible for many of the city's racial incidents.

She hastened to add that the city thinks there is no evidence of activity by the klan or any other organized hate group and no reason to doubt a conclusion of suicide in the case of Timothy Lee.

The suspects in the Nov. 2 stabbings that preceded Lee's death contend that their white robes, with accurate Klan markings, were merely costumes worn to a Halloween party. The existence of such a party has not been established.

Contra Costa County has a history of sporadic racial incidents, although it has seen fewer klan-related events than San Bernardino County, the San Joaquin Valley or other areas in the state, according to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

However, even those incidents that did occur--vandalism, harassing phone calls, taunts and broken windows--drew little public notice until after the incidents of Nov. 2.

Had Won Study Grant

Lee had left his San Francisco job that day happy and hopeful, friends and co-workers said. He worked part time in a fabric design store while taking classes at the San Francisco Academy of Art; he had recently won a grant to study fashion design in Italy.

Friends speculate that after leaving work, Lee visited several bars in town, a position supported by the .13% level of alcohol later found in his blood. (A level of .10% is the legal criterion for drunk driving.) After socializing for several hours, Lee boarded a BART train for the 15-mile ride home to Berkeley.

On the train, however, he fell asleep and missed his stop. He did not awaken until 1 a.m., when the train reached the end of the line, 25 miles down the track in Concord. He then discovered that he had missed the final train of the night back to Berkeley. He was stranded.

Lee relayed this story to several friends he called in a fruitless attempt to find someone with a car who could pick him up. It was the last time any of them would hear from him.

The coroner's report concluded that Lee died between 6 and 8 a.m. that morning by hanging himself with a black nylon web strap from a rucksack he was carrying.

His jacket was tucked neatly into a crook of the tree, according to a police report. His wallet was found 36 feet away. The rucksack rested at the base of the tree. Nearby was an envelope on which was scrawled a note, apparently to Tammy Lynn Lee and Thomas Lee, Timothy Lee's sister and brother.

Curious Spellings

The handwriting has been interpreted various ways; Tammy and Thomas Lee read it this way: "To Tami and Tom. I love yoyo. Sorry. Timm."

They believe the curious spellings of their names in the apparent suicide note were intended as a clue that their brother had been forced to write the note under duress. Timothy Lee never called his brother "Tom."

Other clues they believe are contained in the note are the apparent mistake in the spelling of the word you; Tammy Lee thinks the yoyo in the note resembles a noose. Further, she added, Timothy was unlikely to have misspelled his own name accidentally.

They also point out that two people living near the BART station that night recall hearing "loud, piercing screams" from the depot area about 2 a.m., not long after police arrested the white-robed assailants of the black teen-agers.

Thordie Ashley, secretary of the NAACP branch in Emeryville, near Berkeley, said she believes the screams were Lee's. She speculated that Lee was abducted by friends of the two klan-garbed assailants, who later hanged him.

"Timothy was a victim of circumstance," she said. "They (the assailant's friends) just saw the kid waiting there. They were fired up, their friends had just been arrested, and they probably said, 'We'll get this one for sure.' "

No Signs of Struggle

Police dismiss such speculation. They said errors in the note were probably the result of the irrational mental state of a man about to take his own life. Murder is unlikely, they added, because there is no indication that Lee was knocked unconscious or involved in a struggle before his death.

"If someone tried to hang you," observed Police Detective Tony Costa, "wouldn't you put up a fight?"

Police also said they are sensitive to the potential racial aspect of Lee's death and would pursue it if the evidence pointed in that direction. They note that they called in the FBI on the two stabbings that occurred that same night because of the obvious concern about potential civil-rights violations.

Still, Lee's relatives and others wonder why the young man would wait until 6 a.m. to kill himself, as the police contend, since that is when BART service resumed, offering Lee a chance to finally go home.

More likely, they say, that is the time when his abductors started worrying about crowds of commuters at the station, and decided to murder Lee to silence the only witness to his abduction.

To back its theory of foul play, the NAACP points to an anonymous telephone call received by the Emeryville office on Jan. 16, four days after it publicly asked the FBI to look into Lee's death.

Boast on Telephone

A woman reportedly called to say she knew a man who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and was bragging that he had "put a gun to his (Lee's) head and made him write (the suicide) note." The woman, who was not identified, was referred to the FBI, Ashley said.

Any resolution in the case may have to wait for the completion of the FBI's investigation. Bureau spokesman John Holford in San Francisco declined to talk about the investigations of either incident--the Lee hanging and the twin stabbings--except to confirm that both are continuing.

Meanwhile, the controversy over Concord's reputation for racial intolerance also continues.

With the introduction of BART in the mid-1970s, Concord slowly changed from a blue-collar town for workers at nearby military installations into a bedroom community for San Francisco and Oakland office workers.

The arrival of these new affluent residents spurred the city to revitalize its aging downtown area and firm up its tax base by joining in the suburban office boom of the early 1980s.

These changes have made Concord more attractive to people from other parts of the metropolitan area, including minorities. Some here believe that Lee's death was a catalyst that is exposing the friction that resulted.

Other Complaints

Since the events of Nov. 2, a number of current or former Concord residents--black, Asian, and others--have gone to the NAACP with complaints of harassment by neighbors. In addition to reports of graffiti and pranks, the complaints range from being threatened with a gun to being denied housing.

"I've had a very hard time finding a house," said one black Concord woman who agreed to be interviewed only on condition that her name not be used. "I will make an appointment (by phone), but the minute they see me, their faces drop. They take my application, but they immediately start making excuses about why I won't be chosen."

Her school-age daughter has had less subtle problems, the woman said. While crossing streets, drivers sometimes rev their engines and holler, "Get out of the way, nigger!" Once she was asked to leave a store; when her mother asked why, she said the owner told her, "I don't want any blacks in my store."

Other blacks tell of similar experiences, of store clerks who follow black children while they shop and bartenders who snap, "We don't serve niggers."

One woman married to a man from Tonga, an island in the South Pacific, said she and her husband "were more or less terrorized for several months" after moving to Concord from Oakland.

Egg-sized rocks and BBs were hurled at their home with slingshots; at times, burning bits of newspaper were slipped into open windows. Her husband would be assaulted with rocks or racial slurs when he walked the family dog.

'Intensely Frightening'

"At first, I was all for labeling this juvenile pranks," said the woman, Kate Taufa, "but it didn't stop. . . . It got more intensely frightening." She said that after five months, the attacks ended as suddenly as they had begun.

Many people said they simply stopped reporting such incidents to the police because there is little the police can do about it.

Holmes, of the city Human Relations Subcommittee, said there frequently is little the police can do about a lot of the incidents reported to them because of the nature of those incidents.

"Most of the reports aren't violent," she said. "They're more in the way of harassment--people saying things like, 'Get out, nigger.' Well, you can't arrest someone for saying that."

In many cases, she added, "it was never quite clear whether (a particular incident) was because one of the people was a (member of a) minority or because two people just didn't like each other."

Joel Butler, a 21-year resident of Concord and a black member of a citizens panel within the Human Relations Subcommittee, said victims of prejudice need to gather tangible evidence of the problem to help city agencies combat it.

"If something happens in a business, for example, that business has to be licensed by the city," he said, "and (with enough evidence) the city can go out there and straighten things out."

Butler has had some experience with the city's handling of racial problems. In 1982, the letters "KKK" and part of a swastika were etched in a window of his wife's car. He said he was satisfied with the city's investigation.

'Is There Prejudice?'

Holmes posed the question: "Is there prejudice in Concord? Yes. But I don't think you can say there is any community where you could not find some of that. The real question is, 'Is something organized going on?' I think the answer to that is, 'Definitely not.' "

That conclusion is supported by the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco and Los Angeles, although a spokeswoman for the San Francisco branch said the organization is looking into the Concord situation.

In any case, the NAACP is convinced that the troubles are caused by only a small fraction of the people in Concord. "The majority of white citizens of Concord don't want this sort of thing," Ashley said. "They are horrified by it too. Nobody supports this activity in their community."

The harassment has caused some minority members to move out of the city and may have prevented others from moving in, but most of them said they refused to be cowed.

"I figure the slaves were freed in 1863 and Martin Luther King Jr. died so that I can live wherever I please," one black woman said. "I am not going to be intimidated or bullied."

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