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Counterattack on Skinhead Racism : Cross-Burning in Westminster Unites Leaders

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Times Staff Writer

In a show of unity, religious and civic leaders met with predominantly white neighbors of a black Westminster family Monday to start an anti-racism campaign, stirred by an early-morning cross-burning on the family’s lawn last week.

About 30 people gathered at the Westminster police station, including the executive director of the county Human Relations Commission and several Jewish leaders whose local synagogues have recently been painted with anti-Semitic graffiti. After the hourlong meeting, the group decided it will organize efforts to paint over racist graffiti and plan an anti-racism education program for the area’s youth.

At Monday’s meeting were victims of the cross-burning, Ted and Lillie Heisser, who awoke about 4:35 a.m. Thursday to find a 3-foot-by-3-foot cross in flames on their front lawn.

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The Heissers, who have lived in the quiet, suburban neighborhood known as Indian Village for 10 years without previous incident, are the only black family on their street and one of just three in the immediate area.

Westminster Mayor Charles V. (Chuck) Smith, who led the assembly, said the “attack” against the Heissers will not be tolerated.

“No shots were fired, no bombs were detonated, no rocks were hurled, and yet in what it symbolizes it is more frightening than any rock, any bullet, any bomb could ever be,” Smith told them.

“Swastikas, burning crosses--they represent the worst of the human heart. They represent a profound hate that is so frightening because it is so illogical and unfathomable.”

The meeting was organized by Westminster police, who suspect the cross-burning was the work of youth gangs known as Skinheads, some of whom sport neo-Nazi regalia and profess neo-Nazi ideology.

In recent weeks, white-supremacist graffiti has been sprayed on walls in the Indian Village neighborhood. Included were swastikas and “SWP,” which stands for Supreme White Power.

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“We’ve had a few incidents of swastikas and suggestions of what they would like us to do with our particular community,” said Henri E. Front, rabbi of the Temple Beth David, which is in the Indian Village area.

“A swastika is as horrible for Jews as a burning cross is for Christians.”

Neighborhood residents said they have seen groups of Skinheads marching through their streets, yelling “white power!” and other racist slogans.

The mayor said the only way to combat the problem is for neighbors to band together.

“This is not a police problem, this is a community problem,” Smith said. “Just arresting someone doesn’t solve the problem. We’ve got to precipitate the whole thing.”

One effective way to fight racism is to show the culprits that whites and other ethnic groups will come to the aid of those whose civil rights are violated, said Frank Eiklor, president of the county chapter of Shalom International, a group that opposes organized hate organizations.

“There were only two people here today who were black Americans and who were the victims,” Eiklor said. “And they were in this circle of white faces (who were) saying, ‘We grieve for you.’ ”

Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the county Human Relations Commission, said his panel will help residents coordinate their efforts with the Police Department and set up a communications network so neighbors can come to each other’s aid.

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“The commission is here primarily to express its support for the family so there’s not a feeling of isolation,” he said.

Westminster Police Chief James Cook said Monday that police still do not have enough evidence to bring anyone in for questioning. But he said they have some leads in the case, and he was hopeful that an arrest would be made within the next couple of weeks.

Lt. Mike Ratliff told the group that the cross-burning is not believed to be part of an organized campaign.

He added that those responsible were probably unaware of Ted Heisser’s involvement with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“No one here really understands what it’s like to wake up and see (a cross burning),” Heisser said, breaking into tears as he talked to the group. “You never get over it.”

The meeting concluded with group members planning to convene again within the next few weeks to outline actions.

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The Heissers said Monday that they have been gratified by the outpouring of community support for them in the last several days.

Lillie Heisser said she has received many telephone calls from people all over Southern California who have expressed revulsion at such racist acts.

“A man from San Bernardino called and said, ‘Ma’am, I’m white, and I know you could care less about that. But don’t move from there.’ ”

The Heissers said they have no intention of moving from their home.

Since the cross-burning, other black, white, Latino and Asian families living in the Heissers’ neighborhood have received threatening telephone calls and taunts from Skinheads driving past their houses.

Police said the Skinheads apparently suspected them of talking to police.

“You can’t (fight) this by yourself,” Lillie Heisser said. “It’s going to take all these organizations to get the problem solved.”

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