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Minorities Rally Against Hate : Unity: Ethnic, gay leaders urge renewal of Human Relations Commission funding.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a “hideous” moment, recalled Westminster resident Ted Heisser of the warm July morning three years ago when he awoke to the hissing sound of red-orange flames dancing around a wooden cross staked in his front yard.

The horror of the moment quickly turned to anger and the consuming thought in his mind became revenge, he said.

But the “serious aftermath” that could have resulted from the cross burning was averted, in large part due to the efforts of the county Human Relations Commission, said Heisser, who along with several other representatives of Orange County’s minority community rallied in support of the threatened agency Wednesday.

“The commission was the first to come to our assistance, and if not we would have had problems (between blacks and whites) in this neighborhood that we could not have handled,” said Heisser, who addressed a group of reporters from a table set up on the spot where the cross was burned.

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Members of African-American, Asian, Latino, Arab, Jewish and gay and lesbian groups joined Heisser and his wife, Bea, at the rally.

The Board of Supervisors, facing a $67.7-million shortfall in the 1991-92 county budget, has proposed eliminating the 20-year-old commission, which receives about $307,000 a year in county funds.

But even as the supporters lauded the panel’s work, they illuminated the troubled climate of ethnic relations the county still faces. In recent weeks, Asian-American, gay and black county residents have been beaten, harassed or otherwise victimized in actions that suggest a “fear of change,” according to several speakers.

A representative of the Garden Grove Police Department who attended the rally offered chilling proof of the attitudes that can arise from such incidents. On Wednesday night, officers arrested three juveniles suspected in a July cross burning at the home of a black man with whom they had had a running dispute, investigator William Johnson said.

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According to police documents, the three admitted burning the cross at the home of Michael Coffey but claimed to have no hatred for black people and told investigators that they have black friends. They said they decided on the cross burning because they felt it would most upset Coffey.

“They related to the cross burning as something bad to do,” said Johnson. “They knew it was wrong and what it meant, but they did it anyway. It’s a reflection of the current atmosphere of racial tension.”

Johnson said the three youths--two 15-year-olds and a 16-year-old--were released to their parents. The case has been referred to the district attorney’s office for a decision on whether to prosecute the trio under the county’s hate crime statute.

Many community leaders said they fear that incidents like that in Garden Grove are perceived as tolerated in Orange County.

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“There are too many people who don’t care,” Heisser said. “They have the feeling they can do anything they want to and no one’s going to do anything about it.”

The perception may stem in part from the county’s image as a bastion of conservative whites.

“It’s a white-flight county--people came here from Los Angeles to get away from minorities,” said James Colquitt, president of the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “The trend is of increasing numbers of Southeast Asians, Latinos and even blacks, and it’s frightening for some people.”

County prosecutors have also been criticized for not sending a strong enough signal against hate crimes. In a delayed response, prosecutors decided not to charge two white youths with commission of a hate crime when 15-year-old Garden Grove cheerleader Amber Jefferson was slashed across the face during a brawl at a Stanton apartment complex last August, despite the black girl’s contention that she was the victim of a racially motivated attack.

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In fact, in only three cases has anyone been charged with commission of a hate crime since the county statute was enacted in 1988, most recently a white man accused of attacking a 12-year-old black boy in Mission Viejo.

“Some people out there might have the erroneous perception that this type of prejudice will be accepted, but when our office gets a case that it can prosecute we intend to send the message that it will not be accepted,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig McKinnon said.

McKinnon said the Jefferson case and the increased numbers of hate-related incidents reported this year have made prosecutors more aware of the scope of the problem in Orange County. One outcome is McKinnon’s recent appointment as the first deputy district attorney to oversee all hate crime prosecutions.

Part of his task will be to work with the Human Relations Commission, which has set up a network to track hate crimes in coordination with county law enforcement agencies. Despite the recent flurry of reported hate-related incidents, authorities say there is no evidence that actual numbers have increased, McKinnon said.

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What may be occurring, he said, is greater willingness of victims to report incidents.

“It might be simply the fact that word has gotten out that they will be supported and the reason for that is the Human Relations Commission,” he said.

Supporters of the commission have scheduled another rally at 9 a.m. on Tuesday before a meeting of the Board of Supervisors. A vigil will follow the hearing. Supervisors are expected to make a final decision on the commission’s fate on Aug. 27.


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