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Hate Springs Eternal: Rise in Cross Burnings Plagues U.S.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The eight young men and three teenage boys said they were guilty. The judge sent them to prison. And thus came to an end an incident born out of the Deep South’s dark past that has reemerged, both in this region and across the nation.

Eleven of them--white males every one--had burned two gasoline-soaked wooden crosses and fired pistols and rifles into the midnight air in the center of two black neighborhoods in Junction City.

“They burned it right there in front of our window. I thought them days and them times were over,” said Julia Smith, who was startled awake, along with her daughter and two grandchildren, by the flash of fire outside.

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“What I done was wrong and stupid,” a repentant Adam Whatley told the judge.

U.S. District Judge Tucker L. Melancon, dispatching Whatley and the other first-time offenders to harsh sentences ranging from one year to 18 months in prison, said it was all the more chilling that none of the defendants was linked with the old Ku Klux Klan or with the newer rural militias or extremist hate groups.

“We had 11 folks out there in a group,” an exasperated Melancon said from the bench in September. “I think they got together by chance.”

Across America, there has been a marked upswing in the number of crosses being burned. Justice Department officials and private monitoring groups said no other category of hate crime is increasing as rapidly as cross burnings. They report that there were 30 documented cross fires in 1995, and 45 through October of this year. Officials expect the final 1996 tally to number in the 50s.

Once a hell-fire symbol of the klan’s terror over African Americans, the wooden sticks are being set ablaze in places far from here, like Maine, the Oregon coast and Southern California.

Part of the increase in cross-burnings can be tied to a wave of suspicious fires at black churches earlier this year.

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In addition, the rise of extremist groups has given new comfort to young white men eager to display their hatred in brazen, public ways. And to many, cross burnings are still seen as a harmless prank that rarely leads to the kind of tough punishment meted out here in northern Louisiana.

“It is the most brutally frank type of hate crime,” said Brian Levin, associate professor of criminal justice at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J. “It says something about how in our society terrorism and violence are becoming acceptable means of expression. Even in New Jersey, we seem to be getting them.”

Richard Baudouin, who helps track hate crimes for the Alabama-based group Klanwatch, said the increase follows a trend in society in which more minorities are moving into traditionally white neighborhoods. “While the churches were burning, law enforcement was so intensely focused on solving those crimes that people wanting to express hate moved into other arenas,” he said.

Not all officials express alarm when discussing cross burnings. Ron Paul, a former Libertarian Party presidential candidate from Texas who was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House last month, described such activity as a form of free speech in some situations.

“Cross burning could be a crime if they were violating somebody’s property rights,” he said during the campaign. “But if you go out on your farm someplace and it’s on your property and you put two sticks together and you burn it, I am not going to send in the federal police.”

Cross fires date to the start of klan activity after the Southern surrender in the Civil War. Many of the original founders were of Scottish descent, and they borrowed an old practice from their native country in which crosses were sometimes burned to send messages across the hills.

In America, the symbol became a sign of racial bigotry.

“My grandmother would tell us,” said Priscilla Hollidy, who is black and herself now a grandmother in Junction City. “Now I’ve had to tell my grandchildren.”

What does she tell them? “That the old white people, some of them, were klan people, and some of them are still living here, and all of it gets passed down.”

But it is not confined to northern Louisiana. Nor are the victims always African Americans.

* In May 1993, a cross was torched at the home of a white couple in Floyd County, Ga., who had recently resigned from the Royal Confederate Knights.

* In the summer of 1994, crosses were burned in front of bagel stores and a synagogue in the Phoenix area.

* In January 1995, two 14-year-old boys set a cross on fire at the home of two Bethlehem, Pa., women who the boys believed were lesbians.

Southern California has not been spared. A cross was set ablaze in October 1993 at a vacant home in Glendale that had been sold by a black family to a Jewish man and his Filipino wife. And two Palmdale men believed to be white supremacist skinheads have been charged with burning a cross in a public recreation area in August in the Antelope Valley town of Littlerock.

The symbol has lit up the Internet, where a white supremacy group calling itself the Carolinian Lords of the Caucasus features a World Wide Web site that displays the image of a burning cross.

Racial hatred or other prejudices are not always the motive for cross burnings. In Fort Worth in August, Christie Schemmel and her teenage son, Daniel, found a burning plywood cross in front of their home.

The Schemmels are white and Lutheran. Police at first characterized the episode as a hate crime because also left at the Schemmel’s doorstep were unspent shotgun shells, the drawing of a cat’s eye and ear, and a note warning: “DOA.”

But Lt. Rhonda Robertson of the Fort Worth Police Department’s major-case unit said investigators determined it was set by a former high school acquaintance of Daniel’s. No charges were brought.

Here in Junction City, racial animosity clearly was the trigger.

This town on the Arkansas border sits at the junction of two states, two parishes and three congressional districts. Only 1,500 people live here; half of them white, half of them black.

The burnings occurred in March 1994, a week after some whites felt offended by a verbal altercation with some blacks.

Fueled by what Melancon called “alcohol, ignorance and stupidity,” the 11 whites ultimately sentenced in the case met late at night at a salvage store parking lot, fashioned two wooden crosses and doused them with gasoline.

They drove their pickups to a federally subsidized apartment complex occupied by blacks and set the first cross on fire, then to a black neighborhood of single-family homes, where they torched the second cross.

But secrets do not stay hidden in a small town, and within days all 11 had acknowledged their involvement to the FBI.

“I remember when my guy came in here to my office,” said attorney Marty Stroud of nearby Shreveport, who represented defendant Phillip Dison. “He said he was lucky they didn’t all blow themselves up, the way they used gasoline and then threw a match on it.”

The case lingered until this year, when formal charges of civil rights violations were filed. Defense lawyers accuse the Clinton administration of waiting until the presidential election year to maximize the case’s political impact. But Justice Department officials and Assistant U.S. Atty. Martha J. Levardsen, who prosecuted the case, deny that assertion.

“It got sent to Washington but got lost back there,” she said.

All 11 expressed regret over the incident, and all of them pleaded guilty without trial. Dison drew the high-end sentence of 18 months.

Whatley, who had joined the Army in the interval between the crime and his date with the court, was given a year and a day--and a discharge from the service.

With the culprits in prison, the town remains split over what to make of the cross burnings. Some white residents like Walter Johnson, editor of the Junction City News, say they believe that the prison sentences are too harsh, considering the defendants had no prior criminal records and did not belong to organized hate groups.

“Those boys were sacrificial lambs,” he said.

Other whites still don’t see the harm done. “There’s nothing wrong with burning a damn cross,” said a local businessman, who requested anonymity. “That’s none of the federal government’s damn business. I’ll burn a cross any damn time I please and plant it any damn where.”

But the incident’s horror is not lost on the city’s black residents, who speak guardedly because, several said, “we have to live here.”

At the sentencing hearing, Melancon read part of a letter from an anonymous black mother of four who lived in the housing project: “If I tell you it didn’t affect me in any way, I would be lying. That was the most horrible morning I have ever experienced in my lifetime.”

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