State Human Relations Commission town hall focuses on outreach, staying positive
HANOVER — The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission hearing in Hanover on Thursday focused less on a recent racially charged incident and more on education and community conversation about diversity and inclusion.
The 60 seats proved to be inadequate at the town hall — the fourth of its kind — at Guthrie Memorial Library, as residents poured into the event that was marketed as a response to racist flyers attacking Hanover Mayor Myneca Ojo that were distributed in March.
Ojo initially didn't want to make a scene out of the flyers, as she wanted to let the community heal, investigate the incident and focus on her mayoral duties, she said. However, it became clear it was time to talk about it, she said.
"Racism and discrimination happen on a daily basis; it's not something that just happened that one time," Ojo said. "But what do you do? Do you shrivel up and die and not cope with the situation? Or do you move on and live your life because you feel you're here to be able to do that and you have a right to do that?"
The flyers in March labeled Ojo as an "ultra-left wing African feminist" who aims to replace "European Christian traditions with African sloth, thievery, violence and squalor."
Ojo's administration contacted the FBI, among other authorities, but nothing could be done as the flyers constituted protected free speech.
But on Thursday, the commission, a panel and Ojo didn't dwell on the flyers. Instead, they met with a positive, receptive audience eager for a conversation about inclusiveness.
Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the PHRC, noted the importance of good-faith individuals coming together to talk about race issues both locally and nationally.
"We are the top civil rights enforcement agency in the commonwealth, but we cannot do this without coalition building, and we cannot do this without the good will of human beings such as yourselves," Lassiter said.
Lassiter emphasized that racism extends far beyond just slurs and overt actions. He also told the majority-white audience that there's nothing wrong with being white. What's important, he said, is coming together and understanding each other.
Other panelists included a local faith leader and a diversity alliance co-founder, who spoke about efforts to make Hanover a more inclusive area and provide minorities and the poor with services such as housing and food.
Carl Summerson, an attorney and the PHRC's hearing examiner, talked about racial intimidation.
Summerson referenced a 1982 state law that made it a crime to intentionally intimidate someone because of their ethnicity or race. The offense can be tagged onto other crimes and increase penalties. It can also be used in civil lawsuits.
"I love being with people of good will, but not everyone in our community has that good will," Summerson said. "They act out this stuff. So this is here to step in on perpetrators. Hammer them."
The crowd didn't just welcome the panel's comments with applause. Attendees also drew applause themselves while skipping around to topics that included philanthropy, sexuality, gender, politics and religion.
John Eyster, a member of the York Advisory Council to the PHRC, spoke about the disproportionately high suicide rates among some minority groups.
What he can do about it, he said, is to be an ally.
"It's not enough to say 'I'm not racist,'" Eyster said. "We need to be allies and advocates. And when you hear it and see it, you need to stand up against it."
Lassiter could be seen wiping tears and hugged Eyster after his comments.
Others attendees asked about how to implement smaller human relations commissions at the county and city levels to keep better tabs on inclusion and diversity.
After Summerson acknowledged that can be done, Democratic York County Board of Commissioners candidate Judith Higgins said that it's something the county needs to seriously consider.
State Reps. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, and Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, were also in attendance and said they'd support working toward better protections for minorities.
"(The flyers) were cowardly and not at all indicative of the Hanover that I know and love," Klunk said. "I know that this is, and will remain, a safe and truly welcoming community. I hope to work to ensure that hate has no home here in Hanover."
Hanover, which has a population that's 85% white, is just one of several York County communities that has dealt with racially charged incidents within the past year.
Those events include KKK recruitment flyers that were distributed in two municipalities and an incident at Grandview Golf Course in Dover Township, where former county Commissioner Steve Chronister called the cops twice on Ojo and four other African American female golfers for alleged slow pace of play.
The commission held hearings after the KKK flyers. The Grandview incident also prompted a two-day hearing by the PHRC.
The commission is now working with the Anti-Defamation League to keep tabs on hate groups and incidents such as the one in Hanover. It is also collaborating with partners such as the Pennsylvania State Police, the state Attorney General’s office and the NAACP.
It will also soon be conducting a 67-county tour to talk about diversity and inclusion throughout the state.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of York City's race riots, which left two dead and prompted trials decades later.
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.