Tue, Oct 03, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Boy’s near-hanging prompts racism discussion

AP, CLAREMONT, New Hampshire

A chorus of We Shall Overcome rises from a gathering against racism in Broad Street Park in Claremont, New Hampshire, on Sept. 12.

Photo: The Valley News via AP

In this struggling mill town in western New Hampshire, racism was never something people talked about all that much.

There were people who drove around Claremont with Confederate flag bumper stickers in the mostly white town of 14,000 and some instances of high schoolers using racial epithets during football games and on Facebook, but for the most part, residents had other concerns.

That changed on Aug. 28 after allegations surfaced that several teenagers had taunted a nine-year-old biracial boy with racial slurs and several days later pushed him off a picnic table with a rope tied around his neck.

The family of the boy, who was treated for neck injuries and has been released, called it a hate crime, while the parents of one of the teenagers told Newsweek it was a terrible accident.

The images of the boy’s rope-singed neck were shared widely on social media, prompting an outpouring of support for the family and outrage against the teens.

With prosecutors continuing to investigate the case as a potential hate crime, the city known for historic textile and paper mill buildings found itself associated with words like lynching and intolerance.

“Certainly people were shocked by the young age of everyone involved, especially the victim,” said Allen Damren, the town’s assistant mayor who also grew up in Claremont. “That certainly has an impact on people. When you use the word ‘lynching,’ that has all sorts of bad connotations to it.”

“It happened in our hometown. People responded to that,” he added.

The case has compelled city leaders to confront an issue that many had associated with bigger cities far away. Most insist that Claremont is not a racist place, but say the town must consider how its white majority treats those who do not look like them. The families of the accused teens declined comment.

“This is an opportunity to take a very unfortunate event involving children and have some public discussions about how we treat each other,” said Middleton McGoodwin, superintendent of the school district that includes Claremont.

More than 100 people from Claremont and surrounding towns last month gathered in a downtown city park to speak out against racism.

Holding signs reading “Teach Love Not Hate” and “Stand Together,” residents listened as city officials and religious leaders spoke about the near-hanging and the need to confront intolerance.

City and school officials have since met to discuss new strategies to counter racism, and McGoodwin said the district is developing a plan for elementary through high school that examines school culture, including how students treat each other and how staff respond to issues like bullying.

Residents are planning to be outside the high school and middle school this week, holding signs calling for an end to violence and bullying.

However, not everyone in the community feels there is a need to have conversations about racism.

While agreeing that the teens need to be punished, several residents who were white said the racial component had been overblown and that the city was moving too quickly to embrace the narrative without having all of the facts.

“The problem with society is that everybody is quick to say it’s racial. We weren’t there. We don’t know the circumstances,” said Bobby Colburn, a white Claremont resident who works as a gas station clerk. “That is the problem with this country. It is so divided. Everybody thinks everything is a hate crime. It could have just been the kid being bullied.”

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