Coalition to support discrimination, hate crime victims proposed

Posted: Friday, October 29, 2010

Evidence of hatred and discrimination has popped up around Juneau from time to time. The Juneau Human Rights Commission is looking at proactively dealing with those issues before a major incident happens.

The commission, which is a function of the City and Borough of Juneau, wants to form a coalition. In order to achieve that, it's hosting Eran Thompson at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Egan Library at the University of Alaska Southeast. Thompson is the president of the Billings, Mont., group called Not in Our Town - a coalition formed to handle acts of hatred and discrimination.

Steve Wolf, with the commission, said the movement started in Billings as a reaction to hate crimes.

"If we are proactive we can move much faster, plus we can provide more support for victims," Wolf said. "We can do outreach and education, creating a more harmonious community."

Mary-Claire Bernstein, chairwoman of the commission, said its mission is proactivity and education.

"So the idea is that rather than having to face an incident that's either hate-induced or discrimination that we educate the community ahead of time, but also create a feeling with the community that's more supportive and more respectful," she said.

Part of the commission's path has focused on cultural awareness. It hosted a series of events this year called "I Am Juneau," where a mix of cultures participated in potlucks, arts and crafts, music and dance, and exchanges of literature and history. Bernstein hopes those will be annual events.

"That's one approach to this whole idea of getting people to become more aware of each other," she said. "But that's kind of a surface approach. That's what you see on the outside of any group or culture. The Human Rights Commission, the purpose is to get groups to know each other better on the inside."

Juneau has seen acts of hatred and discrimination in the past with graffiti of swastikas painted around town - all the way to the door of the Congregation Sukkat Shalom. Other instances of racism against blacks and Alaska Natives have also lingered. Bernstein said she believes the community is lucky it hasn't faced severely violent hate crimes yet, but Juneau residents need to come together to prevent what could be in the area's future.

That's where the coalition idea comes from. In Billings, the coalition and community responds to hate crimes. Bernstein said if a person's house is spray painted with, say, a swastika, the painters' union would go to that house and repaint it. Another example is when rocks were thrown through a window because a Menorah was in it. The next day, 10,000 people in the city had Menorahs in the windows.

"The community was able to activate and support," Bernstein said. "That makes a big difference when somebody's a victim or when a group is a victim."

Wolf said that to his knowledge, there has never been any community reaction to the incidences in Juneau - no support by the public for the victims or against the concepts.

The idea for the coalition is to get people from every sector -¿labor, religious, ethnic and social groups -¿to participate.

Wolf said the coalition would decide how it would operate and the direction it wants to go, but he believes that broad cross-section is necessary.

Wolf also believes the coalition would be useful to more effectively support the school district with bullying issues, would make a statement in the community that Juneau is will to act in the face of intolerance, discrimination and violence in relation to hate, that the coalition can assist agencies education campaigns, and a civil discourse can take place on the differences in the community.

There is a coalition organizational meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday to discuss the development and speak out on human rights issues at the assembly chambers.

Bernstein hopes people will be active with this.

"I think people generally are positive (about the concept), but unfortunately if you haven't been attacked recently you don't feel a strong need to do anything active," she said. "Hopefully people will show that they care by being a little more active. I'm hoping all parts of the community show they really care and want to work at making this community a better place for everybody to live."

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