Monday, January 31, 2005

Roadside assistance

[Lori Cain / Statesman Journal]

Consider this a sign of the times. It represents not only the natural outcome of a a recent Supreme Court decision, but also the latest iteration of the white supremacist program to rehabilitate itself in the mainstream.

The above sign appears along a road near Salem, Oregon, where county officials recently decided to allow a group calling itself the "American Nazi Party" to take part in its road-cleanup volunteer program:
Several local residents, some of them who live on Sunnyview Road, said they are upset that the county would allow the signs or attach its own name to that of a hate group.

"To me, it just screams hate," said Jacque Bryant of Salem. "It screams doesn't belong here."

Bryant heard about the sign from her grandmother and had a strong emotional reaction to it when she saw it for herself. She hopes enough community outrage will force the county to remove the sign.

Salem resident Mike Navarro, whose mother lives near the area, also was stunned by the sign.

Navarro said that the group has a right to its own opinions but that it's poor judgment for a county to put itself in the position of appearing to endorse a hate group. There should be some level of sensitivity in these kinds of decisions, Navarro said.

"To me, that's kind of cowardly. 'We don't want to get sued,' " Navarro said. "You're probably offending the majority of the people in your county just to pacify the needs of a very select group of people who thrive on hating."

It's worth noting that court rulings in question only outlaw the banning of a group from these programs based on the content of its beliefs. What it doesn't prohibit is limiting participation based on a group's actual ability to perform the cleanup, as well as the likelihood of its participation becoming an attractive nuisance. Both of these avenues are available to Oregon officials.

Both of these issues, as it happens, have arisen in previous cases where the Klan or other extremist groups sought to participate in roadside-cleanup programs. The first was in the mid-1990s in Arkansas, an experiment that ended badly when the Klan failed to ever perform the promised cleanups.

They perhaps had a good reason not to: the stretch of road that they claimed attracted an unusual amount of garbage. It was as though, for some reason, everyone in the county who had noxious waste (ranging from loads of soiled disposable diapers to animal carcasses) to toss from their pickups chose that stretch of road to do it. Guess they wanted to be sure the Klan had plenty of busy work. But it became something of a public health hazard.

Likewise, in Missouri, the Ku Klux Klan's participation in the Adopt-a-Highway program sharply plummeted shortly after they were admitted. It didn't help, of course, that Missouri renamed the highway after Rosa Parks. Nor did it help that, once again, the road attracted inordinate amounts of garbage.

These are issues the Salem officials should stay atop of if they're serious about their civic responsibilities. There's more than one way to deal with haters. Sometimes it just takes being a little creative.

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