Racial politics vs. racial harmony.

I was heartsick when I read about the stabbing death of Lt. Richard Collins III, the Bowie University student about to graduate and embark on a career in the United States Army.  I didn’t feel any better when I read that veteran Annapolis civil rights activist Carl Snowden and others appear to be using this profound tragedy as an opportunity to refight the battle against Anne Arundel County Councilman Michael Peroutka that Mr. Snowden lost in 2014.

Sean Urbanski is charged with murdering Lt. Collins.  Urbanski was a member of a Facebook group known as “Alt Reich: Nation” that shared anti-Semitic and racist material.  Police are investigating the killing as a possible hate crime.

Mr. Snowden and his allies applied pressure on Mr. Peroutka to introduce a County Council resolution “condemning racism and white nationalism” as a response to the death of Lt. Collins.  The effort was more about racial politics than about racial harmony and had revenge written all over it.  Fortunately, Councilman Peter Smith stepped in and announced that he will introduce the resolution, a move that is likely to defuse the situation and shift the debate to a more constructive subject:  An uptick in racially-tinged incidents in Anne Arundel County and what to do about it.

Mr. Snowden, convener of the Caucus of African American Leaders, stated that Mr. Peroutka “has a moral obligation” to introduce the resolution.  Yasemin Jamison, founder of Anne Arundel County Indivisible, said that the activists reached out to other council members but that they focused on Mr. Peroutka not only because Urbanski is from his district but also because of Mr. Peroutka’s past membership in the League of the South, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labelled a hate group.  The apparent goal was to force Mr. Peroutka to prove that he is not a racist by introducing the resolution.

In 2014 Mr. Snowden made a concerted attempt to prevent Mr. Peroutka from being elected to the County Council.  Things got ugly on both sides.  Mr. Snowden labeled Mr. Peroutka an “extremist.”  Mr. Peroutka at one point alluded to “the personal demons that have plagued” Mr. Snowden, an apparent reference to past problems with alcohol and marijuana that landed Mr. Snowden in jail for ten days in 2013.

At first blush this ploy looked like a no-lose proposition for Mr. Snowden.  If Mr. Peroutka refused the demand Mr. Snowden could tout the refusal as proof of his racism.  If he yielded to the demand Mr. Snowden could claim credit for getting him to capitulate.  One important consideration appeared to be missing, however:  Mr. Peroutka was not responsible for the death of Lt. Collins.  Mr. Petrouka has no “moral obligation” to perform an act of contrition for something that he did not do.

I am not defending Mr. Peroutka’s past membership in the League of the South or his theocratic ideology, both of which I find very troubling.  I didn’t vote for him when I lived in his district but plenty of my neighbors did; he defeated the Republican incumbent in the primary and a Democratic opponent in the general election in 2014.

Mr. Peroutka renounced racism before his election and since taking office he has earned a reputation on the County Council for his civility and has done nothing to justify having his character placed on trial in the media.  In my opinion this is not about anything that Mr. Peroutka has done; this is about Mr. Snowden trying to even the score with Mr. Peroutka, whether Mr. Snowden can admit that to himself or not.

The attempt to embarrass Mr. Peroutka will make him a martyr in the minds of many white residents in his district and elsewhere in the county.  It will be perceived as race-baiting, with some justification.  Mr. Snowden and Ms. Jamison appear to be concerned that Mr. Peroutka is part of the alt-right faction that has hijacked this country.  The sad irony is that what they did provided recruiting material for the alt-right, which is absolutely the last thing that we need.

This was not the occasion for Mr. Snowden to refight the battle that he lost in 2014.  Doing so dishonored the memory of Lt. Collins and did nothing to promote the cause of racial harmony.  To the contrary, it threatened to turn what should be robust conversation about race relations into a political sideshow.

Credit to Mr. Smith.  He may have saved Mr. Snowden from embarrassing himself any further and prevented him from doing any more harm to race relations in Anne Arundel County.  His announced intention to sponsor the resolution shifts the spotlight away from the personal feud between Mr. Snowden and Mr. Peroutka and back to the subject of how to prevent future tragedies like the death of Lt. Collins.

June 2, 2017

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