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In Gillette, hate crime concerns linked to depressed coal market
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In Gillette, hate crime concerns linked to depressed coal market

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GILLETTE — Last semester, Kiela Garner, a Gillette College freshman and member of the school basketball team from Chicago, was shooting hoops with a friend at the Campbell County Recreation Center when a man asked them to play on a different court.

Garner, who is African-American, and her friend ignored him because they were on the court first. Three more people then asked them to leave.

“They said, ‘We don’t want to play with your kind,’” she said.

Garner and her friend decided to leave. They felt uncomfortable. “We didn’t want to start trouble,” she said.

Garner spoke after a hate-crimes

dialogue Thursday, where a local minister said a depressed coal market — which at local mines has resulted in layoffs, decreased overtime and decreased use of contractors – has likely played into a fear of perceived outsiders and racism in Gillette.

In October, a man was seen distributing Ku Klux Klan literature in a north Gillette neighborhood and in an apartment complex on the west side of town. Neighbors in one neighborhood chased the man off, said Gillette Police Lt. Chuck Deaton.

Even though the act didn’t break federal hate crimes laws, it prompted the Police Department and the Wyoming Association of Churches to host Thursday’s dialogue. Only 17 people attended, which organizers called disappointing. A Denver representative of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service was supposed to attend the meeting in Gillette but could not. The department has cut travel because of the sequester, said Chesie Lee, an attorney and executive director of the Wyoming Association of Churches.

The Rev. Thomas Fiske of Gillette’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church believes instances of racism can be attributed to fear.

“First and foremost, a fear of economic downturn, a fear of sequester, a fear of the budget and a fear of the future of coal,” he said.

Fiske, who speaks Spanish, said members of Gillette’s Hispanic community have told him that their vehicles have been keyed, mailboxes were vandalized and a rock was thrown through a house window.

“I know that in times of difficulty, either economic difficulty or social difficulty, ethnic tensions will increase,” he said. “For the past six to seven years, I’ve seen it wax and wane. I’ve seen it waning more and more. That does concern me. It should concern all of us.”

“When people are losing their jobs, they tend to believe somebody has to be blamed for this,” said the Rev. Burry Bessee of the United Methodist Church in Gillette. “It’s easy to blame somebody who doesn’t look the same or who doesn’t speak the same.”

Although hate crimes can be against someone’s sexual orientation, religion or gender, Deaton of the Police Department said that recent hate crimes in Gillette were about race.

“In the last five years, seven criminal acts were classified as hate or bias crimes,” he said.

The crimes involved name-calling, he said.

For some crimes, such as murder and assault, the FBI has to be notified. Wyoming lacks hate crime laws, but there are federal hate crimes laws, and the FBI can investigate incidents in states. None of the seven Gillette crimes rose to the level at which the FBI needed to be notified, Deaton said.

But Deaton doesn’t believe all hate crimes are reported in Gillette, because he has spoken to people who have told him about incidents that have happened to family members that were probably hate crimes, he said.

He also believes that some people are afraid of the police and decline to report crimes. The police try to reach out to the community to let them know they want to help.

“I am open to any ideas on how we can gain that trust so that more of these crimes are reported and investigated, and hopefully prosecuted,” Deaton said.

To shed more light on acts of hate in Wyoming, the Casper Star-Tribune on April 3 filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The newspaper wanted to find out how many times and to what Wyoming cities the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service has been dispatched.

Community Relations Service representatives can be called into communities when there are allegations of hate to provide what it calls “conciliation.” They sit down with accusers, alleged suspects, and sometimes leaders of minority communities and local law enforcement to discuss issues. The representatives distribute confidentiality agreements for the parties to sign.

On Friday, the Justice Department declined the Star-Tribune’s request for information, citing a law that states conciliations are confidential. Any Justice Department employee who releases information about conciliations could be fined $1,000 and imprisoned for a year.

Jimmy Simmons, Casper branch president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that he has received complaints of hate crimes in Campbell County in the past.

“And 100 percent of those cases involved a black man dating or married to a white woman,” he said.

Other people allegedly committed acts of hate against the black men because they disapproved of the relationships, Simmons said.

“Hate is on the rise again in this country,” Simmons said. “It really is. We hope to educate as many people as we can.”

Simmons said that while Wyoming has to expel hate, not all Wyomingites are racist. When he was young, a state senator gave him a job when he desperately needed one.

“Because of the type of people that I met along the way, I’d become a millionaire here in Wyoming, with all these odds against me,” he said.

Reach state reporter Laura Hancock at 307-266-0581 or at laura.hancock@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter: @laurahancock.

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