Jim Kenyon: National Spotlight Is on Claremont

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 9/13/2017 12:16:37 AM
Modified: 9/13/2017 12:32:28 AM

I searched “Claremont police” on Google Tuesday, and here’s what popped up: Essence.com, a source for African-American-related news based in New York, had a story headlined, “White Teens Attempt to Lynch an 8-year-old Black Boy in New Hampshire.”

The Washington Post ran an online story on Monday from The Associated Press under the headline “Family: Biracial Boy Pushed Off Table With Rope Around Neck.”

The city of Claremont finds itself in the national spotlight this week, and it remains to be seen whether the publicity will get worse.

On Aug. 28, the boy mentioned in headlines was flown by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center with cuts to his neck.

The boy and a group of teenagers were in a backyard near Barnes Park when the teens taunted him with racial slurs and then pushed him off of a picnic table with a rope around his neck, his grandmother, Lorrie Slattery told Valley News staff writer Jordan Cuddemi last week.

“One boy said ... ‘Let’s do this,’ and pushed him off the picnic table and hung him,” said Slattery, who based her account on conversations with her grandson and other juveniles.

None of the teens came to the aid of the boy, who swung from his neck several times before he could remove the rope, which had been part of a nearby tire swing, Slattery said.

It was more than a week before the incident became public, and only after the boy’s family posted photos of his injuries on Facebook.

Which had people asking — and for good reason — why Claremont police were silent on the matter. No press releases, no mention on the department’s Facebook page. Its daily log, which is a matter of public record, only refers to police being called to investigate “juvenile offenses” on Aug. 28.

Social activists have screamed cover-up. Or worse, that police weren’t treating the alleged crime as a big deal.

I appreciate conspiracy theories as much as anyone who grew up during Watergate. But unless I’m missing something, I don’t buy it.

Here’s why:

The incident occurred in a fairly hardscrabble neighborhood. I don’t see the teens involved as having rich and powerful parents who could make a problem go away with a call to city hall.

Then there was my conversation on Tuesday with Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase. “Everything I know from this investigation is from the mouths of juveniles,” he said.

Under state law, youths under the age of 18 are shielded from public scrutiny during police investigations. If an incident becomes a criminal matter, cases involving youths are almost always heard behind closed doors in juvenile court. The court records, including any convictions, are sealed.

It’s a good law.

As Chase pointed out after the story broke, “Mistakes they make as a young child should not have to follow them for the rest of their life.”

In a news release on Tuesday, Chase confirmed the “investigation principally revolves around the conduct of people who are 14 years of age or younger.”

In recent days, Chase has received calls from across the country. Some callers want him to post photos of the youths who are being investigated on Facebook.

Even if Chase wanted to — and I get the distinct feeling that he doesn’t — state law prevents it.

The injured boy, who was treated and released from Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and his family deserve the community’s support. The young teens involved should be held accountable and justice — in the appropriate setting — served.

But Claremont’s racial problems don’t begin and end with a few young teens. The city, like the rest of the Upper Valley, is overwhelmingly white. Only 4 percent of its 13,000 residents were minorities, according to the 2010 Census.

For youths in Claremont and all communities, “negative influences are everywhere,” said City Manager Ryan McNutt, who worked previously in Fitchburg, Mass., a city of 40,000 where 25 percent of the residents are Hispanic. Social media, parents and friends all have a part in shaping youths’ beliefs and attitudes about race, he added.

On Tuesday, activists held a rally in the city’s downtown Broad Street Park. A couple hundred people showed up to hear local activists and clergy talk about the need to acknowledge what happened and discuss what to do moving forward.

“There’s no doubt this community, just as every other community in this country, needs to talk about this stuff,” Chase, who was among the speakers, told me on Monday. “The racial component is there.”

The Rev. John Gregory-Davis, co-pastor of Meriden Congregational Church, told the crowd that it would be a mistake to dismiss what happened near Barnes Park as “kids being kids.”

But it would be just as much of a mistake “if we just punish the perpetrators, thinking it will somehow solve the problem,” Gregory-Davis added. “White children don’t get the idea to lynch a biracial child out of their imagination.”

While members of the crowd held signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “Black White Stand Together,” a young man in a Jeep drove past the park.

I’m not sure that many people heard what he had to say. But since I was standing near that side of the street, I caught it.

“... Idiots,” he said from his open driver’s seat window, preceding the noun with a choice profanity.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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