October 2005

Battling racism in the Four Corners: Racist incidents recounted at civil-rights open forum

By Gail Binkly

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On Sept. 22, members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission traveled to Cortez and heard some potentially explosive charges of racism at a meeting in City Hall.

The commission hears appeals from the Colorado Civil Rights Division, explained Chairperson Delio Tamayo, and advises government on ways to combat discrimination.

There’s plenty to combat in the region, if testimony at the forum is any indication. The commission heard from several citizens who said they’d been subjected to racial harassment.

Julie Smith of Dolores, a white woman married to an African- American, gave a chilling account of an incident that happened a year ago in her town. She said her teenage son was driving home when three minors in another vehicle started following him.

“They bumped his van at every stop sign,” Smith said. “They were rolling down the windows, calling him a nigger.”

Her son turned left at a stop sign to avoid them. They drove a block and turned left, then drove the wrong way down a one-way street and rammed him head-on from 50 feet away. The family van was destroyed, Smith said.

The driver was charged with numerous counts including menacing, reckless endangerment and ethnic intimidation, she said. Eventually he pleaded guilty to reckless driving and criminal mischief and was sentenced to 54 days at a juvenile facility in Durango and two years’ probation.

Smith said the system worked “on a small level” but questioned whether the sentence was severe enough.

However, she said there were signs of support from the community. Members of the high-school football team brought a vehicle to drag the van home, and for days people came to her house to say how sorry they were.

Sherri Williams of Cortez told the commission she, too, had experienced racially based harassment. An African- American, Williams moved to Cortez from Denver 15 months ago to take a job with Southwest Memorial Hospital.

“My first day in this city, my house became a Parade of Homes,” she said.

“People were driving by slowly and stopping in the middle of the street.” That night, she said, her house was toilet-papered. “They left feces on the toilet paper,” she added. “What a welcome that was to Cortez.”

She said some of her neighbors also started a petition against her, but in response to questions from the commission, she said she hadn’t actually seen the petition and did not know whom it was to be presented to.

Williams said she was determined not to be intimidated into moving, but after hearing about Smith’s son, she became so unnerved she decided to stay indoors at night. She still feels too nervous to go out after dark.

“I’m a native of this state. I’m proud of this state,” she said. “But this city has a problem.”

However, she said members of a local church have been very friendly to her and she has had no problems getting service in local restaurants.

Both Smith and Williams mentioned that a local truck that used to drive around Cortez carrying a large Confederate flag contributed to the hostile atmosphere.

“I know it’s their right, but how welcome would you feel?” Smith asked.

It was an incident involving that very truck that prompted the Civil Rights Commission to schedule its visit to Cortez and Durango.

On June 21, 2004, 18 students from Dillard University in New Orleans and the University of Colorado in Boulder were visiting Cortez as part of an exchange program.

CU Professor Michael Grant, the faculty leader for the program, came along on the trip, as did Professor Robert Collins of Dillard. Grant gave the Civil Rights Commission an account of the incident.

The group arrived in a bus and checked in at the Turquoise Motel on Main Street, he said. Around 11 p.m., about a dozen students, half of them African-American, decided to walk along Main to Wal-Mart. On the way, they encountered the truck with the Confederate flag.

“They were subjected to extreme verbal harassment, racial epithets and aggressively threatening behavior,” Grant said. “It was extremely traumatic to the young men and women.”

The two men in the truck reportedly drove across a sidewalk to confront the visiting students, who flagged down a passing law officer. Police later drove the students back to their motel.

“Fifteen months later, as far as I can tell, the perpetrators have received no sanctions,” Grant said.

He noted that the Cortez City Council had sent a letter of regret, but contrasted the city’s response to that of Boulder, which had a similar incident involving “drive-by, lean-out-the-window racial epithets and a physical confrontation.”

In Boulder, people donated several thousand dollars for the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator. The offender was found and jailed, Grant said, and the city council allocated $10,000 for a group to improve racial relations.

Collins, who’d traveled from New Orleans and remarked that “it’s nice to be somewhere dry,” agreed. He said, while he and the students would have liked to have seen criminal charges filed, they would be satisfied to know that a final report was made.

Police Chief Roy Lane said his department had put extra patrols at the motel that night. The incident was thoroughly investigated, he said, including obtaining written statements from the students and sending an investigator to CU to do interviews.

Investigators presented a report to the District Attorney’s office so then- DA Joe Olt could decide whether to file charges. Current DA Jim Wilson said he did not have the report because Olt had decided not to pursue the case. Wilson said sometimes a case isn’t strong enough to take to court.

At the time, the two local men told the Cortez Journal’s Katharhynn Heidelberg that the visiting students had yelled at them first. They said they saw the Confederate flag as a symbol of being a rebel, not a racist.

Annabelle Talk, a Ute Mountain Ute, told the commission that racism is an everyday thing for tribal members.

“I hear remarks like, ‘The Ute people are too lazy and they don’t want to work,’ and that’s still going on today.”

She said her brother, an alcoholic who – like many other alcoholics – drank regularly in Cortez’s City Park, was beaten up by high-school kids in the park. She said her brother told her a police officer had come by and shooed the kids away, but didn’t arrest them.

Lane said his department takes such incidents seriously and does investigate them.

Talk said later that she thought the forum had gone well, but she found it ironic that most of the people who came to speak about racism were originally from other areas.

“It took outside people to come into this area to say what they had to say about how racism is in this community,” she said. “The tribe has talked about that many times to the school board and the police department and even the city and county people.

“I guess this makes it more true. It wasn’t coming from us again. It was from different people.”