Wednesday, October 23, 2013

BART: Lynching or Suicide? A City Is Gripped by Tension



 



Racial Friction in Concord : Lynching or Suicide? A City Is Gripped by Tension

February 11, 1986|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

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CONCORD, Calif. — High-rise office towers sprout like asparagus shoots near the Bay Area Rapid Transit depot here, symbols of the transformation of this sleepy working-class San Francisco suburb into a paragon of the post-industrial city.
But that shining reputation has lately been tarnished by allegations of racial disharmony, knifings and murder--a brutal if familiar byproduct, some people here say, of the very urbanization that is putting Concord back on its feet.
The most grisly event occurred last Nov. 2, in a vacant lot near one of the new office towers adjoining the BART station. On that mud-caked piece of land, an off-duty security guard found the body of a young black man hanging from the branch of an old fig tree.
Police ruled the man's death a suicide. But local black leaders and some white residents are convinced that 23-year-old Timothy Charles Lee was lynched--perhaps by a splinter of the Ku Klux Klan.
After studying the circumstances surrounding Lee's death, chapters of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in surrounding communities persuaded the FBI to investigate. They also made Lee's death the focus of a regional NAACP "racial intolerance task force" studying the growth of racist organizations in California.
He was my employee for just three days -
Read The Pleadings
As either a lynching or suicide, Lee's death--coming not 12 hours after a pair of white-robed white men knifed two black teen-agers a few blocks away--has touched off an ugly controversy in what was recently lauded as one of the least stressful cities in the nation.
City officials and a number of civic leaders vigorously deny that racism is more of a problem among Concord's 100,000 residents than in any other mid-sized American city with a relatively small (less than 2%) minority of blacks.
But a number of residents--black and white--disagree.
"There is a definite strain," said Tahnjah Poe, a young black woman who moved out of Concord last October because of the harassment she said she and her son suffered at the hands of some local whites.
"It's not the complacent city that city officials want you to think it is. There is a nasty little undercurrent. Certain parts of Concord are like a hick town, but the city doesn't want anyone to know about it."
That assessment is shared by others, such as William Callison, a white man who told police he received an anonymous threatening telephone call after he went to the FBI and challenged the coroner's conclusion that Lee had committed suicide.
"It's a place where the city meets the country," he said. "You have some very rural-type people, and then you have people coming out from the big city. There's friction; some people who are unable to adjust, to put it politely."
'A Lot of Racism'
He paused, then put it more bluntly: "There's a lot of racism in Concord. It's not right on the surface but it's not too deeply buried, either."
Hawley Holmes, staff organizer for the city's 2-month-old Human Relations Subcommittee, acknowledged that "certain levels of socioeconomic strata" are responsible for many of the city's racial incidents.
She hastened to add that the city thinks there is no evidence of activity by the klan or any other organized hate group and no reason to doubt a conclusion of suicide in the case of Timothy Lee.
The suspects in the Nov. 2 stabbings that preceded Lee's death contend that their white robes, with accurate Klan markings, were merely costumes worn to a Halloween party. The existence of such a party has not been established.
Contra Costa County has a history of sporadic racial incidents, although it has seen fewer klan-related events than San Bernardino County, the San Joaquin Valley or other areas in the state, according to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
However, even those incidents that did occur--vandalism, harassing phone calls, taunts and broken windows--drew little public notice until after the incidents of Nov. 2.
Had Won Study Grant
Lee had left his San Francisco job that day happy and hopeful, friends and co-workers said. He worked part time in a fabric design store while taking classes at the San Francisco Academy of Art; he had recently won a grant to study fashion design in Italy.
Friends speculate that after leaving work, Lee visited several bars in town, a position supported by the .13% level of alcohol later found in his blood. (A level of .10% is the legal criterion for drunk driving.) After socializing for several hours, Lee boarded a BART train for the 15-mile ride home to Berkeley.
On the train, however, he fell asleep and missed his stop. He did not awaken until 1 a.m., when the train reached the end of the line, 25 miles down the track in Concord. He then discovered that he had missed the final train of the night back to Berkeley. He was stranded.
Lee relayed this story to several friends he called in a fruitless attempt to find someone with a car who could pick him up. It was the last time any of them would hear from him.

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