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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 06:33 am

Hostile intent

Former mayor says she was only trying to appease a crowd of angry black citizens

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I’ve never thought of myself as particularly courageous. I don’t do bungee jumping or downhill skiing or drag racing or recreational drugs. I have to psych myself up to visit the dentist, and I don’t pick fights unless I’m pretty sure I can win.

Lately, though, I’ve discovered that I’m a lot braver than I realized. According to an affidavit filed by former Springfield Mayor Karen Hasara, I once spent several hours in a “hostile crowd of mostly African-Americans.” Other court documents describe the same group of people as both “angry and hostile.” The local daily newspaper called the scene “raucous.”

The event in question took place on Nov. 4, 2002, almost exactly four years ago. It was a special Springfield City Council meeting, convened because local authorities had been caught perpetrating a terrible lie. For 10 long months, Springfield Police Department officials had stood mutely by while the media reported that a black rookie cop named Renatta Frazier had failed to prevent the rape of a fellow officer’s daughter. The meeting was called in reaction to an Oct. 31, 2002 Illinois Times story showing that the rape had been committed before Frazier was ever dispatched to the scene.

At that meeting, then-Mayor Hasara made a statement suggesting that black officers’ complaints of discrimination were valid. “I believe that there is racism in the department,” she said.

Recently, though, Hasara tried to eat those words. In a sworn affidavit filed in the city’s defense of a race-discrimination lawsuit, Hasara claims that she had no “personal knowledge of any discriminatory acts based on race or gender” committed by anyone at the SPD. Furthermore, she says, her statement was “a natural reaction to the hostile crowd of mostly African-American citizens” and was “likely made to calm and appease the crowd.”

I attended that council meeting. I sat in the back on the row reserved for media. The room was so full, spectators were standing along the wall. New to town, I didn’t know anyone there except Frazier’s attorney, a couple of black cops, and the Illinois Times photographer. I was surrounded by strangers.

Because I was there to report on the event, I believe I paid attention. After all, I had a deep personal interest in the proceedings: My byline was on the story that caused the meeting to be called. Yet I have no recollection of a hostile crowd.

So this week I went to the city clerk’s office and watched the meeting again on videotape, looking for all that anger and hostility I somehow missed.

As the tape begins, Hasara is seen shuffling papers, waiting for enough council members to arrive to constitute a quorum. Their microphones are on, and I hear Ward 2 Ald. Frank McNeil say — calmly and without hostility — “This is interesting. I had no idea.”

After everyone politely recites the Pledge of Allegiance, Hasara allows McNeil to question then-Police Chief John Harris and William Workman, who was the SPD legal adviser. Ward 3 Ald. Frank Kunz joins in, and the debate quickly turns to the question of what information could have been released. Harris and Workman insist that they couldn’t have corrected erroneous media accounts without violating personnel policy.

As the wrangling continues, Kunz forces Workman to admit that the decision to allow constant broadcast of this unholy untruth was a choice rather than a legal necessity. “It’s not you can’t release it; you won’t release it,” Kunz says. “I personally find that repugnant!”

Bob Rogers, then corporation counsel for the city, asks, “Why?”

“Because I believe in America!” Kunz responds. “If we have a Freedom of Information Act, I believe we oughta use it for what it was meant to.”

At this point, Rogers becomes visibly upset. “You don’t have to make these decisions every day! I do! You can just sit there and Monday-morning quarterback like you always do,” he sputters. “That’s the law. We obeyed the laws of the state.”

Hasara bangs her gavel. “Let me intercede, please,” she says — and with that she launches into a little speech that contains the statement that’s so hotly disputed now.

“I am the mayor. I am ultimately responsible. I will take the blame,” she says, glancing at what appear to be prepared notes. “There were mistakes made. I am concerned about them.”

She goes on to talk about how the erroneous account could have been given to the State Journal-Register.

“I do believe there were leaks in the department. The leaks did not come from the top administration,” she says.

Then comes the bombshell: “I believe that there is racism in the department,” she says, and the audience applauds.

If this statement was meant to ease a hostile atmosphere, as she asserts in her affidavit, it sure doesn’t seem that the “mostly black” crowd created that hostility. If anyone, it was alderman Kunz and staff attorney Rogers — a couple of old, albeit riled up, white guys.

I watched the rest of the tape, just to make sure some angry hostility didn’t break out later. It didn’t.

Why did Hasara find this meeting hostile??She was armed with a gavel, surrounded by her constituents, and protected by two attorneys and the chief of police. Me, I was in the company of strangers, with no shield except a reporter’s notebook and an intimate knowledge of the truth. Somehow, I felt perfectly safe.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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