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Rights Panel First Line Of Defense Against Bias Commission Deals With Ugly Side Of Spokane

A black Ferris High School senior complains a Spokane police officer pulled him over and told him his crown-shaped air freshener proves he’s a gang member.

A white man in his 70s says a mortgage company refused him a 20-year home loan, insisting instead on an expensive five-year deal.

Four counterculture youths with punk hairstyles complain they are given 15-minute limits, or not served at all, at a downtown cafe.

Discrimination complaints are rolling in faster than ever to the Spokane Human Rights Commission, a little-known taxpayer-financed advocate and conciliator for minorities, gays, the elderly and others.

Racial clashes have gone public recently in Spokane with allegations about Spokane police officers and sparring over charges at Chase Middle School.

The Human Rights Commission quietly seeks to resolve these types of conflicts as well as educate people about civil rights laws.

Almost 3 years old, the commission and its one staff member lack the authority to investigate complaints or enforce laws. Instead, it serves primarily as a complaint clearinghouse. It writes letters; it makes delicate telephone calls.

Sometimes, its efforts are ignored or slapped with indignant retorts.

“Often, there’s a sense of how could someone say this about me,” said the commission’s human rights specialist and lone staffer, Cherie Berthon. “People have a sense that (discrimination) is a societal problem but not a problem inside their agency.”

The commission’s effectiveness is hard to measure. There isn’t a single celebrated case in which its intervention clearly righted an injustice.

But the commission has convinced some business owners to expand their harassment policies to cover both sexual and racial incidents.

A look inside the commission’s complaint files opens a window to an ugly side of Spokane:

A white driver points a gun at a black driver and shouts racial slurs. A neighbor of an interracial family shoots three of its four dogs and yells racial profanity.

Other complaints are more subtle:

A job or an apartment inexplicably is filled when a member of a minority group arrives for an interview; four women are fired soon after their boss discovers they are gay; a black woman is refused a beer at a Spokane tavern because the bartender thinks she is a prostitute.

Some complaints appear petty:

A woman claims her rights were violated when she saw a photograph of a nearly nude woman on the inside of a closet at a Spokane mechanic’s shop.

A Spokane woman wanted to file a human rights complaint against The Spokesman-Review for refusing to run her personal ad in which she described herself as a married woman looking for a female lover.

The commission has collected more than 160 complaints since it opened in May 1992. Almost half have been race-related. The alleged human rights violations most often have occurred on the job or in schools.

Depending on the complaint, Berthon, with the guidance of commission members, determines what action to take. Usually, targets of the complaint are, at least, notified it was filed. Allegations rarely are undisputed.

“That’s the problem with this job,” Berthon said. “Nothing’s ever clean and easy.”

Take this complaint:

The commission got a call last week from James Large, a retired Marine who moved to Spokane a month ago.

Large said that when he ordered a Domino’s pizza from the Lincoln Heights store, he was asked to be more specific about on what part of the South Hill he lived.

When the pizza arrived, Large asked if he were on the edge of a delivery zone.

Large said the deliveryman told him that wasn’t the case. He said Domino’s refuses to deliver to the East Central neighborhood below Large’s home. The deliveryman called the poor area “little Africa” and said “that’s where all the blacks are,” Large recalled.

“It was shocking,” said Large, who had moved from Powell, Wyo., to Spokane because he liked the area. “It was absolutely blatant” bigotry. “It diminished the good feelings I had about Spokane.”

Large has just filed the complaint. The commission hasn’t contacted Domino’s yet.

However, Domino’s manager Doug Russell said his workers never would say such things. “I don’t think he would have said that - just for fear of his job.”

Russell did confirm Domino’s has refused to deliver at night in a 10-block radius in the East Central neighborhood for the past six months.

He said there is good reason. Drivers have quit after being harassed and attacked in the neighborhood.

He said Spokane police suggested the drivers not go there after dark, but he added Domino’s expects to begin serving the area again in a few weeks from another one of its outlets.

Russell conceded the delivery clashes may have heated racial tensions. “I can see how some of the drivers could get a little racist after getting attacked by young black adults.”

The commission costs taxpayers only $45,000 a year. But the money isn’t entirely safe. During 1993, City Councilman Joel Crosby advocated cutting it, arguing that it is expendable in tight budget times.

City Manager Roger Crum said he has little involvement with the commission but that his perception is that it is valuable. “We used to have more complaints about (the city) not responding to these issues.”

A commission survey completed last week indicates that 40 percent of the people who have filed complaints say their cases were helped by the commission’s efforts. The rest said they saw no significant improvement.

Some were frustrated by the commission’s lack of legal muscle to examine allegations.

But commission member Keith Wolter said the panel’s limitations help make it less adversarial - and more effective.

“Not having legal investigative powers frees us up to have a moral leverage and to make moral persuasions.”

An East Central woman said the commission is the one office that took her concerns seriously.

Police were slow to respond to her complaint that her 18-year-old African American son had been harassed by an officer, she said. In contrast, the commission invited her to file a complaint and discuss the case.

“That was the only place that said, ‘Hey let’s take a look at this.”’

xxxx COMPLAINTS Dozens of complaints were filed with the Spokane Human Rights Commission in 1994. Here is a summary of the complaints:

Most common basis for alleged discrimination: Race 35 Disability 21 Sexual orientation 14 Gender 13

Areas in which discrimination most often occurred: Schools 20 On the job 15

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