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Intolerance in Largo

Why would anyone, anywhere, think it is funny to put a noose around a black child's neck?

Whether it was a perverted sense of humor, adolescent bravado or something deeper and more malignant that motivated them, a group of young people hanging out at a Largo fast food restaurant last week used a noose to harass and intimidate a 14-year-old.

Dionte Hall, a African-American starter on Largo High's junior varsity basketball team, and two white friends were walking to the Wendy's next door to Largo High to get something to eat before basketball practice. On their way across the parking lot, they passed the group of youths who had been exchanging racial "jokes." They taunted Hall with a 20-foot rope that a boy in the group had knotted into a hangman's noose. Hall and his friends ignored the taunts.

That's when police say a female Largo High honor student in the group offered 19-year-old Louis John Giannola $10 to go inside the restaurant and put the noose around Hall's neck. According to witnesses and police, Giannola walked up to Hall's table, dropped the noose over his head while saying, "I got paid $10 to do this," and then ran out of the restaurant yelling, "I hate all you n------."

You would be hard-pressed to find a more loathsome symbol of this nation's racist past than a noose. Hall had done nothing to provoke the group. He didn't even know Giannola, who had moved to Largo from Zephyrhills only days earlier. Hall became a target merely because of the color of his skin.

Largo police handled this ugly incident appropriately, arresting Giannola and the juvenile boy who allegedly made the noose on felony charges. The girl who allegedly paid Giannola was charged with a misdemeanor.

The incident is more bad publicity for Largo, which has been in the news repeatedly over the last two years for incidents of racism and discrimination. A countywide fair housing study by the Pinellas Office of Human Rights in 2002 uncovered widespread discrimination against minorities seeking rental housing in Largo. Racial and sexual harassment has been documented in city departments. Three veteran lieutenants in the Fire Department resigned or were fired recently following allegations they made racist comments.

Despite clear evidence of intolerance in the community, a majority of the Largo City Commission last year abandoned a proposed citywide human rights ordinance when public opposition arose. The commission did, however, support a tough policy governing the behavior of city employees in the workplace. That Largo police approached the noose incident so seriously is an indication of the progress made in that department.

But more needs to be done. Largo needs a courageous, articulate leader who can guide the city toward enlightenment on the subject of civil rights.

The noose incident is one more in a string of incidents proving the need for action in Largo, but it could have happened anywhere. Bigotry exists among young people today just as it did in earlier generations. For churches and schools throughout Pinellas, this incident should be a signal that they need to focus more effort on teaching young people about the damage that racism has done and can do in this country, and about the right of all people, regardless of race or heritage, to live free of such harassment.