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An outdoor display on Scott Air Force Base celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day was removed Jan. 17 by Hunt Military Community, the company that operates the base’s housing.

An outdoor display on Scott Air Force Base celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day was removed Jan. 17 by Hunt Military Community, the company that operates the base’s housing. (Facebook)

SCOTT AFB, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — A group of families living in Scott Air Force Base housing complained earlier this month to base leadership about racist incidents and policies they say are discriminatory against people of color and LGBTQ people.

But Col. Christopher Robinson, commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing at the base, says leaders responded swiftly and appropriately, while social media has fueled speculation and ill-will between base residents.

A series of incidents in January, a report of bullying and a mounting feud over yard signs prompted families to send letters to 375th brass asking for a "formal investigation." Robinson said the base has no control over housing policies and that investigations showed the events were isolated.

"The United States Air Force is clear. We believe in a culture of dignity and respect, and that goes wherever you are. You don't really ever take the uniform off," Robinson said.

On Jan. 13, a rope tied in a loop resembling a noose was found hanging from a playground swingset in the Lincoln's Landing military housing neighborhood near the base. St. Clair County Sheriff's deputies later determined children had been using it as a foot-swing, Robinson said. The day after, a racist slur was found written in the frost on an elementary school bus stop in the same neighborhood.

Around the same time, Hunt Military Community, the company that operates the base's housing, removed a display in an outdoor common area decorated to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 17. Residents had painted a cutout to resemble the minister and civil rights activist, and next to it was a sign with a partial quote: "Stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."

The families also said Hunt, the military's largest privatized housing owner, has unfairly issued citations to families with LGBTQ pride and Black Lives Matter signs in front of their homes.

"People were obviously upset with everything happening in such a short timeline," said resident Ceasarae Galvan, a 25-year-old mother of four biracial children.

Robinson said he and base leadership were "very concerned" and "took immediate action" when they learned about the incidents, mainly through social media. They met with Hunt and housing residents, and Robinson held two calls with commanders. Then base leaders held a town hall on Jan. 21 with residents.

The events were found to be unrelated, Robinson said.

"Once you do an investigation, you look into it, they're not related, but you could see how a reasonable person would come to the conclusion that they were related," Robinson said. "We needed to address that."

The families suspect a bigger problem is at hand, Galvan said. She is a disability rights advocate for Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a group pushing for an end to privatized military housing.

"Claiming they were isolated incidents when multiple happened in a short span of time doesn't really add up," Galvan said. "It's not the first time there's been repeated talk on social media of people having issues."

Investigating the incidents

Base housing officials learned about the rope from a social media post, which described it as a noose. Housing personnel notified Hunt's maintenance director, and the rope was removed, Robinson said. Within a day, a Lincoln's Landing resident told base law enforcement that he hung the rope for his children to use as a foot-swing.

The 375th Security Forces Squadron and St. Clair County Sheriff's Department confirmed what the parent said. The parent had pictures of his kids using the rope as a swing before social media posts called it a noose, Robinson said.

The rope still posed a safety hazard, Robinson said, and the resident should have considered how it would appear to others.

"How your neighbors see things is important," the commander said.

There's no mistaking the writing in the frost on the bus stop as anything other than a racist incident, however. Base housing officials notified Hunt, and staff removed the slur and power washed the windows. No witnesses have come forward and there are no video cameras at the stop, Robinson said, but anyone with information may contact the Scott AFB Resident Advocate.

Hannah Magee, 34, lives in Lincoln's Landing with her husband, who works for the Command Post, and three biracial sons. She said she no longer allows her boys to play outside after the rope and racist scrawl were found.

"We have someone here who has a problem," said Magee, who has lived in the neighborhood for roughly a year and a half. "They could target my children."

Magee and her family leave for another base soon, and the move couldn't come soon enough, she said.

"I can't wait to go," Magee said.

The incidents stirred memories of bullying from more than a year ago. A child had used a racist slur and chased another child home. Hunt officials and the parents dealt with the bullying at the time, Robinson said, but Scott AFB brass recently got statements from the parents of the children involved.

"It appears all the members who were involved are satisfied with the outcome and the system worked as it should have," Robinson said. "Does that mean other bullying hasn't taken place? No. But I will say this, no one else has been willing to come forward and give us a witness statement or to tell us their child has been bullied."

Combined with the suspected noose, the racist slur and past bullying, it's no surprise that when residents saw Hunt had removed the MLK Jr. Day display, they believed Lincoln's Landing had a real problem with racism.

'Sign war'

Because of an "escalating sign war" between residents, Hunt had decided to remove all signs, including the MLK Jr. Day decoration, Robinson said. It was merely bad timing and not indicative of a racist policy, he said.

Magee says Hunt should have left the decoration up despite the policy.

"They could've left it and they chose not to," Magee said. "It wasn't offensive. It was really beautiful."

People had been "putting up signs with some clear evidence that it was being done to intentionally irritate one's neighbor," Robinson told residents in the town hall, according to meeting minutes. Hunt has since removed all signs, including one advertising a Cub Scout troop and recruitment for the Air Force Reserve, Robinson said.

One Lincoln's Landing resident, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, disputed that portrayal. She said she and her wife, who's in the military, joined other families in putting up signs "welcoming anybody who's coming in" after one resident complained to Hunt about a pride sign.

"Neither Scott Air Force Base nor Hunt will say, 'Bigotry should not be allowed,’" said the mother of two. "They intended for this (no signs policy) to be impartial, but the impact is they've emboldened hatred. They've emboldened bigots."

Her family has received three citations from Hunt for having a sign in her front window stating "Black Lives Matter" and "Science is real," among other sayings.

"This is not a flag war," she said. "We were trying to stand together for inclusivity and for the incredible diversity that's here in Lincoln's Landing."

Galvan's family previously received a citation from Hunt for a sign in their yard. The citations don't specify if there are consequences for violating the sign policy.

Her family's sign in the front yard of their Lincoln's Landing home says "Hate Has No Home Here." She has yet to remove it, citing resident guidelines for base housing. The guidelines available online restrict flags and where signs are affixed, but it does not prohibit yard signs.

Hunt did not return a request for comment.

Hunt's operations director said at the town hall the company's policies prohibit signs that could "be considered harassing, discriminatory or potentially disturb the rights and comfort of your neighbor."

"We want a community that's a comfort for everyone, and so we don't want to be picking and choosing what signs should be allowed," Brent Norvik said at the town hall, according to minutes.

Lionel Wiley Jr., director of Equal Employment Opportunity at Scott AFB, told residents at the town hall they might have had a positive intent with their signs, but the impact became negative.

"The intent is not to keep anyone from practicing their religion or beliefs, but to keep a healthy environment, there has to be a level of control imposed. I know that doesn't feel good," Wiley said. "Our office is always open and willing to listen to any allegations of racism."

The Air Force manages housing contracts at the federal level, so Scott AFB leaders has no control over the contract with Hunt or their policies, Robinson said. But the mother of two urged Hunt and Scott AFB to clarify housing policies and the methods for changing them. According to resident guidance, Hunt will provide 30 days written notice on new or changing rules. The mother said she never received notice.

"There's no transparency," she said.

Official means for complaint

The commander expressed frustration at the town hall that he had to find out about the incidents through social media, not "official means."

"This is problematic because it slows our response time," he said.

Residents may file a complaint with the base Equal Opportunity Office if they feel Hunt has discriminated against them, Robinson said. They may also contact the base chaplain, who can protect residents' anonymity, or the base's Inspector General.

People don't always feel safe going through those channels, even with promises of anonymity, said the mother of two. Living in military housing is convenient and a privilege for service members that comes with access to base services and good schools. She worries her family could lose that if she speaks up.

"One of our biggest concerns is if we're too vocal, they're going to find a reason to kick us out," she said.

"I want them to stand behind inclusivity and say that there is no room for hatred or bigotry here in this residential neighborhood or in the Armed Forces."

In a letter to Galvan sent Tuesday, Robinson said Galvan and other residents have the right to report discrimination to the Equal Employment Office.

"I know there is more work to do and I ask for your help fostering a culture of respect for all community members," the commander wrote.

Robinson said Scott AFB leaders have put in "a lot of time and effort" to getting their response to the allegations right.

"That person to your left or right, that's your neighbor when you go home to Lincoln's Landing at night, those are the people you're depending on if we ever go to combat," Robinson said.

"We have to be able to trust one another. We have to be able to treat each other with dignity and respect. We have a lot of things we need to focus on in the military, and this right here to me seems like the basics. We have to get this right otherwise the big stuff can't happen."

(c)2022 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)

Visit the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.) at www.bnd.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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