CLAREMONT, N.H. (AP) — In this struggling mill town in western New Hampshire, racism was never something people talked all that much about.
There were people who drove around Claremont with Confederate flag bumper stickers in the mostly white town of 14,000 and some instances of high schoolers using racial epithets during football games and on Facebook.
But for the most part, residents had other concerns.
That changed Aug. 28 after allegations surfaced that several teenagers had taunted a 9-year-old biracial boy with racial slurs and several days later pushed him off a picnic table with a rope tied around his neck. The family of the boy, who was treated for neck injuries and has been released, called it a hate crime while the parents of one of the teenagers told Newsweek it was a terrible accident.
The images of the boy’s rope-singed neck were shared widely on social media, prompting an outpouring of support for the family and outrage against the teens. With prosecutors continuing to investigate the case as a potential hate crime, the city known for historic textile and paper mill buildings found itself associated with words like lynching and intolerance.
"Certainly people were shocked by the young age of everyone involved, especially the victim," said Allen Damren, the town’s assistant mayor who also grew up in Claremont. "That certainly has an impact on people. When you use the word ‘lynching,‘ that has all sorts of bad connotations to it."
"It happened in our hometown. People responded to that," he added.
The case has compelled city leaders to confront an issue that many had associated with bigger cities far away. Most insist Claremont isn’t a racist place but say the town must consider how its white majority treats those who don’t look like them. The families of the accused teens declined comment.
"This is an opportunity to take a very unfortunate event involving children and have some public discussions about how we treat each other," said Middleton McGoodwin, the superintendent of the school district that includes Claremont. "Just because you may have a different color skin or different color hair or wear certain clothing, that doesn’t give me license to make you feel uncomfortable or make fun of you."
More than 100 people from Claremont and surrounding towns gathered last month in a downtown city park to speak out against racism. Holding signs reading "Teach Love Not Hate" and "Stand Together," residents listened as city officials and religious leaders spoke about the near-hanging and the need to confront intolerance.
City and school officials have since met to discuss new strategies to counter racism, and McGoodwin said the district is developing a plan for elementary through high school that examines school culture, including how students treat each other and how staff respond to issues like bullying. Residents are planning to be outside the high school and middle school this week, holding signs calling for an end to violence and bullying.
"We are not going to say this was an event that took place in late August, wasn’t in school and wasn’t about us," McGoodwin said. "It definitely is about us."
But not everyone in the community feels there is a need to have conversations about racism. While agreeing the teens need to be punished, several residents who were white said the racial component had been overblown and that the city was moving too quickly to embrace the narrative without having all of the facts.
"The problem with society is that everybody is quick to say it’s racial. We weren’t there. We don’t know the circumstances," said Bobby Colburn, a white Claremont resident who works as a gas station clerk. "That is the problem with this country. It is so divided. Everybody thinks everything is a hate crime. It could have just been the kid being bullied."
Lorrie Slattery, the grandmother of the boy who was nearly hung who had lived in town for 14 years, attended a town discussion group at a nearby church. Slattery, who is white, grew emotional as she recounted how her family had never before felt racism in Claremont and how she would remain the city. The boy’s mother declined to be interviewed.
"From the bottom of my heart, it doesn’t change my views of Claremont," she said. "This is everywhere. We’re not immune to anything. Things happen. This is something, as horrific as it was, that could be something positive for the future of the kids in this community. I think it’s going to bring us to better places."