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November 21, 2012

Politically Charged: Pastor’s passion for Obama leads to police action

NEW CASTLE — The Rev. Gary L. Clark Sr. is not a passive pastor.

When confronted on Election Day — in his neighborhood at his polling place — with signs demeaning his candidate of choice, President Obama, Clark lost his poise.

According to police, the Etna Street resident was driving past the West Side School when he saw, then confronted, Russell Hall. The 59-year-old took two political signs from Hall, they said.

The report states Clark took the signs to the police department and gave them to Chief Bobby Salem, saying he did not think it right for Hall to stand on the West Side and hold up political signs against Obama.

Officers told him Hall does have that right — his freedom of speech, which is protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Clark was told Hall had broken no election laws, according to police, because he was more than 150 yards away from the polling place, not interfering with voters or blocking any road or sidewalk.

Clark was charged with robbery, theft, simple assault, disorderly conduct, harassment and ethnic intimidation.

No preliminary hearing date has been set.

Clark explained Hall had “come out on the most pivotal day in history” as Americans were voting on whether to retain or replace Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.

“I was offended,” Clark said. “I felt he had come into the community to deliberately incite an issue. It ticked me off.”

The pastor of New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ identified himself as “old school” and noted, “I came up through the radical days of racial segregation. People don’t talk about it but there are still racial issues that have not been resolved in this and other communities.”

Clark claimed Hall had been warned by poll workers that he was standing too close to where votes were being cast and told to move across the street.

Prior to the election, Clark said, he had seen Hall and his signs — urging “Defeat Obama” and proclaiming “White House Lies” — on street corners downtown.

“But I ask why did he have to come out on that particular day and stand on that spot?”

Clark said he has since apologized to Hall for the confrontation.

“Some would say that I’m a bad pastor because I intervened. I preach peace and serenity, but I talk about a guy who overturned the tables in the temple when he saw that what the money changers were doing was wrong. When I see wrong, I get involved.”

He said he will have his day in court.

“I just question what might have happened if some of the young radicals of the community had come out and seen him,” Clark said. “By taking his signs, I might have saved his life.”

Hall, a Mahoningtown resident, sees it differently.

The retired Air Force master sergeant and former teacher said he is the victim of civil rights discrimination by New Castle’s black community.

Reading from a timeline of events, the 69-year-old said he had arrived at West Side School at 9:20 a.m. Election Day.

Twenty minutes later, he said, poll workers told him he had to be 100 yards from the polling place. He said he complied, moving along Washington Street to the end of the school zone and standing across the street from the school.

“I later learned that the law requires that I be 100 feet — not yards — from the polling place,” Hall said, “so I was never in violation.”

Once at his new location, he continued, a truck pulled from Lowry Street and drove right at him.

“A man jumped out, called me a racist, pushed me and said, ‘You are not coming into my neighborhood with these things.’

“I told him I had a Constitutional right to be there and I was not leaving,” Hall said. “He ripped the signs from my hands and drove off.

“I am not a racist and my signs were not radical, just political.”

He said officers responded to his 911 call and confirmed he was within his rights.

By 10:45 a.m., Hall said, Salem and the man, identified as Clark, were on the scene and returned the signs.

He does not recall any apology, he added.

Hall said he insisted that charges be filed and vowed to go to the Civil Rights Commission “if things do not go as they should.”

“The treatment I got was not justified,” he said. “I did nothing wrong. I’m a victim of reverse racism and I’m upset.”

Calling himself an activist, Hall said he has organized Defeat Obama rallies and displayed his signs in New Castle, Youngstown and Sharon — and had no problem except on the city’s West Side.

Like Clark, Hall believes New Castle has unresolved racial issues.

However, he noted, the black community does not have exclusive rights to America’s Civil Rights movement.

“I spent the 1960s in Mississippi, fighting for civil rights.”

Hall said the West Side School was the only place he had an incident. He said he and his signs were at other polling places in New Castle and in Union and Shenango townships — all without incident.

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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