Anatomy of a Hate Campaign

updated 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Atire swing hangs from the limb of a jacaranda tree in the unkempt front yard of Louise and Clifford Ray's small frame house in Arcadia, Fla., east of Sarasota. On the other side of the screen door, which is unraveling near the handle, Louise, 29, sits in the un-airconditioned living room, talking on the phone. Her husband, Cliff, 29, is parked in front of the TV with their four children, watching cartoons. Every time he hears a car go by on New Jersey Street, Cliff lifts the curtain and looks out. His baseball cap is embellished with the Confederate flag and the words, "Dixie: The Closest Thing to Heaven."

An air of weariness hangs over the Ray household, and it isn't simply a product of the late summer heat. It is Friday afternoon, and the Ray children have just completed a very trying first week of school. The three boys, Ricky, 10, Robby, 9, and Randy, 8, are hemophiliacs who were discovered in 1986 to be carrying the AIDS virus. Last year they studied at home with tutors provided by the county. But Louise and Cliff decided the boys would be better off in school and in June filed suit to overturn a school board decision to bar the children from regular classes. Since a judge ruled in their favor on Aug. 5, the Rays, their sons and their daughter, Candy, 6, have become the targets of a nasty, often hysterical campaign that has torn up this tiny citrus community of fewer than 7,000 people.

On Friday, Aug. 21, an ad hoc group called Citizens Against AIDS in Schools had called a rally at the rodeo stables to announce a boycott of the Arcadia schools. The next morning, Aug. 22, the Ray family received four threatening phone calls, one caller warning the family that their house would be burned down. Monday, the first day of school, "was hectic," says Louise, "because there was so much media." Then on Tuesday, Aug. 25, there were bomb threats at the DeSoto County Board of Education. On Wednesday, Aug. 26, the threats were made directly to Memorial Elementary School, where the Ray children are enrolled. But Thursday and today, Aug. 28, have been calm. The boycott seems to be lifting. The Rays are beginning to believe that their struggle to give their children a semblance of a normal childhood is nearly over—that soon they will be able to resume a normal family routine.

"The phones start ringing at 6 and don't stop all day," says Louise, finally hanging up. "I'll be glad when we're old news," adds Cliff, "and nobody cares about us anymore."

On this night, however, the house is gutted by fire, and the Rays are back on the front page. Louise, Cliff and the kids are off visiting relatives when the fire breaks out, but Cliff's brother, Andy, is asleep in the house and must be treated for smoke inhalation. Calling the fire "suspicious," Sheriff Joe Varnadore says he is not ruling out anything: "We're looking at arson. We're looking at accidental."

News reports note a coincidence as well: It was just this afternoon that Danny Tew, 35, president of the citizens' group, held a press conference and for the first time singled out the Ray family by name. Within three hours their house is a smouldering ruin, and the embattled family, which has lived in Arcadia for 16 years, vows never to return. If the citizens' group did not actually set the fire that sent the Rays' life up in smoke, it certainly fanned the embers of hate in the people who did.

From Danny Tew's point of view, the press conference was a great success. Several of the national media were in attendance as he announced the end of the school boycott, which he said had succeeded in "gaining national attention and community support." He told reporters his group would now move on to its next project: a petition campaign to get the Florida legislature to pass a law requiring mandatory testing of students for the AIDS antibody and public access to the test results. Then, steamed up by the media attention, the beauty supply salesman seized the moment to challenge the U.S. Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, to a debate. "We're saying the Surgeon General is wrong about AIDS," he declares.

But today, the day after the fire, Danny is irked to discover that newspapers have given his press conference short shrift. "They jumped right over the news conference and went straight to the fire," he grouses. "But we're not slowing down, we're not deviating from what we're doing."

Tew, for one, shows no remorse and takes no responsibility for what happened to the Rays. The family brought their troubles down on themselves, he maintains, by telling the school board about their sons' plight and then by filing suit and courting the public spotlight. "Big attention like this brings out the worst in people," says Danny, who just moments earlier was upset because the media had shifted their focus from him to the fire.

Another member of Danny's group speaks up for starting a clothing drive for the Rays. "It will boost our credibility and our image," he explains.

Curiously, almost none of the group's most active members have children attending school with the Ray children. Danny Tew's three kids, roughly the same age as the Rays', live in a different district. Bob Werner, a disabled ex-prison guard who serves as the group's "information officer," has older sons. And Melody Patton, vice-president of the organization, lives four miles south of Arcadia in a town called Nocatee, where her two daughters go to school.

Nevertheless, these people have been meeting almost nightly in the back of the Total Elegance beauty parlor, which is owned and operated by Danny's wife, Janet, 34. It is here, in a messy storeroom, amid mismatched tables and chairs, that the concerned citizens have given themselves a crash course on AIDS, reading news stories, letters to the editor, pamphlets and just about anything that comes to hand about the disease.

Unfortunately, the group's growing notoriety makes it a magnet for zealots and cranks. Tonight, for example, two salesmen from nearby Fort Myers lounge in the hairdressers' chairs waiting to pitch their industrial-strength "skin shield" to worried parents, who can lather it on their school-bound kids. "We are now the focal point for people with information about AIDS they want to get out," says Tew.

And misinformation. Like many instant experts, the Arcadia group nurses conspiracy theories and tends to favor information at odds with the prevailing scientific and medical wisdom. The group has convinced itself, for example, that a national cabal is withholding the truth about AIDS from the public. Danny Tew, hoping his efforts might lead to the "birth of something nationwide," says it's time for an organization on "this side of the fence." Asked who is on the other side, he mentions the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Association and the ACLU, as well as gay-rights activists. All these groups are in collusion, he suspects, to underplay the link between homosexuality and this latter-day plague. "Newsweek's cover story [which pictured the faces of one year's casualties] made it look like there were all these grandmothers and women with AIDS," says Melody Patton, "but you opened it and you could tell they were all queers."

Mostly, though, the citizens' group questions the CDC's, the AMA's and everybody else's line on casual contact. Melody is convinced that anyone coming in contact with the Ray boys is at risk. "In ten years, when the kids come down with it," she says, "they won't be able to sue the Rays, because they won't be able to prove where they got the AIDS."

Danny, clearly uninformed, is convinced that AIDS can be transmitted by head lice and pubic lice. "There is a disease called equine infectious anemia or Coggins Disease," he says. "When horses get it, you shoot 'um. Horses can't cross state lines without certificates that they don't have Coggins. Coggins and AIDS are the same virus," he says, quoting from one of the many crackpot pamphlets that have been pouring into the beauty parlor. "That's a scary idea, one that would panic the public. But which is worse, panic or annihilation?"

Tew pauses. Then, miming the voice of reason, he says, "All we want is someone to come forward and show us we're not right."

"This town is suffering a crisis of faith and a crisis of confidence," says the Rev. Ted Land, 40, of the First Presbyterian Church on West Hickory Street in downtown Arcadia. "The disease known as AIDS taps a great reservoir of fear. Many of the people in our community have responded out of fear, out of a fear for the safety of their own children. If the Rays are being publicly denounced, it is because the parents feel their own children are being endangered."

Land, who is wearing a sport coat and tie this hot summer day, insists that Arcadia—which elected one of Florida's first black mayors—is "a very caring community." He points out that the town has set up a number of projects to help the migrant workers who come to pick the citrus fruit. But when asked whether his church will offer any special assistance to the Rays, he says, "We will provide them with the same kind of financial and material aid we would give any family that's been burned out. They are just another family in this community that's lost their home to fire. Home fires are common in a rural area like this."

As for the future, Land says, "The most dangerous thing facing us now is unreasoning fear. Many involved in this are well-read. They have read material from the AMA and the judge's decision. They know the facts. They know the AIDS virus can live for seven days outside the body...."

Here, alas, the minister is quoting one of the many discredited tidbits from Danny Tew's arsenal; in fact, even under the most optimal conditions, the virus lives no more than seven hours, and often more like 15 seconds. That Land repeats such a "fact," culled by the concerned citizens from spurious sources, indicates the extent to which the group has influenced the mental life of the community.

It's late Saturday afternoon. On New Jersey Street the charred frame of the Rays' home is surrounded by a yellow tape that says, "Fire Scene Do Not Cross," and the untidy front yard is now piled with mounds of debris. Motorists drive past slowly and gawk.

Meanwhile, over at RB's Foodway, Danny Tew's petition drive is doing a land-office business, with Dawn Scarberry, 16, a student at the high school, collecting 106 signatures between the hours of 1:30 and 4:15 p.m. Dawn does not mention the fire. But to the people who stop by the table she purveys her belief that you can get AIDS "from drinking after someone and from sweat if you've been sweating and rub against someone."

Even the Ray boys know that's not true. "Kids can touch us and stuff," one of them plaintively explained to a reporter before the family went into seclusion the weekend of the fire. Now, as rumor and misinformation continue to flow unabated in Arcadia, one can only imagine what emotional scars will be left on these four children who have seen their entire lives swept away by unreasoning fear and paranoia. "The first thing Randy asked me [after the fire] is 'Where's Mr. Monkey?' says Cliff Ray, referring to his son's favorite toy. "I said, 'Mr. Monkey is gone.' " But who can tell him why?

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