An open community forum on hate crimes was held Monday night in Arroyo Grande in response to last month’s cross burning.
A panel of local politicians, law enforcement officials, members of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Arroyo Grande High School Gay-Straight Alliance and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) spoke about how to respond to hate crimes and how to prevent bias through education, before opening the forum up to questions and comments from the community.
The over-arching theme of the forum was the need to educate the community about diversity in order to prevent future hate crimes. Regional Director for the Santa Barbara/Tri-Counties ADL Cyndi Silverman said despite the harm caused by the cross burning, it could be viewed as a chance to break down bias.
“Hate crimes, they’re very impactful,” Silverman said at the forum. “They’re message crimes. They’re crimes that are to send a message, and they send a message to the victim and obviously they’ve sent a message to the community. This is an opportunity for us to come together and to learn about it.”
Silverman said ADL’s work with schoolchildren is a good starting point, and encouraged community members to work on educating themselves and their children about diversity.
“Bias-related thinking and speech are basically about ignorance,” Silverman said. “So what do we do when people are ignorant? We educate.”
That education includes having open discussions about race, said Adam Hill, chair of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, who spoke during the time allotted for open comments.
“It’s simple to say, but you know, in my experience it’s been extremely difficult to actually have candid, frank conversations about race with people because, you know, people are so cautious,” Hill said. “Don’t be cautious.”
Panelist and Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals shared with the forum an anecdote about a little girl who had been scared of his daughter in elementary school because of the difference in skin color. Shoals said the teacher turned the incident into a lesson on diversity for the class.
The panel also stressed the need for the community to come up with a response plan for future bias-motivated crimes. Civil rights expert Booker Neal, a member of the California State Conference of the NAACP, said at the forum that the hate crime response plan is similar to a city’s natural disaster plan in that it is not something often put into use, but something that is necessary.
“Each city has a disaster plan, but when was the last time you had a major disaster?” Neal said. “But you (still) have a plan.”
Community members shared their own ideas for preventing future hate crimes, which included increased diversity education in local schools, a public work of art that celebrates local diversity and an Arroyo Grande city resolution condemning intolerance.
St. John’s Lutheran Church of Arroyo Grande hosted the forum, partly because its cross was the one stolen for the cross burning. The pastor of St. John’s Lutheran, Randy Ouimette, said the forum was a good opportunity for the community to come together and heal after the incident.
“I think the forum was good because people have not had a single place to come to share their concerns, their cares, their values,” Ouimette said.
Community members lingered at the church after the open forum concluded to speak one-on-one with members of the panel.
Arroyo Grande resident Sarge Edwards, who attended the forum, said it was a useful tool for generating ideas. Edwards came away from the forum with the realization that there was no local institution for promoting diversity and fighting bias, but the conviction that a change can be made.
“There was a lot of good suggestions from the audience,” Edwards said “It just takes some people to organize it and get something going.”