Racist social media posts, graffiti in public parks and on walls, and taunts, threats and, in one case, assault, have given rise to anxiety among some Ventura County residents who are questioning whether or not this is the “new normal.”
In February, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office released information and requested the public’s help in finding the parties responsible for leaving swastika graffiti and anti-Semitic and derogatory messages at several residences in Oak Park, an unincorporated area of Ventura County. Video surveillance captures four individuals carrying out the tasks.
In December, a man was arrested after he confronted and allegedly stabbed a worshipper leaving a mosque in Simi Valley. Police say that John Matteson, 29, was racially motivated as he allegedly delivered verbal assaults before allegedly physically assaulting the man. Matteson was arrested and charged with hate crimes.
In Newbury Park, officials found swastikas and other graffiti at Dos Vientos Community Park in early February. Two swastikas were found painted on the side wall of a baseball field, and one on the concrete; and in Ventura, swastikas can be seen along barriers running parallel to the train tracks, though when they were put there is uncertain.
This comes at a time when reported hate crimes and threats seem to be on the rise nationwide.
According to the FBI, hate crimes are the “highest priority” of the agency’s civil rights program. Prior to 2009, the agency investigated hate crimes based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion or national origin. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was adopted, expanding the crimes to include actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or gender.
In late February and on March 7, Jewish community centers and temples across the country were evacuated after receiving threats, which police say seemed coordinated; two Indian nationals were allegedly shot, and one killed, in Kansas by a man who allegedly yelled, “Get out of my country”; in Florida, two homosexual men were assaulted by derogatory remarks ofa man on a scooter; and late last week, a Sikh man living in Washington state was shot, the suspect allegedly shouting, “Go back to your own country.”
According to the Ventura Police Department, there were five reported cases of hate crimes in 2016. Hate crimes are counted by the number of people affected. In other words, if three individuals were the victims of one hate crime, each individual would be counted as the victim of an individual hate crime. In January 2017, the Ventura Police Department says that there was one reported case.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, which serves several cities and the unincorporated areas of the county, reported four hate crimes to the Department of Justice for 2016 and none thus far in 2017, adding that the incidents in Oak Park “did not meet the criteria for hate-crime reporting.” Two of the 2016 incidents involved inmate-on-inmate crimes. One involved a Latino Camarillo victim threatened with violence due to his race. The suspect was charged with making criminal threats, but the case was rejected by the District Attorney. Another involved a group of juveniles taunting a Newbury Park woman based on her religion. The group drew “hate symbols” on the sidewalk in front of her home, but the suspects were not identified.
The 2016 numbers from the Sherriff’s Office jurisdiction are the lowest for the county since 2010, when six were reported. In 2011 and 2012, 13 and 10 hate, respectively, crimes were reported.
In Oxnard, a total of six hate crimes were reported in 2016: three criminal threats; one brandishing a weapon, two acts of vandalism. There have been no reported hate crimes thus far in 2017 within the city, though statistics from the FBI are yet to be finalized.
The numbers show that hate crimes in Ventura County have not significantly increased, and in some cities, have decreased, but some communities are feeling anxious over what they say are certain segments of the population emboldened by recent events, namely, the election of President Donald Trump.
Cheri DeKofsky, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Ventura County, says that while none of the bomb threats that plagued the country in the last few weeks has been reported locally, she says that the anxiety it produces is palpable. The Federation is a member of the FBI’s InfraGard program, a public-private partnership that shares information with local communities regarding hate crimes and other information involving individual communities.
“There’s always that element in society; it’s just, since the election part of that element has been empowered,” said DeKofsky. “It’s always there in certain groups; you don’t have to scratch the surface even, but now they feel like they can do anything and say anything.”
Since the Museum of Tolerance opened in Los Angeles in 1994, the Jewish Federation has funded visits for Ventura County middle schools. DeKofsky says that the Federation has sent over 85,000 students to tour the museum, and credits the activity for creating a more tolerant society, at least within Ventura County.
DeKofsky says that though the Federation deals with anti-Semitism regularly – and, though she cannot say why, there appears to be an uptick around Christmas and Easter –speaking out against hate speech is the only way to combat it.
“We know what it’s like when people keep silent,” said DeKofsky.