The 19-year-old who sprayed bullets into the crowd at the Gilroy Garlic Festival referred to “hordes of mestizos” in a social media post hours before he slaughtered three and injured 13 other attendees. Less than a week later, a gunman at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, apparently targeted Mexican-Americans in his killing spree.
Though the Gilroy killer took his own life, the FBI is investigating the case as domestic terrorism. And in El Paso, the gunman could face charges for hate crimes.
Those and other ideologically motivated massacres have prompted Silicon Valley lawmakers to propose ways to combat gun violence and keep hate crimes in check.
On Wednesday, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez announced a plan to team up with San Jose and other local cities to “develop a clear set of recommendations to address hate crime and violence incited by hate speech.”
“We have known that hate crimes have been a national problem for a long time,” Chavez said at a press conference unveiling the initiative. “And at a national level there is very little political will and there’s really no coherent plan that focuses on evidence-based strategies to start to address these issues.”
Last year in this county alone, authorities referred 25 hate crimes for prosecution. Just two of those cases resulted in convictions.
To carry out her vision, Chavez wants to form a task force and figure out ways to use existing laws to protect women, queer, trans, non-white and other systemically disadvantaged people from hate crimes. She also wants to examine the pathology of hate crimes and recommend “investments in law enforcement intelligence to combat the illegal gun trade to monitor the proliferation of the hate speech.”
Her proposal would also include school-based programs to stem the tide of toxic cultural forces that breed hateful and extremist ideologies. Like, for example, the racism made manifest this week in the white supremacist posters taped up on the SJSU campus.
At the mid-week press conference, Chavez was joined by San Jose City Council members Maya Esparza, Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas who support the task force’s formation. Esparza lost her 6-year-old cousin, Stephen Romero, in the Gilroy shooting.
“I’m pro gun control, but we have a very real problem of hate speech inciting violence,” Esparza said in an interview. “There’s a clear link between racism and white nationalist propaganda and some of the violence we’ve seen in the community.”
“Communities of color feel attacked because they are under attack,” she added.
During the 2016 election, Arenas said her second grade son was told by a fellow classmate to go back to Mexico.
“This was the first time my son realized that others saw him differently and that he wasn’t considered American,” she recounted. “So I had to explain to my son what racism was and why people judge each other based on their skin.”
Carrasco said that Latino families in the past few years have become more fearful “to engage with their governments.”
“This intense hatred of immigrants, and specifically Latinos, are on the rise,” the District 5 councilwoman said. “And white nationalism and racism grouped with easy access to high capacity weapons, has created a dangerous mix that has resulted in the deaths of innocent men, women and children.”
Councilwoman Pam Foley—who’s established herself as a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights—didn’t attend Wednesday’s presser, but did sign the memo unveiled at the event.
The councilwomen asked that the county task force explore the impact of hate crimes on Latinos, the LGBTQ community and religious minorities. The city Office of Immigrant Affairs, county offices of Immigrant Relations and LGBTQ Affairs as well as local religious institutions would all be involved.
Chavez’s proposal is slated to come before the county Board of Supervisors on Sept. 10, and the San Jose councilwomen’s complementary initiative will be heard by the council’s agenda-setting committee on Aug. 28.
Councilman Sergio Jimenez, who was at the Gilroy festival when those shots fired, authored a similar plan a week earlier. The District 2 councilor said he, too, would like to form a hate crimes task force, but he’d first like to gather enough data to form some constructive analysis of hate crime in the South Bay.
Jimenez said he wants the San Jose Police Department to pull citywide statistics on hate crimes in the last five years and provide information on efforts to address them.
He said his idea for the proposal came about “organically” after the Gilroy shooting.
“I don’t know if other council offices have this, but we get racist emails,” Jimenez said in a recent interview with San Jose Inside. “We get emails discouraging to different cultures and all that is very present. We live in a bubble and often time we see the national headlines and we think that doesn’t happen here and I think the reality is those sentiments, that bigotry it’s amongst us.”
He said he imagines the task force would address safety concerns and “prevent acts of violence motivated by racism, white nationalist, xenophobia and hate.”
“This reminds me of the dialogue around equity,” he added. “I think the dialog around this has the potential to be explosive and not something that’s talked about in the open.”
Rev. Jeff Moore, the president of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP, expanded on that thought, saying he wants to see a cross-section of the community look at what types of programs are available to pull people away from hate groups.
When gang activity spikes in San Jose, the city responds with the gang task force, Moore noted. He said he wants to see a similarly concerted effort to curb hate crimes.
“I feel like we have the same threat for white nationalist and our county is not acting in a leadership role,” Moore said. “All the reports across the nation say that hate crime are a threat. Why aren’t we doing something about it?”
The policy ideas floated this week echo the spirit of what two victims of the Gilroy shooting told reporters soon after the attack.
When they first saw the gunman, 25-year-old Gabriella Gaus and her 23-year-old friend Brynn Ota-Matthews said they thought he looked like a “trained military professional.”
Days later, in the lobby of the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center off Moorpark Avenue in San Jose, the pair of survivors said it surprised them to learn that Santino William Legan was so young—just 19—yet so full of hate.
“So that’s a reminder to me,” Gaus reflected, “to check in on your friends if they’re getting into certain ideologies. Like, watch it. See where it goes. I think if someone just checked in on his mental health, this maybe could’ve been stopped.”