Rebeca Armendariz reflects back on the intimidation she’s endured during decades living in Gilroy: being surrounded as a 14-year-old by John Birch Society militia members after a protest, fielding hate mail sent to her home while running for elected office and discovering loosened lug nuts on her family’s truck.
When she was the lone councilmember to speak up in September against a time capsule’s lack of diversity on the occasion of Gilroy’s 150th anniversary, she faced calls to resign and interruptions.
Events she once viewed as an alarming wave of incivility have now become a swell of hostility, which the lifelong activist isn’t entirely sure the community will ride out.
“Before President Trump, there was a level of decorum we could expect from our leaders. There was a level of impartiality, and it's gone,” Armendariz says. “There is an element of shamelessness, to be honest, that folks are exhibiting that I've never seen before. Trump removed the shame from being a bigot, and so we're seeing that spill over into our city halls.”
Those conflicts may be most clear in Los Gatos’ Town Council chambers, which has seen several meetings plunged into chaos by maskless attendees, shouting matches and 20-year resident Cyndi Sheehan making threatening, personal attacks against Mayor Marico Sayoc’s family—promptly followed by her livid husband storming the meeting prior to police intervention.
The root of the vitriol was crystal clear: replace the town’s “identity politics”—including gender-neutral language and rainbow-trimmed crosswalks, which opponents say are “targeting conservative families and dividing the community”—with strengthened efforts to boost community projects, vocational training and Republican-friendly forums.
Sayoc politely declined an interview, as her family was “still healing from Tuesday, and it’s still too raw to discuss.”
Hotbed of Hate
The way Americans communicate and perceive each other—often at first glance—has noticeably changed since the election of former President Donald Trump.
But while conflict between neighbors, law enforcement and elected leaders continuously swelled throughout the pandemic and murder of George Floyd, the collective psyches of towns, cities and social media feeds were fractured after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Local government meetings have transformed from evenings of dull, multi-page presentations laced with bureaucratese to drama-packed nights of unhinged hostility, where both red MAGA hats and rainbows in support of the LGBTQ community alike stoke anger before any dialogue can begin.
Policy makers are berated by subscribers to alt-right conspiracies, often revolving around fears that people’s liberties will be squashed by the so-called “New World Order" promoted by a global elite.
Political scientists, activists, politicians and residents agree these belief systems are often commingled with legitimate worries about kids, communities, freedoms and belonging—emotions often magnified when involving complex, confusing issues, such as public health mandates. Likewise, public trust is damaged when vaccine advocates use scientific, technical language that ignores emotion-driven concerns.
This behavior is increasingly taking over headlines locally and across the country. Dozens of anti-vaccine protesters temporarily shut down a San Jose City Council meeting in August, forcing City Hall to evacuate before councilors approved vaccine requirements for events at city-owned facilities—including the SAP Center and San Jose Museum of Art.
Society has reached a point where an unnerving proportion of the population thinks everyone is lying, all experts are frauds and different viewpoints are violent attacks on other ways of life—all while the internet’s global stage raises the stakes for everyone involved.
While the Bay Area’s diversity feeds its reputation for tolerance, the South Bay has a deep history as a hotbed of white supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups.
In 2016, San Jose native Nathan Damigo founded Identity Evropa, which advocated for a white ethno-state. Damigo was a key organizer of the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia rally in which one person died and President Trump infamously referred to “very fine people on both sides.”
A teacher at San Jose’s Valley Christian High School was suspended in 2019 for connections to the organization.
Alan Viarengo, a Gilroy resident tied to the far-right Boogaloo Movement, was arrested in August 2020 after sending dozens of threatening letters to Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody, which mirrored similar letters addressed to the Armendariz family.
When former Gilroy Mayor Carmen Patane died in 2014, his family, which includes his daughter, current Mayor Marie Blankley, requested donations to the John Birch Society in lieu of flowers.
Attacking Rabid Dogs
Now as 2021 nears its end, public commenters like those in Los Gatos, Gilroy and San Jose have escalated their First Amendment rights dangerously close to hate speech—targeting in their comments groups based on gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.
“What else is new these days? It’s very worrisome to me,” says Wiggsy Sivertsen, a longtime LGBTQ activist and Los Gatos resident. Coming from someone who faced threats while fighting for gay rights in Santa Clara County during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, she often thinks about how people “need to pay attention to that kind of cult behavior, because that's really what we've been dealing with here.”
Sivertsen says that Trump gave people permission to vocalize the anger, hostility, frustration and resentment that festered online and in meetings in recent years. However, she sees one major similarity in the conflicts: a lack of taking time to listen and understanding others’ perspectives.
“I think Trump has really deteriorated the sense of civic responsibility—he has made enemies of everybody,” she says. “We’re not able to govern that way.”
In order to return to a system that crafts policies and decisions to make quality of life better, Sivertsen says people should take time to recognize politicians as people beyond official titles, be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations and call out fallacies during disagreements—a perspective shaped by years as a professor at San Jose State University.
“I think the problem is that the people that get really pissed off about these issues don't think about them in a political sense,” Sivertsen says. “It comes from a very deep personal feeling on their part, that they don't probably understand. I believe we have a responsibility in our society to help people come to an understanding of why things are a certain way, and not just attack them as if they were rabid dogs.”
Everyone is Losing
Étienne Brown, an assistant professor of philosophy who teaches technology ethics—focusing on regulation of speech on social media—at San Jose State, says that in a world where anyone can make a viral tweet, TikTok and Rumble video, the need to always “save face” has thrown a wrench in how humans communicate. Provocative, anonymous users throw in two wrenches.
“Instead of trying to understand each other, we desperately try to make it look like we have won the argument,” Brown says. “From the point of view of public discourse, however, everyone is losing.”
Success may trickle in from understanding complex reasons why people fall into extreme beliefs. Dozens of whistleblowers have tried to shed light on this epidemic—as recently as Frances Haugen’s congressional testimony and 60 Minutes appearance earlier this month—explaining how social media tech companies’ algorithms and policies stoke hostile behavior in exchange for more engagement. In a nutshell: anger drives clicks, and clicks create profits.
On the flip side, political advertisers, news publishers and social media managers have also noticed that divisive and hostile messages spread more widely.
“The rhetoric of free speech directly serves Facebook interests,” he says. “In my view, this is a very convenient way of defending the lucrative status quo.”
That’s why philosophers like Brown, tech workers and politicians want government entities like Congress to address these antagonistic behaviors through expanded oversight or legal courts, hopefully controlling amplification of aggressive behavior, even before it turns into hate speech.
If this doesn’t happen, Brown argues that feedback loops and echo chambers of misinformation, affirmation and networking on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will continue to “poison the well of public discourse,” due to what philosophers call “epistemic discrediting,” which leads people to not listen to others based on assumptions they are ignorant or ill-intentioned.
That’s why he thinks, despite differences, communities should try to rejoin in shared fundamental values in order to “embark on a collective journey of self-government.”
“Democracy is more fragile than people think. We need to believe in it for it to function well,” Brown says. “If it dies in our minds, it will die in the real world too.”
Back down on the front lines facing these conflicts, Armendariz says one common denominator drives her to respectfully uphold her responsibilities within local government: democracy.
“Everyone has a right and has a forum at our decision making bodies to participate,” Armendariz says. “Even if I think the exact opposite of what they do or what they think hurts my feelings, they still have a right to participate and share their voice. We have to live and work and be together, so for me, that's the starting point.”