Social Fabric of Santa Clara County Communities Unravels Online and at Meetings

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.”

22 Comments

  1. This article is a complete crock of Leftist intellectual self-abuse. It wanders through a fairy-tale of false equivalencies. I note that the author failed to even mention the violence and carnage done by BLM and ANTIFA — a curious oversight?

    In short, expressing ones opinion in a Los Gatos public meeting, which is the purpose of the meeting, is the same as the mayor’s husband threatening and assaulting people in the Lobby?

    And, the mayor is just too wounded to be able to speak about it. Give me a break.

    The simple truth is the the majority of the country is actually fairly conservative, but the Leftist have control of the media, academia, and, at least in CA, the government levers of power and they are pushing their agendas. The conservatives have finally had enough and are pushing back.

  2. Cant believe I subjected myself to reading this hot garbage. WOW and we wonder why our country is unraveling….

  3. Maybe Parents are waking up and taking action after seeing the ‘indoctrination of hate’ that is being pushed through ‘woke’ equity & inclusion programs by racists?

    —–School Equity Leader out after Racist & Vulgar TikTok videos spread (Oct 11, 2021)—-
    A local school district’s equity team leader is no longer in her role after parents discovered her racist and vulgar TikTok videos.
    But the school has known about her conduct for months.

    Alicia Busch routinely attacks and mocks white people on social media…
    Alicia Busch…threatens people with physical violence in some videos, she also says,
    “there is no safe place for BIPOC to exist when whiteness is present.”
    She also claims that the “American dream is white supremacy.”

    Busch was active on the Equity Team for the Tahoma School District.
    But her rage-ful posts suggest she should be nowhere near children or in any position of power on equity.

  4. TRI, I stopped reading when they pulled the “Trump card’ … TDS is still alive and going strong amongst the fragile victim class…
    Sad, so Very Sad….

  5. “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.”

    To blame this on Trump or conservatives is just lazy. Why? Because Armendariz and others do not even realize how divisive their language has been in the name of “equality.” It wasn’t Trump – it was the events and discussions that transpired during the pandemic, particularly after the George Floyd murder. That is when the Left started demonizing everyone with a badge and who is a particular color, then they get confused why their blatant racism (the Left) has people angry. It is just unbelievable that folks on the Left take no accountability, and just continue to point fingers. This article continues to avoid the real discussions, and scapegoat everything else besides the people talking for their issues. Gilroy is diverse – and Santa Clara County generally is very diverse – and ALL people, regardless of their color/background, have the ability to hate and be divisive – it is not specific to one group, and that fact has been reinforced over and over again the last 16-months.

    Take some accountability and stop pointing fingers. The Bay Area is just infected, not with COVID, but with fear and a self-induced victim mentality.

  6. It just amazes me how the left paints themselves as blameless in any downward spiral of civil discourse. Barack Obama was in office about 2 wks before castigating the white Boston cop who was investigating a call re: a break in and the homeowner happened to be black and wasn’t breaking in. Instead of waiting for all the facts to come out, our newly elected president said it sure looked like racism to him,. Uh oh, the cop was the leader of the equality board for the Boston cops. It went downhill from that moment with Obama because like the 70% of white people who voted for him, I actually thought he would unite and bring our country together when time after time, he inflamed the fires of racism so that by the time he left office, the country was ripe to elect a Trump. Nothing has changed with the left, they give no quarter and now their battle cry is bigot, Trumpster, transphobic, always with the name calling. This country has never been more divided but make NO mistake, it was started by the left and continues to be encouraged by the identity politics of the democrat party. The latest assault comes from Joe Biden’s AG calling angry parents “domestic terrorists.” That’s real helpful. Let’s go Brandon!!!

  7. the same way some way a group gets triggered by some use pronouns, another gets triggered by the use of colors. why is a rainbow ok when a patriot hat is not? why accept BLM slogans ant not Christians ones. Every side things that their values are the ones to embrace, when all they should do is respect the other as they want to be respected.

  8. The day the left stops using the terms White and Male or stops bringing their sexual preference in every ones face, then maybe they can start claiming they are not just a bunch of activists, with deep mental issues.

  9. Biden promised to unite the country and it looks like he is doing it.

    —Joe Biden Invites Brandon To The White House To Congratulate Him For His Success—8Oct(Bee)

    “President Biden has invited national hero “Brandon” to the White House to congratulate him on his smashing success at football games, NASCAR races, and even gatherings of New York City educators.”

    “Wow, this Brandon must be quite a fella!” said Biden after listening to another raucous chant.
    “For him to get crowds from All Across this Divided Country to All be United Together with such passion?
    I just can’t believe that many people could all feel so strongly about one single man!
    We need a lot more Brandons in our country, I’ll tell you that right now!
    Let’s go, Brandon!” shouted Biden.

    Biden asked Congress to join in the enthusiasm..pleading,
    “…team America is cheering for Brandon.
    Are you with these great crowds of people or not?”

    Senator Klobuchar wept in the corner, wondering how she got smoked in a primary by this guy.

  10. Phu Tan Elli, I’ve been having similar issues with SJI –
    – several times articles will have another name and email left in the reply section
    – a couple times a simple post will not be accepted (haven’t figured out the key word or phase)
    – recently the captcha is going on half a dozen times or more
    – and on this article I have a ghost version that pops up with my first comment that I left at 8am with only 1 comment

    I had to try another browser… So maybe my system cache – even though I cleared the cookies.
    And something at SJI is glitchy…

  11. BTW, during the last election, we asked the voters of California whether public positions should be filled by the most qualified candidate or should race be taken into consideration. The voters wanted the most qualified candidates to filled these positions, not color, not race…what happened to our democracy? The majority have spoken, in the name of democracy, let’s not forget the voters have spoken! Race or color should not be the basis to select a candidate for for any public position.
    There is no place for people with mental health illness in jail, but what about those who commit crimes? Look on NextDoor, how many messages are there about people’s catalytic converters are being stolen from their cars. What’s happened to our communities? Companies are struggling to fill positions, why can’t people pick up a job instead of stealing/robbing others?
    Our country and states are going in the wrong direction.
    Trump doesn’t fit to be our president, but race and color shouldn’t be the tickets to destroy communities.

  12. The main problem with Ms. Lauer’s article is that it really doesn’t tell us anything about what or why people are so pissed off. It focuses on the rage but what are people yelling about and why? Lauer could have simply found one or more of those yelling at public meetings and asked them about their grievances so that these could be discussed openly and honestly. At least we would have something concrete to discuss rather than all the amorphous allusions and the flimsy and childish “culture war” tiffs.

    The libertarian comment bots’ agenda, on the other hand, is quite clear. Direct attacks on an alleged “Left,” by which they mean identitarian liberals pushing their divisive “equity agenda.” Create straw men figures and arguments that have little to do with any reality. But don’t be confused about their end game. As in the case of the “Tea Party” movement that emerged in 2007-2009, well before the Trump phenomenon, and Nixon’s Southern strategy in the !960s-1970s, the smoke is always about culture wars and race, but the fire is always about economic and fiscal matters: delegitimize government and the public sector with respect to regulation, taxation and the social safety net while pushing the primacy of private property and corporate prerogatives. The boogie monster used to instill fear is the tyrannical state out to take away your freedoms; the bottom line is the tax bill of wealthy households and corporations.

    The “danger” in 2009 was the possibility of significant government spending to bail people out of the fraudulent mortgages they had been sold and the pending health care reform (Obamacare). The Tea Party then, organized and funded by wealthy donors and interests–including the Koch brothers and health insurance corporations–created an astroturfed backlash against bailouts and health insurance reform (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_Party_movement). This time around, the aim is to undercut the possibility of the Biden “Build Back Better” plan. That is the writing between the lines and the subtext for all this noise (https://theintercept.com/2021/10/15/conservative-dark-money-ads-biden-build-back-better/).

  13. why wouldn’t these people be pissed?

    they live in a totalitarianistic nightmare

    its funny that people are still obsessed with Trump though, if anyone hasn’t noticed, things are getting worse with the great “uniter”

  14. Is SJI ever going to report on what the mayor’s husband actually did? Or are you just going to continue blabbing about “feelings.”

  15. Ahh, Econoclast/Facpedo Guaio with their fantasy that anybody who has a different point of view is a Bot.

    Wikipedia’s view of anything depends entirely on who last offers an edit on the topic at hand. Nice try.

    And, The Intercept. A left wing media outlet most famous for refusing to run a story on Biden family corruption unless the ‘icky bits’ outlining our Pedophile hero’s(Hunter to the Biden fellating types) disgusting and criminal behavior that is allowed by a member of the protected class.

  16. So a grown woman outs a teen boy at a city council meeting, SJI writes an article on how we need to try to understand each other better, and conservatives flock to the comments section to defend the woman and cast SJI as leftist propaganda.

    I think we are past the point of understanding each other. The LG demonstrators who have for months attacked the council as communist organ-harvesters deserve to be put in mental institutions – and so do some of the people in these comments who think that putting a rainbow on a crosswalk is somehow equivalent with totalitarianism.

    The LG council was elected, and anti-LGBTQ conservatives, no matter how mad they are, don’t get to force their views on the rest of us. If you don’t like it – MOVE.

  17. Wow, aren’t we a little hypocritical?

    ‘……SJI writes an article on how we need to try to understand each other better……’

    ‘I think we are past the point of understanding each other.’
    We have elected officials that are being challenged by those the purportedly serve. SJI doesn’t like that because the readers of this blog don’t buy raise revenue. How many guest articles by shady businesses appreciate featured here? How many opinions by regular citizens without ties to large special interest money?

    ‘LG demonstrators…. Deserve to be put in mental institutions-and so do some of the people in the comments…..’

    Classic case of pot calling kettle black.

    Of course, I’m just a bot………

  18. Writers like Katie are genuinely brainwashed and that is what’s so scary, they had never experienced what it’s like living in a totalitarian state. “Reverse discrimination against the majority in the interests of minorities” is so true.

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