Hate Crime or Vandalism? A California Village Struggles for the Right Answer

A cross burning and racially charged act of vandalism challenge Oprah Winfrey's characterization of the area around Arroyo Grande as "the happiest place in America."

Pismo Beach, near Arroyo Grande

In late January, Oprah Winfrey gushed about San Luis Obispo, which is on the central-California coast. The billionaire television host called the city "the happiest place in America" during a show broadcast from the historic mission town halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Since then the nearby village of Arroyo Grande has basked in the glow of Oprah's endorsement of San Luis Obispo. Just south of what locals call SLO and the sweeping arc of Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County, the charming village of 17,000 souls bills itself as "the gem of the central coast of California." It boasts a number of rich and famous residents, including Lou Ferrigno -- "the Hulk" in the 1970s television series -- and actor Zac Efron.

But on Monday, just months after Oprah's salute, the 150-year-old Arroyo Grande has a meeting scheduled to discuss hate crimes after two racially charged incidents challenged its self-image as a center of liberalism and racial tolerance. Both events occurred within a three-week period.

On March 18, an 11-foot, 100-pound wooden cross was burned a stone's throw from the bedroom of a mixed-race teen living with her Latina mother. The cross, which was once used in a production of Jesus Christ, Superstar, had been stolen from the village's St. John's Lutheran Church. Then, overnight on April 4, vandals broke into Mesa Middle School in a rural area of Arroyo Grande and wrote anti-black profanities and swastikas on whiteboards in four classrooms.

Arroyo Grande is no hotbed of diversity. The population is 88 percent white, 11 percent Latino and less than 1 percent African American, according to 2009 U.S. census estimates.

Within days of the cross burning, there was sharp disagreement about the seriousness of the crime. Several journalists said that police and city officials, including Mayor Tony Ferrara, initially described the cross burning as a "prank" and were hesitant to declare it a hate crime. Ferraro, in an interview two weeks ago, said that a lack of communication had led to accusations that village officials were playing down the incident. He said that officials had put together a task force that included the FBI and the county district attorney, and treated the incident as a hate crime from the beginning.

"This is a closely knit community. We were all affected by this crime, so we're going to get it right," he said of police efforts to bring the culprits to justice. The same day, John Hough, co-commander of Arroyo Grande's 26-member police force, predicted that "we'll soon have a break in this case." So far, none has been announced.

In discussing the Mesa Middle School incident, Rob Bryn, a spokesman for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Department, which patrols rural Arroyo Grande, said that he did not believe the crimes were connected, although they were committed 11 miles apart -- a stone's throw, by California standards. "This is clearly juvenile in nature," Bryn opined, and pointed to "good solvability factors based on physical evidence" that he said will eventually lead to arrests. Yet Byrn also said that he doubts "that the perpetrators are junior high school students."   

To avoid the kinds of criticism that have dogged Ferrara and Arroyo Grande's police chief, Bryn said, "Sheriff Ian Parkinson personally went to the crime scene, and two commanders helped process it. In light of the cross burning, we don't want anyone to say we're trying to cover this up."

Bryn said that he doesn't "see racial tension in Arroyo Grande" or its neighboring communities. "In my contacts with the black community, I don't see racial tension as an issue," he said." Bryn conceded that "there might be some racism here," but he is sure that "it doesn't rise to this level."