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

Pismo Beach, near Arroyo Grande
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."

Two white Arroyo Grande leaders — the Rev. Eugenia Gamble, senior minister of Nipomo Presbyterian Church, and Adam Hill, who chairs the five-member San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors  — told The Root that they disagree with Byrn's assessment of race relations. "Many whites can't or won't face reality," said Gamble. "They say, 'This can't be happening here. It will go away; there must be some mistake.' "


Gamble, who was reared in Alabama in the 1960s, is "appalled by this denial. I'm not naive enough to think that there is no racism here. If I were, the mushrooming of these kinds of things since the election of President Obama would have disabused me of that notion long ago," she said.

In his analysis, Hill, the first Democrat elected to the board of supervisors in nearly 20 years, said, "There's a lot of unresolved, long-held racial anxiety among whites." He targeted the "angry, hostile political rhetoric against President Obama as much as anything else" as a possible explanation for both hate crimes.


He hopes that these and other critical, but mostly ignored, racially based factors will be discussed in the community forum scheduled for Monday at St. John's Lutheran Church — "especially the undertones that wouldn't exist if we didn't have a black president. It's easy for us to condemn open, obviously repugnant acts, but not the more subtle kinds of racism and discrimination," he observed.

The Monday-night forum will be co-hosted by the NAACP's Santa Maria-Lompoc branch and the area-wide chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. A representative from the U.S. Department of Justice is expected to attend, as is John Shoals, the first African-American mayor of Grover Beach, another popular California-coast haunt within hailing distance of Arroyo Grande. Shoals did not return a call for comment for this article.  


Gamble is contemplating "a big workshop for youth on prejudice reduction so people can see the little ways in which prejudice creeps into your heart." She also poses these questions: "We have a lot of Hispanics here, not African Americans, so my issue is, what is the next step? How do you teach tolerance, the beauty of living in a colorful society, where everybody and all the gifts they bring to the table are cherished for being just who they are?"

F. Finley McRae is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.