Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged us all to have a dream.
While he didn’t get to see the fruits of his sacrifice, there’s no doubt that America today is a very different place, more than 50 years after Dr. King stood on the National Mall and challenged us to embrace each other.
Yet despite our collective progress, we still have a long way to go.
Today’s holiday offers every community a chance to take stock.
In Orange County, that means confronting a stark rise in hate incidents and hate crimes.
A countywide report on hate incidents and crimes across Orange County – based on data compiled by the OC Human Relations Commission over the past decade – shows hate incidents have gone up by more than 100 percent since 2008, while hate crimes are up by nearly 50 percent.
Just this past week, Sheriff Don Barnes and District Attorney officials made a public presentation to Orange County supervisors with deeply troubling statistics indicating a one-year spike of nearly 40 percent in hate incidents and more than 10 percent in hate crimes from 2017 to 2018, the most recent years of data.
“That’s a significant increase,” said Barnes, who came at the request of county Supervisor Michelle Steel to the public meeting Tuesday to talk about the spike in hate incidents and crimes. He noted countywide efforts by the Sheriff’s Department to train places of worship on how to better protect themselves against violence.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who has made hate crime prosecution a priority since he was elected in 2018, has been ringing alarm bells on the issue since his election campaign, where he criticized former DA Tony Rackauckas as having a lax record on prosecuting hate crimes.
“Orange County has never been more prepared to effectively prosecute hate crimes,” Spitzer said in a statement to me last week.
“I committed to Orange County residents that I will not tolerate hate. We are educating Orange County law enforcement on how to effectively identify hate crimes, we are educating residents on how to be good witnesses, and we are reminding judges that hate crimes are serious crimes – and that anyone who commits a crime out of hate will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
“There is no room for hate in Orange County,” Spitzer said.
Deputy DA Christopher Duff, who oversees hate crime prosecutions in Spitzer’s office, painted an ugly picture of what’s happening on the streets of Orange County during last week’s presentation to county supervisors.
Duff noted that just days earlier, a man was sentenced to six years in state prison for an unprovoked attack on African American man working at a Laguna Beach grocery store.
He also detailed the case of a 2018 attack on a pregnant, African American woman waiting at a Fullerton bus stop, whom prosecutors said was targeted because of the color of her skin. The defendant, who later pled guilty to a hate crime, had multiple swastika and white supremacist tattoos and threatened to “drop” the victim’s baby.
So what did county supervisors say after hearing about this kind of horror on local streets?
What did they ask Sheriff Barnes about his efforts to reach out into religious communities, who are apprehensive about possible attacks and want to learn how to best address threats?
Not a word.
“Ok. Colleagues. Any questions or comments for Sheriff Barnes? If not, I will just say thank you very much for bringing this very important and impactful presentation to us this morning,” said the supervisors’ then chairwoman, Lisa Bartlett after Barnes finished his presentation and told supervisors he was ready for questions.
Steel later asked county staff to find out if there’s more state and federal money available to protect religious institutions from hate crimes, but did not set a deadline or schedule any follow up discussions of the issue.
Now, granted, the entire Sheriff’s presentation Steel requested – which didn’t even seem intended to include a DA update – did have a campaign-like feel to it, maybe designed to show off on video Steel’s strident comments against Anti-Semitism and hate attacks.
Note that the OC Human Relations Commission annual report was published back in September.
Why else highlight it now?
Now, Steel – a vocal ally of President Trump who is one of several candidates running for Congress this year against incumbent Harley Rouda in the coastal 48th District – read directly from a prepared text.
But she did say something really important, and it’s incredibly sad that county supervisors couldn’t second her, especially so close to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.
So I will.
“There’s no place for these threats against our community, regardless of background,” Steel said. “Anti-Semitism is an evil that cannot be tolerated. And we must stand up to bigotry and racism in all forms.”