In 1996, the Dallas Cowboys won the Super Bowl and two men decided to celebrate when they came across Thien Minh Ly, a 24-year-old Vietnamese American who was rollerblading that night on the grounds of Tustin High School.
The men trapped Ly, stabbed him dozens of times and eventually slit his throat. One of the attackers, Gunner Lindberg, was later identified as a heavily involved white supremacist.
This story is part of an ongoing series exploring concrete steps Orange County leaders can take to tackle racial justice and hate across the region, amid a recent spike in hate incidents across the county and U.S. during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Around that time, the publicly-funded Orange County Human Relations Commission — a panel whose creation goes back to the 1970s — took on efforts to track, report, and document racist crimes like Ly’s murder throughout the region.
But those efforts have historically been undermined, underfunded and attacked by the agency’s overseers, the county Board of Supervisors, who often find themselves in conflict with the commission’s more progressive goals and ever-evolving stances on civil rights issues.
“At times, the commission would be advocating in ways that would bring it at odds with the Board of Supervisors,” said Rusty Kennedy, who steered the commission from 1981 through 2016.
In more recent years, officials like Supervisor Andrew Do and former supervisor Michelle Steel — now a U.S. Congresswoman — have tried to take away funding and gain more control over the commission’s staff and its efforts to dispel hate from the region.
Now, amid a spike in hate crimes and incidents during the Coronavirus pandemic, Republican county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett has announced her plans to request more funding for the commission, which would only happen with a majority of her colleagues on board.
Meanwhile, some say the agency’s rocky, 50-year relationship with the county holds certain clues to ensuring the commission’s survival — and to ensuring a stable, if not cohesive, local society.
“If there’s a major terrorist incident or disruption in the economy, that’s when our readiness is really tested. That’s when you can either turn into the breeding grounds of the Third Reich or bring the county together,” Kennedy said. “Are we ready, if times get really rough? Can we pull together, or will we succumb to the voices of meanness, greed and hate?”
Those questions fall on a commission now headed by CEO Allie Edwards and Commission Director Norma Lopez, currently wading through a national and local spike in racism during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Things as simple as the commission issuing a statement in response to a developing crisis can face obstacles.
“Our commissioners have been very vocal about the need to be responsive in the moment, especially when crises happen — whether it’s local or national,” Lopez said in a Monday interview, adding:
“Sometimes that’s not possible because there’s a process to getting a statement issued.”
“In my commissioners’ eyes, that’s their role — to give the community hope, to make them feel safe or make them feel solidarity. This is something very important to them and they feel the community looks to them for that type of response,” she added. “And unfortunately it’s challenging.”
The commission, which supervisors created in 1971, bore witness to many watershed moments in Orange County’s history — from the Anaheim police beatings of Latinos at Little People’s Park in 1978, to the 1985 bombing death of civil rights activist Alex Odeh in Santa Ana.
Issues around immigration and the LGBTQ+ community have historically driven the largest wedges between county supervisors and the commission, Kennedy said.
“There were other issues, one of the early ones was over police brutality,” he added, recalling local sheriffs’ and police officials’ opposition to the very creation of the commission itself, in the 1970s.
Such friction has continued into the 21st Century. And questions have mounted around the current obstacles facing the organization’s work.
For example, local agencies aren’t required to cooperate with the commission and assist its research by handing over their hate crime data, which fuels a decision by the commission’s leaders not to show hate crime data by city.
“That’s one of the reasons that we agree not to publicly disaggregate the data, because we feel like it could actually have the reverse effect — where it disincentivizes reporting if there are leaders that think that data will make their city look bad,” said Edwards in a previous interview.
It’s a calculation that Edwards said the commission has to weigh against what they view as the greater good of getting any data, period.
Meanwhile, issues of funding have partly manifested into language barriers on the commission’s online hate crime reporting portal. The commission is still trying to make its portal available in Vietnamese — a language spoken by Orange County’s largest Asian American subgroup.
Such a barrier, community advocates say, can discourage some residents whose first language isn’t English from coming forward.
And such limitations on the commission’s budget by supervisors are to blame for that, said community leaders and activists at a March 23 Board of Supervisors meeting this year.
Despite the obstacles, the commission has claimed its accomplishments — among them being the group’s successful advocacy for free prenatal care for undocumented mothers in the 1970s, as well as launching the BRIDGES School Intergroup Relations programs in 1990 which Edwards said reached “tens of thousands of students annually.”
And threaded throughout this historic relationship are instances in which supervisors were able to actually realize the value of the group’s work, Kennedy said.
When the owner of a video store in Westminster put up pictures of Ho Chi Minh and inflamed local Vietnamese Americans who fled their country to Orange County after the war, tens of thousands of people came to demonstrate and prompted safety concerns in the late 1990s.
Kennedy said local law enforcement reached out to the commission and “we were able to pull to the table diverse members of the Vietnamese community, police chief, and key officers of the chief’s leadership team, and through a difficult series of sessions we were able to develop an understanding and modify the demonstrations in such a way they would be legal and safer.”
“Sometimes the commission’s not seen as a real priority to supervisors until there is a crisis and then they see our investment in developing trusting relationships with the community over the years,” Kennedy said. “It’s a valuable asset as injustices come forward.”
At a time of crisis, he said, “supervisors who may not otherwise understand the value of that start to recognize that value.”
Orange County may be experiencing that moment right now.
At supervisors’ March 23 meeting, the commission presented data related to a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes during the Coronavirus pandemic, which prompted supervisors to issue anti-racism proclamations and a public discussion of how much resources the commission truly needs.
Members of the public, in turn, asked supervisors to give the commission even more funding for its work.
In a text message on Thursday, Republican Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told Voice of OC she’s “looking at working on a short term and a long term plan with different funding levels and scope of work for the commission.”
“I will be coming to the (board) with an agenda item for the short term plan and funding request and targeting the long term plan with requisite funding during the budget cycle this year,” Bartlett wrote.
Lopez said that while the commission should be connected to the community, the community should in turn be connected to them: “My staff is made up of three people who service the entire county. We try our best but if folks don’t connect with us, a lot of things can go unnoticed.”