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California Attorney General Rob Bonta meets with Sacramento leaders to discuss hate crimes

Sacramento Bee logo Sacramento Bee 10/15/2021 Rosalio Ahumada, The Sacramento Bee

Oct. 14—Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B'nai Israel was alarmed after learning someone last week left a plastic bag with rice and a leaflet with a printed swastika and the phrase "Aryan Nation" at several homes and an elementary school in a Carmichael neighborhood.

The rabbi said that incident was traumatic for that neighborhood and the families of students at that school but, unfortunately, it was just one of several hate incidents she's heard of in the past six to eight weeks.

"For any minority group that's been the victim of hate crimes, when you see something like that it's re-traumatizing and it's terrifying," Alfi told The Sacramento Bee. "For parents who have kids in that school, they were terrified. Because who is this person? Is it going to stop with the flyer?"

She said it's important to report even minor incidents so community leaders and law enforcement can continue to tailor responses and programs, preventing such behavior from escalating to hate crimes.

Alfi was among a large group of Sacramento-area community leaders who met Thursday with California Attorney General Rob Bonta to discuss the recent spike in hate crimes. The roundtable discussion was aimed at developing strategies against bias and hate at its root, increasing public awareness of available resources and strengthening responses to hate crimes.

"What we heard inside were a lot of stories that were often personal, often painful, and all were powerful," Bonta said during a news conference at Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento's Land Park neighborhood. "These are experiences many of us have faced ourselves, faced and felt the sting of hate personally and so have those that we love and care about."

Overall hate crimes increased 31% from 2019 to 2020 in California, with a total of 1,330 hate crimes reported last year, the Bonta's Department of Justice announced in June. Officers referred 430 of those cases to prosecutors. At the time, Bonta said the tally his office created likely undercounted the number of hate crimes in the state last year because many incidents go unreported or are not investigated by police.

California in a 'state of emergency'

"Right now, there's no other way to say it. We are in a full-on state of crisis, state of emergency when it comes to hate in the state of California," Bonta said. "As progressive and inclusive as California is, we are still not immune to the forces of hate."

Sacramento experienced a rise in the number of bias-related incidents — crimes or confrontations motivated by hate — during the first half of this year, according to Sacramento Police data. Officers responded to 72 reports of bias-related incidents during the first six months of 2021, compared to 29 during the first six months of 2020 and 13 during the first six months of 2019.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg was among the community leaders who met with Bonta at B'nai Israel. He said meeting there was fitting, since it was one of three Sacramento synagogues in June 1999 that were set ablaze in firebombing attacks by two white supremacists.

"The haters just don't hate one of us, they hate all of us," Steinberg said. "And in 2021 now many years later, the political environment, the fragility of our society, hate is increasing and hate crimes are increasing. Not just in Sacramento but in California."

Bonta said that he heard in Thursday's roundtable discussion a variety of solutions to prevent and respond to hate that included increasing education, improving the reporting process, supporting community leaders and working more closely with law enforcement.

"We have people in our families, people that are close to us that fear doing the everyday things," Bonta said. "Going for a walk, going to the store, taking our kids to school. (They) are often left wondering, 'Could I be next? Will I be the next to be targeted?' And that's unacceptable."

All hate incidents are 'damaging'

Not captured in state hate crime statistics are incidents that do not rise to the level of a crime but are still harmful, often leaving a lasting negative impact on targeted communities. Bonta said it's hard to meet the elements of a hate crime, but any act fueled by hate is an attack on the victim, the community and the state.

"They are all damaging, whether it be a hate incident or a hate crime or anything in between," Bonta said.

Alfi said community leaders have a responsibility in schools and in government agencies to better educate each other about "the beautiful plurality" of Sacramento and California. She said the goal is not just to be tolerant but to be really understanding of each other.

"And that it is critical that we work together, not just when there is a hate crime but really to work together in prevention of hate crimes," Alfi said. "As we said this morning, once the crimes occurs we've already failed."

Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the Sacramento area has come together in the past in response to violent hate crimes and it came together last year as political rhetoric led to its rise to incidents.

"When you call a community 'rapists,' when you ban a community, when you tell folks 'rough 'em up like the good ol' days,' when you call it a 'China virus,' we saw a spike against all of our communities," Elkrarra told reporters.

The solution is education and supporting ethnic studies in schools, so children grow up learning about each other and respecting each other's differences, said Elkarra, who also is a member of the Twin Rivers Unified School District Board.

California took a step in that direction this week as Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that makes ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation.

Elkarra said he's received so many hate phone calls in the past, and he's invited callers to meet him and others, to truly get to know one another and find out we all have so many things in common.

"Folks out there are afraid," Elkarra said. "But when you engage and educate, that's how we can make a difference."

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