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After a deadly shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin Sunday threw a spotlight on hate crimes in America, local experts say there is a constant undercurrent of extremist activity in the Sacramento region – but there is also a constant effort underway by local organizations and individuals dedicated to eliminating hate in our communities.
The California hate scene – and we definitely have one – has waxed and waned over the past few years, but is always active in the background, according to Nancy Appel, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco.
“It’s a fluid movement and it’s very individualistic,” Appel said.
According to nonprofit civil-rights organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are approximately 84 active hate groups in California, and at least eight of those are active in the Sacramento region.
One of those groups, American Front, was based in Citrus Heights until leader David Lynch was shot and killed in March 2011. According to Appel, the group is fragmented but still active in the Sacramento area.
Lynch was also the head of the Sacto Skins, one of the oldest skinhead gangs in the country, according to the SPLC.
Another local hate group listed by the SPLC is Life Rune Industries, a North Highlands group that produces white-supremacist music. The alleged Wisconsin shooter was said to have been part of the white-power music scene since 2000; however, the record label associated with his former band, End Apathy, has distanced itself from the band and removed promotional products from its online catalog.
The National Alliance, a white supremacist, anti-Semitic organization, is active in Sacramento and, according to one of the movement’s blogs, members distributed literature in a gun show held last month at Cal Expo.
The Nation of Islam, a black nationalist religious group, has some Sacramento membership and is included on the list because of what the SPLC calls “the deeply racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders.”
Hate crimes have made local headlines, including a 2010 attack on a Sikh cab driver in West Sacramento, and attacks on gay men in Midtown in September 2011 and in May of this year.
Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento Valley office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said his organization was founded after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
“The Sikh community bears the brunt of a lot of hate crimes because they are mistaken for Muslims,” Elkarra said.
After two elderly SIkh men were shot and killed in Elk Grove last year, CAIR offered a $5,000 reward for information about the crime, but so far the case has remained unsolved.
The group is often called on after hate crime incidents to speak to community members and offer support to victims and families. Elkarra said they hold press conferences and work with other faith-based organizations to face the problem head on.
“We talk to people and gather people in the community together – everything to send a message that hate will not be tolerated in the Sacramento Valley,” Elkarra said.
In March 1999, three Sacramento synagogues were destroyed by fires. White supremacist flyers were found scattered at each of the synagogue fires, leading police to suspect they were also hate crime incidents. Three months later, police arrested brothers Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams for the arsons, and the two were sentenced to 30 and 21 years in prison, respectively.
In the days following the fires, there was an outpouring of community support. Thousands gathered for rallies, and state and federal officials offered large rewards for information about the crimes.
A story in the New York edition of The Jewish Week reported that the Sacramento Bee published an ad paid for by Jewish and non-Jewish groups proclaiming the Hebrew word chai, or “life,” in large letters, in addition to the phrase “Sacramento — united we stand together.”
Not in Our Town Northern California, part of a national nonprofit group that creates film and online resources to help communities deal with hate-based violence, used the fires and the community actions that followed as an example of how people can actively respond to hate crimes in their towns.
“We act as advisers, mostly from the information we gain from other communities that have been through it,” executive producer Patrice O’Neill said. “We want to share collective intelligence – people in one town can learn from the experiences of another.”
Among the video segments Not in Our Town has produced is one on the shooting of the SIkh men in Elk Grove and another on the story of the Redding gay couple murdered by the same two men responsible for the synagogue fires.
“The message is universal: Hate crimes aren’t solved by magic – they are solved by the actions we take to build better communities,” O’Neill said. “Part of it is dealing with the festering intolerance that exists day to day.”
To learn how you can join efforts to eliminate hate-based violence and crime, go to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Your Community” page.