By Mike Allen
April 22, 2021 (Santee) -- Spurred by negative press resulting from two ugly incidents involving racist maskers inside local grocery stores and later, violent clashes at demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the city of Santee set out to deal with its image as a less than welcoming place for minorities.
Soon after those incidents that drew widespread scorn last year, the City Council approved resolutions denouncing racism, hate speech, and set a course of publicly examining how it treats minority people, and what it could do to improve matters.
That difficult exercise continued this week when the Council reviewed a plan developed by the city’s Community Oriented Policing Committee or COMPOC, and some of the early steps the city has taken to address intolerance and increase diversity.
As soon as the planned presentation ended, the Council and Mayor John Minto were hit with criticism for their support of Defend East County (DEC), a vigilante group that was allegedly involved in some of the violence during protests held in the city in June.
Photo, right: Screenshot of brawl caught on video by ECM reporter Henri Migala at a June 2020 racial justice in Santee, where white men, some shouting racial slurs, instigated fist fights and hurled rocks at protesters.
Photo, left: Photo by ECM reporter Rebecca Jefferis-Williamson of a young Black Lives Matter protester with nose bloodied from a punch by a white assailant during the same event.
“Defend East County has caused terror in our community and made us a target for future protests,” said Kaya Hunter, who said she is a 20-year resident of Santee. Hunter claimed that Minto and the Sheriff’s Department allowed DEC to violate the curfew and that Minto and other councilmembers still belong to the group that continues to foster hate.
Minto denied ever being a member of the DEC, and said that neither he nor the Sheriff’s Department ever gave permission to the group to ignore the curfew. He also denied handing out flyers on behalf of DEC in front of the Target in the Town Center during the disturbances that occurred on several nights at the confluence of Cuyamaca Street and Mission Gorge Road.
Minto said he went to DEC’s Facebook page where the false statements were made to correct them, but could only do so by joining the group. He said once he got on the page he made it clear he didn’t give permission to violate the curfew. He said he then exited the page, and has never participated in any DEC activities.
At an April 14 meeting that was also broadcast virtually, District 4 Councilman Dustin Trotter denied he is a DEC leader, but acknowledged he is a member “just like 18,000 residents in East County.” In October, Facebook removed DEC from its social media site after reports that some of its members were threatening minority people in Santee.
Minto, a former San Diego police detective, said he’s talked with Justin Haskins, the reputed founder of the group, and made it clear to him that certain behaviors and violence aren’t tolerated in Santee. “If I condoned any of this I would not have started a program to look into these allegations so we could move forward as a community,” he said.
Santee’s official effort to improve things was made clear at the outset of its presentation with its mission statement: “Our city recognizes its past and is ready to move forward with an authentic effort to heal and a commitment to do better.”
Photo, right: Shopper wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood inside a Santee Vons in May 2020 went viral on social media, sparking outage. Days later, two shoppers at a Santee Food for Less showed up wearing masks with Nazi swastikas.
Founded in 1980, Santee is probably the least diverse city in the county pertaining to minority population. A Housing Element report the city will soon send up to Sacramento shows the white population as of 2018 at 69 percent, down from 74 percent in 2010. That compares to El Cajon, with a white population of 57 percent and La Mesa at 55 percent in the latest official count.
The Santee housing report shows Hispanics make up 18 percent, Asians 5.2 percent, and Blacks 1.9 percent.
As part of the city’s roadmap to diversity, equity, and Inclusion, COMPOC requested a review of Santee’s operations as well as that of its contracted police force, the County Sheriff’s Department.
Among the cited achievements by Santee were targeted advertising about the city’s commitment to diversity through banners, new recruitment videos and a diversity training program for both management and staff. The city also reviewed the language used in various city materials and made some changes.
A presentation by the Sheriff’s Department emphasized the agency’s commitment to treating all residents with respect, hiring minority residents, and being more transparent in its procedures and interactions.
City Manager Marlene Best said the city has spent some $25,000 implementing the diversity program so far and intends to ask the Council for at least that same sum, and possibly more, to continue its efforts in the next fiscal year.
Several councilmembers said the city should do more to feature and publicize the contributions of minority people living in the region and make greater efforts in terms of welcoming them during public events such as the Summer Concert series. Councilman Ronn Hall suggested holding a series of lunches in which residents could learn more about residents who come from different cultures.
Just how the program will be implemented publicly is unclear, and still evolving, but councilmembers all supported its mission and goals.
Yet, several speakers said the city should have done a much better job promoting the April 19 special Council meeting. Councilwoman Laura Koval and a member of COMPOC even said they were barely aware the meeting was taking place.
Councilman Rob McNelis said once the city gets its own television station up and running, it should go a long way toward getting information out to citizens more effectively.
The April 19 meeting was viewed by 53 people, according to City Clerk Annette Ortiz.
Best said earlier this month that the television station might be making its first broadcast at the City Council’s April 28 meeting. The channel would broadcast on Cox Cable 24 and AT&T Channel 99.
Mike Allen writes about government agencies and other topics for East County Magazine, mainly covering the Santee City Council. Among the newspapers he’s written for are the San Diego Business Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript, the Vista Press, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He has won numerous journalism awards including a fellowship to the Stonier School of Banking by the American Bankers Association while employed as a financial reporter. He is a graduate of Fordham University in Bronx, N.Y. where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. He now lives in Santee.
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