STEELED IN ADVERSITY: ONE WOMAN’S COURAGEOUS BATTLE AGAINST HATE

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Estela de los Rios, Organizer of Oct. 1st Hate Crimes Summit in El Cajon
 

By John Falchi
ECM Editor Miriam Raftery also contributed to this story
 

September 25, 2009 (El Cajon)--Estela de Los Rios is leading an effort that will bring a Hate Crimes Summit sponsored by United for A Hate Free San Diego forum to El Cajon’s Ronald Reagan Community Center On Thursday October 1, 2009. In this exclusive interview with East County Magazine, she shared details about shocking hate crimes in our community, including many in local schools.  She also shared personal insights into the hardships and challenges that have steeled her resolve to achieve reforms.

 

“It is in East County where many of the hate incidents and hate crimes have occurred,” she said, noting that hate-motivated violence here dates back more than a decade—and continues to this day," de Los Rios said.

 

In one, an African-American male at a party held by a fellow Marine in Santee “was assaulted and beaten near the school, and paralyzed from the shoulders down; that was national news featured on 60 Minutes,”  recalled a West Hills High School employee who asked not to be named.  One assailant was convicted and sentenced to nine years, but others received sentences of less than a year and were not prosecuted for attempted murder.   See the story. De los Rios called the light sentences "a slap on the hands."  

 

According to 60 Minutes, some witnesses changed their stories.  Deputy District Attorney Jimenez told 60 Minutes "Undoubtedly, some witnesses were probably intimidated," adding, "I wish we would have had more evidence but we didnt...We made the best of what we had."
 

Estela de los Rios is the Executive Director of the Center for Social Advocacy, an organization which champions the poor, the oppressed and the defenseless. Originally from Mexico, she didn’t know a word of English when she came here, and now she holds a B.S. in Sociology from SDSU. In 1982, she moved to San Diego and became more involved in helping others.
 

“People are treated differently here due to language barriers and cultural issues. I have three kids--17, 21, 23. I was widowed three years ago,” she reflected. “ I think it just made me stronger. I’ve always faced oppressions, being a woman, being of color, and coming out of poverty. I’ve made that oppression a strength.”
 

A major concern for de los Rios is the matter of inadequate statistics kept about hate crimes. Many incidents are not being recorded correctly, she believes. Some cases of domestic violence appear to be hate crimes , where the victim is in a protected class, but they are placed in a separate category of statistics.
 

“Other hate-related crimes are reported as gang-related,” she said, “when a lot of these incidents should be reported as hate crimes." Violence between white supremacist and Latino or African-American gangs, for example, are often not reported as hate crimes even where race is a key factor.
On the date of our interview there was a trial of the man who attacked Rhythm Turner, the gay musician assaulted for being gay in San Diego. “That, too, was not charged as a hate crime,” de los Rios noted.
 

We asked her why we need to have a United for Hate Free San Diego? She responded, “For two reasons. One, to educate and provide awareness of hate motivated behavior in the San Diego region, and two, to give more strategic legislative action on how to address these incidents and crimes.”

Quite a few hate crimes have been connected with East County schools. One such incident occurred in October 2007 at West Hills High School, de los Rios said. It took place on campus against an African-American student in this District. The student was severely beaten and needed reconstructive surgery.

 

Why was he beaten?
 

“They told him because he was a n*****r and they didn’t like him. It was a white Supremacy group. It was even reported to the Sheriff’s Office. The worst part is that the school didn’t do anything,” she said. “So it went to an attorney and there was a settlement. This is the reason I’m so angry. Nothing was done.”
 

She mentioned another case. “A Mexican-American student at the same school was shot in the eye off-site. According to the Santee Sheriff’s report (GET) : 911 was called. Kids confided that “He was taunted, ‘Just admit you wish you were white.’ H e wouldn’t admit it. He was shot at close range in the eye. The party was of all students from this district high school. The shooter was a white supremacist, 16 or 17."   Estela remarked, “We’re trying to get a student to come forward.  They are fearful he could be severely harmed."  The boy lost vision in his eye, she said.

 

Estela became tearful. “It was cruel. Nothing was done with law enforcement. Silence is acceptance.”
 

While all of this has been going on the civic officials in this area have been in denial about hate crimes, e.g., Santee Mayor Voepel asked de los Rios, in a handwritten letter, to “reprogram her perception of Santee to a caring equal opportunity , safe city that welcomes all.” He objected to Santee being “stereotyped for years as a white supremacist community that preys on minorities in the print and broadcast media.” He sent the letter on February 20, 2009, soon after de los Rios helped to reveal the latest FBI statistics in a report to a SANDAG meeting. That report showed that, of the total 285 hate crime events in San Diego County from 2005-2007, 22 occurred in Santee.
 

That’s higher than any other city in East County, and third in the County overall after San Diego (which has a much larger population) and Oceanside, which includes the military base at Camp Pendleton.

 

For de los Rios, hate-motivated violence in schools conjures up painful memories.

 

Daughter of an immigrant who worked as a housekeeper, de los Rios grew up in the Imperial Valley picking grapes. A history teacher taught her about Rosa Parks, the African-American woman whose refusal to give her up seat to a white person on a bus helped spark the civil rights movement. “That resonated with me,” she said. “I knew some people were treated differently. In fourth and fifth grade, white students would throw rocks and tell me to go back home,” she recalled, tears forming in her eyes at the memory. “It was very hurtful to me…it became something in me, my drive to do something. It’s not right for one person to be valued more because of the color of their skin.”
 

After receiving her Sociology degree from San Diego State University, she returned to her high school in Brawley to implement a migrant outreach program. “I was empowering people. I enjoyed that role,” she said. In later years she worked in a healthcare clinic, a mental health facility, as a juvenile hall group supervisor, and as a housing specialist in Santa Clara before moving to San Diego.
 

She is also passionate about helping immigrants, having traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, and seen children with bellies bloated from starvation and met women worried that their men, who have gone to the U.S. in search of work, may never return home due to the dangers that they face.

 

“I see the injustice, the sacrifices and hard work in these families just to be respected in this country,” said de los Rios, who is determined that no child should suffer racial or hate-motivated violence in East County.
 

Her work, currently, includes advocacy on behalf of those affected by human trafficking and immigration. She serves on the boards of Borderlinks and Empower San Diego, and is an international leader for Justice Overcoming Boundaries.
 

She points to some success stories, such as a program that she has presented for the Anti-Defamation League to teach tolerance to students. She has sent letters to Grossmont Union High School District Superintendent Bob Collins asking to present the program in local high schools, but said she has not received a response.
 

East County Magazine editor Miriam Raftery saw Collins at another event this week and asked about de Los Rios letters. He replied, “I have met with Ms. De Los Rios several times.” He said an ADL program is now being implemented in district schools and pointed to a Unity Day at West Hills High School as evidence of progress. But his office did not respond to an ECM request for an interview on hate-related incidents in district schools.
 

Others share de los Rios concern, but say they are afraid to speak publicly for fear of retaliation via physical violence or job loss.
 

“One kid was attacked by two white supremacists,” said a certified staff member in the district who asked that his name not be published. “He defended himself. He was arrested, went to juvenile hall, and was expelled from the district. His attacker got a couple of days off. I was assaulted by white supremacists trying to defend him.”
 

Some families are living in fear, said the source, who said the student who lost his eyesight was shot at close range with a BB gun by a white supremacist at an off-campus party. The victim was an incoming West Hills freshman enrolled in an ROTC program at the school, the Union-Tribune reported.  The same article said the shooting occurred at a sleepover and that the Sheriff's initial investigation indicated the shooting was accidental.  “The family is afraid and shell-shocked,” the employee said, adding that the shooter was sent to juvenile hall and parents may consider legal action.
 

In a district where two mass school shootings occurred at Santana and Granite Hills in 2001, astoundingly, a source said parents were never notified when in 2007, “due to the fear of threats from white supremacists to perpetrate hate crimes, there were 11 Santee Sheriffs on campus at West Hills High School for two days.” The source added, “Kids were freaked out…If it was this serious, we should have been on lockdown.”
 

The source described another troubling incident. “Last September, 2008, a classified employee who is African-American had students threaten to lynch him. He won’t talk. He is afraid for his job and afraid of lynching. If he spoke up, he’ll be laid off.”
 

The source also revealed that in another recent case, “ an African-American freshman student was “viciously attacked by a known white Supremacist student, requiring surgery to repair his mouth and teeth. The anglo student was not arrested nor put up for expulsion as required by city/state education law,” the employee. “A second African-American student was also assaulted on the same day by the same Anglo student. There was a surveillance video and the video was destroyed.”
 

A  letter written by another employee states, “On this the tenth year since the attack on Carlos (Colbert), another black male was savagely assaulted on campus. I saw the tape of the attack. It was one of the worst incidents that I have seen in my life.” The letter-writer added, “We now have ethnic gangs operating on campus, because they feel compelled to do what we have not. We have not protected them.”
 

A letter sent by Shelly Sanford, a parent, to then-GUHSD board president Jim Kelley on October 28, 2008 confirmed the allegation. Sanford accused campus officials of a “cover up” by high-level officials at the school and said that the prior year, an “Afro American freshman boy was beaten up on campus. He had to be take to the hospital by ambulance. The boy that beam him up was a white ganger member.”

ECM has asked the GUHSD for records of these incidents and will investigate further after reviewing public records. ECM also welcomes an opportunity to meet with the Superintendent.
 

De los Rios called people who are speaking out to media “heroes”, adding, “They’re trying to help these kids and no one is helping them.”
 

The Hate Crimes Summit on October 1st will feature representatives from law enforcement and the District Attorney, as well as community leaders and a representative from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes nationally.

One solution being proposed is to form a watchdog citizens oversight committee to address hate crimes here. “I believe we need a community oversight committee,” the employee told ECM. “It has to become common knowledge that a family or a kid could call a number to get help.”

Being an activist for 30 years, de los Rios firmly believes in courtesy and human rights for all people, regardless of their racial background, language, national origin, religious practice, sexual orientation, gender, age or disability. All people have the right to respect and dignity.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be the executive director of a 501 c (3) nonprofit organization that addresses all of my concerns—hate crimes, human trafficking and housing discrimination. I think the Lord was good to me. This job is perfect because it addresses all the issues I faced in my life. My motto is ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’”

 

For details on the October 1st Hate Crimes summit, click here.

 

Note: An earlier version of this article contained inaccurate details on the Colbert case.  We regret this error. 

 


 

Comments

response to Collins letter

 

Supervisor Bob Collins has unfortunately chosen to attack East County Magazine's coverage of hate crime problems in his newsletter  rather than respond to the concerns raised by many community members over the district's handling of hate-motivated incidents.  http://portal.guhsd.net/GUHSD/superintendent/suptnews/2009/suptNews100209_0.pdf

 

East County Magazine repeatedly requested an interview with Supervisor Collins for this story.  We made this request in person and via e-mail, but his office failed to respond.  We also made a public records request for documents regarding the cases cited in our article and additional incidents not yet published. The district thus far has failed to turn over those records, either.  We also specifically asked the Superintendent's office what specific programs to reduce hate crimes and promote tolerance have been implemented by the district, and did not receive a reply.  We have, incidentally, more complaints that what has been published thus far. 

 

Supervisor Collins suggests that our story will tarnish the image of East County and Santee in particular.  The Santee Sheriff's office  refused a public records request from another media outlet that requested documents on hate crimes.When public officials refuse to cooperate with media, it is the media's obligation to seek out truth from other sources to the best of our ability. Suppressing the news, as has been suggested, would be an abandonment of our duty to the public. 

 

Some of our sources requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.  Two have expressed fears over losing their jobs; some also fear for their personal safety.  Rest assured we interviewed the sources and were convinced of their credibility. If the Superintendent felt these were NOT credible, why did he not simply agree to an interview or at least respond via email? 

 

It is improper for the Superintendent to suggest that use of anomyous sources is inappropriate in cases where people are afraid,  or that sources are "unsubstantiated" merely because they fear to be publicly identified. Why is Mr. Collins not asking, instead, why there remains a climate of fear among teachers, staff and students who are afraid to speak out publicly when they witness hate-motivated violence or instances of racism?

 

We strive for accuracy and fairness in our reporting. ECM has published many favorable stories on the Grossmont district, most recently the successful efforts to cut truancy.  We have reported positive news on district test scores, new building construction, and much more.  We cannot, however, turn a blind eye to problems in our community or our school district, no more than a parent should ignore bad behavior by a child.

 

Our article did contain a couple of errors which we regret; one defendant in the Colbert beating did receive a significant sentence (though several others got off with less than  a year).  The boy shot with a BB gun lost his vision, not his eye, though accounts of how this occurred vary.

 

The main point of the story, however, remains indisputable:  hate crimes remain a problem in East County and in the GUHSD.  While the district is to be applauded for  taking some steps to deter such actions, clearly more needs to be done. If there is no problem with hate crimes, why was there a full house at the Hate Crimes Summit in El Cajon?    California has more hate groups than any state and the majority of those are in Southern California.  The Southern Poverty Law Center attorney, James McElroy, told me at the Summit that he is very concerned about hate groups in our area, including the white supremacy movement in East County. Oscar Garcia at the D.A.'s office says the highest number of hate crimes in San Diego County are against African-American victims.  
 

 

Just days after this story ran, charges were filed in the case of the horrific beating of an African-American teen in Deerhorn Valley at a party attended by students from several GUHSD schools, according to the boy's mother.  The vicitim's family is appalled at the minimal charges.  This case was not among those we originally reported on in this story, but it clearly illustrates why pretending we have no problem with hate crimes is NOT the answer.  Oscar Garcia, who heads up the hate crimes division for the District Attorney, has stated that these were hate crimes and that an assault clearly occurred. However the D.A. did not file charges of hate crimes or assault.  Only one assailant was charged (for vandalism of the victim's car) and a parent was charged for hosting a party where alcohol was served to minors. 

 

How can this be?

 

Over 100 people were at the party but witnesses have failed to identify the attackers who reportedly threatened to "get us a nigger" before violently beating the teen, chasing him through the woods, vandalizing his vehicle and according to his mother, attempting to set fire to it with him inside.  Many have told me that they believe witnesses are frightened to come forward. The victim's friend, who was with him during the attack and is also African-American, has said he was never more frightened in his life, the Union-Tribune reported. 

 

More than 40 students came to the hospital the night of the attack. According to the victim's mother, some were willing to talk to law enforcement--but later clammed up out of fear.  Now African-American students have been made to feel that they are fair game for violent predators, with no one willing to speak out after witnessing such an atrocity. 

 

How can anyone say this is not a serious problem? 

 

Supervisor Collins was quite forthright in demanding that Helix adminstrators make changes to protect children from sexual abuse, even threatening to revoke the Helix charter.   He cared about keeping kids in school enough to show up on the doorstep of truant teens to speak with students and their parents.

 

Why not start a task force or oversight committee on hate crimes, with members of the community involved?  How about convening a meeting with students who attended the Deerhorn Valley party, or having assemblies at all schools to specifically encourage witnesses to violent crimes including hate crimes to come forward?

 

Instead of criticizing the media for being the messenger of bad news, the district ought to be showing some real leadership to wipe out this blight from East County.  I, like our readers, take pride in our region and have published hundreds of positive stories about East County.  By shining a light on this dark blemish on our community, we hope to encourage positive dialogue about more ways to facilitate reporting of such crimes by witnesses--and better yet, prevent them from occurring in the first place.

 

I would welcome an opportunity to interview Supervisor Collins in depth on this topic, as well as any other public officials willing to seriously discuss not only positive actions that they have taken, but what more can or should be done to protect students and others in our community.

 

Miriam Raftery, Editor

East County Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

keep up the good work

Having Ms. de los Rios in our community is essential for countering the ignorance that fuels racist anger. thanks for article.