A few Arroyo Grande residents — including two high school students — and members of the local NAACP branch expressed their outrage before the City Council on Tuesday that an 11-foot cross had been burned outside a black teen’s window early Friday.
“I am deeply disgusted by what has occurred,” Carolyn Hinson, an Arroyo Grande High School junior and a member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, told the City Council. “I would like you to somehow find a way to make it so these hate crimes can never occur in the county, in the state ... so we can make it a loving, peaceful place to live.”
During Tuesday’s meeting attended by about two dozen people, police Chief Steve Annibali detailed the work the department has done on the case since Friday and reiterated the department’s commitment to “solving this shocking crime.”
About 12:30 a.m. Friday, police and firefighters responded to a report of a fire. They found the remnants of a burning cross, which had been stuck in the ground outside the teen’s window.
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The teen, who was home with her sleeping mom, heard a banging noise and looked out her window. She woke her mom, who told her to call 911.
Annibali said police officials should have communicated better about how they have worked since Friday to put together a coalition of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the California Department of Justice, the county Sheriff’s Department and the county District Attorney’s Office.
“The coverage of the event may have suggested that the department is not taking it seriously,” he said. “We have always pursued this as an arson and hate crime.”
Police also plan to send physical evidence from the scene to an independent crime laboratory for forensic analysis, and an arson investigator from the department is on the case.
Residents across San Luis Obispo County, including a large number of religious leaders, have spoken out against the crime. On Tuesday, the president of the Santa Maria/Lompoc Branch of the NAACP said its members were deeply disturbed by the cross burning.
President Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt said the group is doing what it can to help the family.
“I know many people in the community are disturbed that it happened,” she told the council.
“But it’s a reality that it did happen. We need to be able to address that and to deal with it.”
Added Arroyo Grande High School senior Ryan Page, one of two leaders of the Gay-Straight Alliance: “No matter who we love, no matter what color we are, no matter what we believe in, the people of Arroyo Grande must unite and be a strong voice against all forms of intolerance and hate.”
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama said the number of cross burnings has dropped from roughly 50 nationwide annually 10 years ago to approximately 30 today. The center has been tracking hate crimes for 40 years.
Burning crosses are traditionally associated with the Ku Klux Klan, which sprang up after the Civil War and had a revival or “second era” that began around 1915, at the same time the controversial movie “Birth of a Nation” gained national prominence.
But Potok said the Klan has disintegrated. “There is no Klan now,” he said, only a collection of squabbling organizations.
While the Arroyo Grande incident “sounds like an act of racial terrorism,” it may have been perpetrated by teenagers or someone ignorant who thought they were being funny. That doesn’t make it acceptable, he said.