The last week and a half in Arroyo Grande began badly, got worse, and then improved considerably, thanks to the citizenry. It was quite the roller coaster ride.
For those who were out of town, a cross was burned on a lawn facing the window of a 19-year-old African-American girl.
The presence of “burning cross” and “African-American” in the same sentence should alarm anyone, except perhaps for racist skinheads and neo-Nazis. In the sorry racial history of the United States, cross burnings play a major role in those chapters devoted to discrimination against blacks.
Furthermore, hate groups across the nation are growing in number. For the first time, there are more than 1,000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which for 40 years has been monitoring these vile organizations.
Despite that context, the Arroyo Grande cross burning did not seem to greatly concern Mayor Tony Ferrara at first. Oh, sure, he said the cross was stolen and that was worrisome. So was the cross burning itself.
But he was cautious about using the charged term “hate crime.”
It might have been a prank, he said, telling our reporter early on that “we are still in (the) process of determining whether it was truly legitimate or a prank or whether it was friends of the people who lived there. There (are) some options out there.”
When I learned about the mayor’s reaction, I checked my mailbox to make sure I still lived in Arroyo Grande. For a moment, I thought I had been transported somehow to Dog Tick, Miss., and my mayor was Foghorn Leghorn.
When someone burns a cross in view of an African-American, there is no room for multiple interpretations. There is no gray area. It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
But, you might ask, what if the perpetrators were kids who didn’t know any better and who thought it was just a prank? Well, then, it’s still outrageous and indefensible and, on top of that, it is a teaching moment.
This is the time when community leaders take a strong moral position. It is when they lead.
Since that didn’t happen, townsfolk leaped into the void.
The Tribune reported the story on Friday the 18th. That day and in the days to come, the newspaper’s online comment and letters to the editor sections went ballistic, so eager were citizens to express their outrage. There were hundreds of comments.
A parade of folks followed by expressing their anger to the City Council the following Tuesday. Ferrara and others told them that the city’s leaders had been deeply concerned from the get-go and took the crime seriously.
You can believe that or not, but the larger point is that they most definitely are concerned now.
As a fringe benefit, they may have learned something about the nature of this insidious crime as well as the backbone of their constituents.
The folks who deplored the hate crime were thoughtful and eloquent. I try not to be corny when I write, but I am proud to live in a community that stepped up that strongly.
As I write this, the perpetrators are still at large. The damage they have done to the young woman and her family remains.
But the community has defined itself — admirably.
Finally, permit me to close with an aside. The mayor and some other town officials have suggested that the press has had this whole thing wrong.
I am a throwback newsman, and I’m going to go old school here and hearken back to the day when editors (I used to be one) stood firmly behind their reporters. After all, if you can’t stand behind them, why would you keep them on the payroll?
Our reporters are solid. Those covering this story had it right, and in context. And for the general public, some advice: If you have to choose between the veracity of a news professional and that of a thin-skinned politician worried about his community’s image, not to mention his own, side with the former.