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Community discusses tolerance in response to cross burning

dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

During a Monday night forum on the recent cross burning in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals told a story.

His youngest daughter, then a third-grade student at what is now Fairgrove Elementary, arrived at the school’s playground one day. Another student, a blond girl, pointed to Shoals’ daughter — who is black — and told her friend, “I’m afraid of her.”

That day, Shoals said, a classroom of third-graders had a discussion about ignorance, and the school’s teacher seized on an opportunity.

“I’m hoping that we will all be vigilant and not stand on the sidelines when we see someone exhibit an act of ignorance,” he said, echoing the lesson learned by his daughter’s class.

About 150 people gathered Monday at the forum, organized by the Santa Maria/Lompoc NAACP and Santa Barbara/Tri-Counties Anti-Defamation League. The forum was held at Saint John’s Lutheran Church in Arroyo Grande — the same church whose members realized in early March that the 11-foot cross on which they’d placed a crown of thorns had been stolen.

It reappeared in the early hours of March 18, burning outside the home of a 19-year-old black woman and her mother in an Arroyo Grande neighborhood.

Since then, police have been investigating the arson and hate crime with assistance from the county District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, the FBI and the state Justice Department.

Arroyo Grande Police Cmdr. Chuck Gerhart said Monday that police are still determining whether more than one person was involved in the crime; he declined to comment on whether any suspects have been identified.

No active hate groups have been linked to the cross burning at this point, he said.

Police are still investigating an arson started behind the police department building April 3 that may have been related to the cross burning.

Monday’s forum brought together residents from throughout the county, some of whom shared their stories of discrimination and said they hope the community dialogue continues.

Gina Whitaker, whose ex-husband is black, said she was happy to move to Arroyo Grande from a bad San Jose neighborhood in the early 1980s. Her boys, now grown up and living elsewhere, had an overall positive experience at Arroyo Grande High, she said, but they heard name-calling, including the “N” word.

“The fact that there was an overt racist act such as this, maybe we needed it to bring the community together,” she said. “So let’s talk about race and discrimination and lack of acceptance for others that are different.”

Other speakers noted that many races and genders experience discrimination and asked people not to forget to include all community members in future plans.

One resident suggested Arroyo Grande pass a resolution affirming the City Council’s honoring of diversity in the community, which Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach officials immediately pledged to do.

Shelley Malcolm, a member of St. John’s church, suggested creating a work of art — using remnants of the cross, if possible — that could be installed in Arroyo Grande and would teach visitors about diversity.

“We really need less apathy and more empathy,” said Ryan Page, an Arroyo High student and a leader of its Gay-Straight Alliance. “We need to be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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