Last week we were all horrified to hear about the hate crime committed in Arroyo Grande.
My initial reaction was highly emotional, and I had to work to hold back tears.
I was sick to my stomach. Did this really happen here? A “hate crime?” In Arroyo Grande? It seemed unthinkable, yet there it was — plain as day. A church’s stolen cross burning on a multiracial family’s property is as clear as it gets. My outrage ran swift and deep.
I wanted to scream from the rooftop of City Hall, “not in my house!” I spent hours on the phone in the following days with citizens, police and city officials. I was told the law says that bias must be not only evident, but also provable for it to be classified as a “hate crime.” Did this fit the legal definition? Logic, indeed common sense, told me it just didn’t matter. Its symbolism was unmistakable and unacceptable, even if its display might have been born of plain ignorance.
This disconnect between law and logic made me feel conflicted and powerless. As the community reacted with justifiable anger, I realized my job as councilmember of Arroyo Grande is to help lead the way to the next step. As law enforcement does its job, it is time to do mine.
The path to healing is simple: we need to talk. Communication and openness shine the light that will lead us out of this dark hour. It will allow us to take control of our destiny as a city, and to shape it into a place indicative of our strong values of honor, volunteerism and community. By talking, we overtly demonstrate our collective vision.
It is beginning already. At our council meeting, the NAACP offered its help, citizens spoke about their anger with calm and poise, and two high school students offered pleas for tolerance with passion and preparation that put adults to shame. Our meeting was an extraordinary display of rage coupled with constructivism. It must continue at the dinner table, at our desks at work, and in our houses of worship. It must continue in classrooms, in front yards, and at grocery stores.
It is all too easy to become complacent in our little corner of paradise. Let this terrible event serve as a reminder that, as always, there is work to be done, and we must remain vigilant. Let it remind us to revisit, discuss, and demonstrate our values, and to continually reinforce what “community” really means. Through dialog we take our city back on our terms, exactly as we espouse.
Caren Ray is mayor pro tem of Arroyo Grande.