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San Bernardino: Prospects for Community Building in Times of Crisis

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People gather at a candlelight vigil the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors headquarters December 7, 2015 in San Bernardino, California, for those killed in last week's the mass shooting. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

On December 2nd, my hometown of San Bernardino made international news after two individuals unleashed a horrendous attack at the Inland Regional Center, leaving fourteen dead and twenty-one injured. The attack takes on personal precedence for a variety of reasons: my father was locked down at the local Amazon distribution warehouse after claims of potential shots being fired near the location led SWAT teams to search the site with guns raised; my nephew went to the IRC for medical treatment in the past; and like all students in San Bernardino, his brother was locked down in his school while the shootings were taking place. Fortunately, my family members were all safe, but the thought of members of my community losing loved ones to this act of terror has been paralyzing.

As our heartbreak is defined within a national discussion of mass shooting violence, we become the victims of another tragedy. A collective paralysis begins to set in when people are confronted with such crises, and before anyone realizes it, the heartbreak in which we all share turns into a burning anger for retribution. Almost immediately after the shooting, speculations regarding the couple's ties to Islamic fundamentalism sparked condemnations of the entire Muslim community. The rhetoric has since worsened, with Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump calling for the restriction of Muslim immigration to the country as well as the surveillance of all Muslims currently in the United States. In a speech made on December 7th, he proclaimed, "Yes, we have to look at mosques, we have no choice. We have to see what's happening. Because something is happening in there....there's anger...and we have to know about it." Assuring his audience who report Muslim activities, Trump concluded, "Don't worry about profiling. I promise I will defend you from profiling." Such rhetoric aims to not only promote the violation of Muslims' civil rights, but to antagonize Trump's largely white constituency towards committing such violations against all Muslims in the United States.

Such responses to crisis are not new to us. In 2008, the economic crisis that ravaged the Inland Empire led to similar xenophobic sentiments. Then, far-right political elements attempted to divide our community by demonizing a small part of the population --Latin American immigrants-- for their own political interests. Both in 2008 and today, far-right wing groups target the anxieties of white working-class communities to organize a region-wide, anti-immigrant crusade. By igniting underlying racial hostilities that existed in San Bernardino and neighboring cities prior to the December 2nd shootings, far-right political activists are once again fanning the flames of xenophobia.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Fortunately, in such moments of heightened tensions, residents of San Bernardino and Inland Empire have responded to these antagonisms by sticking together and fighting in support of their persecuted community members. With non-white communities making up nearly 70% of the county's population, the need for cross-cultural and inter-ethnic community building in San Bernardino County is of the utmost importance to overcoming the pain of the recent attacks. Inter-ethnic solidarity provides a key towards revitalizing San Bernardino and the Inland Empire to become tolerant and welcoming to the communities that define us as a whole.

Law enforcement officers search for the suspects of a mass shooting December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Law enforcement officers search for the suspects of a mass shooting December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

White residents, that constitute about 30% of the county's population, have also partaken in solidarity actions. The significance of white residents'solidarity in the face of anti-immigrant attacks is essential to shift our national dialogues regarding race and violence.
In June 2014, the New York Times noted that homegrown extremism, specifically amongst whites, accounts for 74% of domestic terrorist threats. Despite these statistics, white Americans continue to distinguish terrorist acts perpetrated by whites as fundamentally different from those made by non-white perpetrators. Attacks against reproductive health care facilities, schools, and other frequent sites of white terrorist violence receive the designation of "mass shootings," whereas non-white shootings are labelled acts of terrorism. It is therefore imperative for white folks to not only question why this bias exists, but also to develop means of countering it directly.

If we look back to the lessons learned during the Great Recession, we can see a prospective future of anti-racist organizing in the Inland Empire. In 2009, neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizing spread throughout the Inland Empire, fueled by much of the same rhetoric that is now being insinuated against our region's Muslim community. The demographic contrasts were quite similar within the rhetoric. Although the white power groups emphasized undocumented immigration as the primary reason for the economic decline of the region, the undocumented population consisted of approximately 7.5% of the county's population in 2008. Similarly, the entire Arab community of the Ontario-Riverside-San Bernardino metropolitan area makes up only 2.5% of a population of 4.38 million people (For additional reference, Muslims of all backgrounds only make up 4.8% of the same population). The rise of far-right movements emerged through provoking fears within the white working class communities of the region with misinformation and prejudice. As a response to these growing tensions, white working class students and residents of San Bernardino and the greater Inland Empire countered the growth of white supremacist organizing by joining in solidarity with the struggles of local immigrant communities. It is in this model that a response to our most recent crisis can emerge.

The Economic Recession & the Rise of Anti-Immigrant Organizing
As seen in the Los Angeles Times recent series, "San Bernardino: Broken City," the presumption of most people looking at our community from the outside is one that sharply contrasts from those within it. Stories of gang violence, rampant drug abuse, poverty, and the city's 2012 bankruptcy persistently mark San Bernardino as a city in disrepair, with little to no insight as to how these conditions germinated. Nor have these reports given any indication as to how such conditions affect inter-community relations. What is left is a tragic story of a city that reflects the fears of a society unaware, unprepared, and unconsciously invested in neoliberal policies. And out of this despair came a surge of resentment from white working class communities. Rather than seeing their circumstances as one shared by the city's Latino and Black communities, some members of the community aimed to blame their marginalization on other ethnic groups, in particular, Latin American immigrants.

Local Police Protecting Neo-Nazi Demonstrators. Photo by Benjamin Wood.
Local Police Protecting Neo-Nazi Demonstrators. Photo by Benjamin Wood.

The Inland Empire, in particular San Bernardino, was one of the most deeply affected regions in the country after the 2008 Great Recession. Unemployment, which peaked at 14.2% in 2010, spread like a plague, rising from 6% in December of 2007. The urban decay, financial blight, political polarization, and racial tensions that already existed in the city became enhanced by the national economic crisis. As conditions worsened, the influence of radical racist political organizations surged throughout San Bernardino and the Inland Empire. White power and neo-Nazi groups soon utilized this crisis to germinate their notions of racial hatred and initiated campaigns to recruit white working class people through anti-immigrant demonstrations. Yet the rise of white supremacist organizing was not a major news sensation at the time, nor is it now. The absence of critical voices against these developments left the community to defend itself, with no concerns regarding potential "homegrown terrorist threats" being suggested despite a clear of surge of concerted racist activity.

Community Members from Casa Blanca. Photo by Benjamin Wood.
Community Members from Casa Blanca. Photo by Benjamin Wood.

Models of Anti-Racist Change in the Inland Empire
Beyond the economic terror unleashed on the city, white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations have been by far the most persistent and threatening homegrown terrorist threat in our community. In 2009, the Inland Empire experienced a surge in neo-Nazi activity, particularly based around the California headquarters of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) located in Riverside. Spreading word through white power social media channels, the NSM planned a protest on September 26th in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Casa Blanca in Riverside, where undocumented day laborers congregated outside the local Home Depot for work. News coverage of this incident was limited. Nonetheless, dozens of community members responded to the NSM's call with a counter-protest that not only shut down the neo-Nazi demonstration, but also ran them out of the parking lot outnumbered and demoralized by their group's low turnout of eight white supremacists. The victory, however, was short-lived. On October 2nd, a week after their failed protest of undocumented laborers, neo-Nazis stood outside of Riverside's Jewish synagogue, Temple Beth El, holding swastika flags as congregants attended Shabbat and Sukkot prayers. Later that night, anti-Semitic graffiti was sprayed on the walls of a local church mistaken for being the host of the antifascist coalition meetings. Both incidents received meager coverage, mainly be Inland Empire newspapers.

Community members in solidarity with local day laborers. Photo by Benjamin Wood.
Community members in solidarity with local day laborers. Photo by Benjamin Wood.
Local school board member donates donuts and coffee to anti-Nazi demonstrators. Photo by Benjamin Wood.
Local school board member donates donuts and coffee to anti-Nazi demonstrators. Photo by Benjamin Wood.

Reeling in the embarrassment of being grossly outnumbered from their previous demonstration, the NSM called a regional wide protest to take place on October 26, 2009, in an effort to demonstrate their influence in the area. Shortly after the attacks at Temple Beth El, 23-year-old Benjamin Kuzuelka of Lake Elsinore was arrested along with his family in their home after he accidentally detonated a bomb he was making, injuring his hand. Bomb materials and Nazi paraphernalia were found in the Kuzuelka family home, which was also used as a day care center. Still, the media remained silent regarding the growing threats of homegrown terrorist cells in the Inland Empire. No public decries of terrorism were mentioned, despite the growing fear of physical attacks amongst community members. On October 21st, the antifascist coalition that organized the September counter-demonstration were confronted and intimidated by neo-Nazis at the Riverside Unitarian Church, the initial target of the graffiti attack and located across the street from Temple Beth El. Unshaken and unwavering, the counter-demonstrators continued to organize against the October 26th neo-Nazi protest, despite all indications that violence and terror could be used against them.

On the morning of October 26th, over 500 counter-demonstrators consisting of students, religious congregations, cultural organizations, and local antifascists-many of which were white working-class Inland Empire residents-stood shoulder to shoulder with the local Latin American community against the NSM rally. Among the community groups, local Christian churches and the Council of American-Islamic Affairs (CAIR) came to demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish community. Leftist organizations such as the Peace and Freedom Party and local anarchist groups, Latin American community groups like the Brown Berets, and other members of the community formed a united effort against the intolerance proposed by the neo-Nazis. A local school board member showed up at 6:00am to hand out coffee and donuts and to ensure that the counter-demonstrators had claim to the opposing sidewalk before neo-Nazis could take over both sides the street. Member of the Brown Berets and a student leftist coalition quickly took over the street, blocking all major intersections to unfurl large banners with anti-racist and anti-fascist statements. Traffic on the 91 freeway quickly backed up as onlookers looked down at the street below to see anti-racist banners and scores of community members standing against white supremacy.

Anti-fascist student collective march towards anti-Nazi demonstration. Photo by Adrien Fayet.
Anti-fascist student collective march towards anti-Nazi demonstration. Photo by Adrien Fayet.

Whereas the NSM wished to capitalize fears and animosities amongst white working class members of the Inland Empire community, they consequently united a large coalition to counter their actions. Through some of the initial coalitions developed against the Nazi protests, community members from San Bernardino, Riverside, Bloomington, Colton, Redlands, and other cities within the Inland Empire helped establish the Blood Orange Infoshop (or BOIS), a community-run center to promote the sentiments that countered those initial attempts to divide our community. BOIS remains open to this day and has since influenced the formation of similar spaces throughout the Inland Empire and Los Angeles. One of the primary intentions of the infoshop was to provide resources to communities marginalized by the conditions being festered by the growing disparities within the region. For many of the organizers at BOIS as well as within the antifascist coalition, the key towards countering xenophobia and fear was by providing a space for dialogues to be initiated in support of community building, solidarity, and a dedication to anti-racist organizing. In the wake of the attacks in San Bernardino, new threats of xenophobia are emerging from our shared tragedy. A question emerges as to how we will respond.

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Although the demonstrations ended the NSM's attempts to openly profess its hate speech in Inland Empire, the group continued to organize and shifted towards discreet influence within the community. Though the NSM returned to Temple Beth El once again to intimidate congregants during the final night of Hanukkah in December of 2009, public congregations of neo-Nazis became less frequent shortly thereafter. In October 2010, just one year after the various demonstrations against neo-Nazis in Riverside, Jeff Hall-the leader of the California chapter of the National Socialist Movement-ran for a position on the Riverside County Water Board and received a third of the votes. Though the position held little political power, fears arose that Hall wished to slowly influence the city's political climate. Such fears were extinguished in 2011, when Hall's eleven-year-old stepson shot him in his sleep as a response to Hall's physical attacks against him and his mother. Despite the sharp decline in NSM activities, racial antagonism remains a continuous threat to Inland Empire communities.

Old Fears, New Prospects
In the aftermath of December 2nd, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has begun to emerge --largely from the deepest crevices of the comments section of many newspaper sites and social media outlets. Although these sentiments are often read as the views of a hostile minority, they have a precedent to rationalize irrational behavior amongst people in crisis. Just as the economic recession initiated the spark of neo-Nazi organizing in the Inland Empire, the growing sentiments of Islamophobia may carry similar residual effects, particularly amongst the region's white working class communities. The Inland Empire has, however, a history of challenging such sentiments and could continue to build on those foundations.

As was the case in Riverside in 2009, everyday people from the larger Inland Empire community stood up against bigotry and showed that we would not be divided by the actions of a few. White working-class residents joined Latin American, Black, Asian, Jewish, and Muslim community members to thwart the rise of racial hatred. The urgency towards a similar movement is now at a climax. Before the December 2nd attack, Democrat Congressman Pete Aguilar (no relation) voted against the American SAFE Act, which would have provided refuge to Syrian refugees in the Inland Empire. Aguilar has been applauded by far-right groups in Redlands and have since begun to publish Islamophobic tirades after the San Bernardino shooting. Despite these threats, the Inland Empire community is beginning to push back against these antagonisms.

Soon after the December 2nd attack, the Islamic Community Center of Redlands and Rabbi Emeritus Hillel Cohn of Temple Emmanuel of Redlands have extended their community's support to the victims, their families, and the city. Just as these groups extended support for each other during earlier moments of crisis, today we see similar bonds emerging out of the wreckage caused by this terrible moment in our city's history. During the 2009 neo-Nazi demonstrations, it took a community of various ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds to confront the conflicts arising amongst white working class youth. They all worked towards a day where everyone in our community, regardless of class, race, or creed, could work together to imagine a different kind of society. But that required a dedication to find the roots to our problems, not in bigotry and prejudice, but through community building and a dedication to social justice. In turn, it means confronting our city's past and envisioning a future without racial or class divisions, as these divisions continue to instigate deeper divisions regarding community social and cultural structures. We must sow the city we wish to see, and what better time than now to start growing.

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