Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Local Racism, 2004

This was spray-painted on the front windows of the newspaper office after word spread through the community that reporters from the Contra Costa Exclusive were covering incidents of racism in Martinez, California, in 2004.

Race Haters: A small and ordinary city confronts the great American problem.
By Fred Dodsworth (This originally ran in the Contra Costa Exclusive, now defunct, June, 2004)

Painter Dan was troubled. Well past mid-life, with gray hair and a tan, worn face that traced the roads he’d traveled around the U.S. Daniel Johnson came home to Martinez having seen the larger world. These days he was quick to tell even strangers his hometown wasn’t well. It was too small. He didn’t like the new people. He wasn’t so sure about his old friends.

Sitting out on the plaza between Starbucks and Bank of America, sipping a cup of coffee, Dan was man who had a need to talk. On one sunny day he decided to talk about his good and old friend Dennis Davis. Davis owned J&D Embroidery, a small shop on the edge of town that had contracts with both the City of Martinez and the Martinez Unified School District. Davis also taught girl’s golf at Alhambra High School, and had done so for years. Among other logos, for a small fee J&D embroidered Nazi symbols on baseball hats: SS Boys, with Hitler’s Storm Trooper’s twin lightening bolts substituting for the SS. It seemed incongruous to Johnson that the local high school golf coach would sell such a hateful symbol, even to kids.

Skateboarding by as Johnson spoke was a tall, thin, powerfully built man of indeterminate age. CoCoNut, as Stephen Payne called himself, wore no more than a pair of raggedy shorts and a sleeveless, open front vest that fluttered behind him. He was stained with dirt that hadn’t seen soap in days. He could have been 20. He could have been 45. His eyes were pinpoints and his lips stretched in a smiling grimace tight across his teeth. Tattoos covered his chiseled chest and drum-tight belly. In a large curve over his left breast was the word ‘Contra,” over his right “Costa.’ His abdomen said ‘County.’ The back of his left arm featured “Wermacht” in old German script. The back of his left arm, “Weiss.” White Power.

CoCoNut raced up and down Main Street Martinez on his skateboard, pirouetting between cars, leaping curbs and skittering sideways in loud, grand sweeping arcs. Stopping to chat with high school kids and tattered, burned-out human wreckage alike, he would infrequently reach inside his vest and from a small pocket extract something and hand it over discreetly. The fragile old lady’s who strolled Main Street with canes for support gave CoCoNut wide berth.

White Power, White Pride, White Race, Peckerwood, Woodpeckers.
Scattered widely about Contra Costa County are such tattoos, and more. Martinez, as county seat, home of the County Jail and the County’s Superior Court, had more than its fair share of such tattooed lost souls. Alhambra High School students speak about the young athlete with a Nazi Swastika visible on his arm. During this year’s Opening Night at Alhambra, an origami display featured swastikas. Kids sign their yearbooks with swastikas. The Assistant Principal and the Superintendent of Schools separately admit that occasionally swastikas get scrawled on school property along with Jewish student’s names. And baseball hats with such hateful symbols are confiscated, the administration says.

Made to order by J&D Embroidery Shop in Martinez, the SS-Boys logo refers to Adolf Hitler’s hated and feared secret police. The Nazi regime was responsible for the deaths of over 25 million people during WWII, including an estimated 12 million European Jews. Today, American neo-Nazis use such symbols to intimidate ethnic minorities. The owner of the shop taught golf classes at the high school.

“You should have been here last week,” said an administrator who didn’t want her name in the paper. “I threw out a huge box full of hats with much worse stuff than that.”

Nicole Bristol, 15, knows the pain such symbols cause. A cute short young lady with a shy demeanor and reddish hair, Bristow attended Sequoia Middle School in Pleasant Hill. After being subjected to hate-language from kids in her seventh and eight grade classes simply because she’s Jewish she decided to home-school.

"I was really isolated,” Bristow said. “I had one friend, and she was teased too. They called us dykes and Jews. We were scared."

Alicia Kane, Jenny Jorgensen, Angelina Martinez, Ashley Greene, Jessica Ellingson have known each other “since we were babies.” The young ladies attend Alhambra where they say pernicious racism is a pervasive and on-going problem.

“The school really did try to stop it, because you can't wear Confederate flags. You can't wear symbols or colors or bandannas. But some teachers they don't even try because it's like, ‘What's the use?’ ”

The young women believe teachers should educate students about different cultures, and lead class discussions about racism. But in the end they’re not sure how much difference teachers can make when so many children are imbued with racist beliefs by their parents.

“I don't believe in tolerance because tolerance is acceptance. You can't accept hate,” said Martinez Police Chief David Cataia. “Parents need to educate their children, and children need to understand, hate is not accepted.”

In early May a fight broke out at the Martinez Marina Park. Rumors of the impending violence had run rampant throughout the community all day. A group of Black teens and young adults and a group of White teens and young adults gathered in the late afternoon, trading insults, some of a racial nature. The Martinez Police stood by until the law was broken when the two men came to blows. The fistfight was very short. The first punch that connected took out 21-year-old Jesse Lucero’s three front teeth.

The young black man responsible was arrested and Jesse was carted off to the hospital.
Jesse and his mother Kim Lucero insisted they were only at the park for a late afternoon family picnic, but Jesse changed his story several times. After saying he was just there for a family picnic, he said he was there to defend the honor of a neighborhood girl (who is White) from disrespect by a young Black man. Later he said the fight was actually a battle between two towns: Pittsburg and Martinez. Despite the obvious inference that Martinez was a White Town and Pittsburg was a Black Town, Jesse insisted the fight was not racially motivated.

“These kids are not realizing what they're getting into,” said Jesse’s mother, Kim. “What they don't realize is Pittsburg's down here to show up for a fight. Nobody from Martinez showed up. Pittsburg's got big balls right now. They got guts. Think about it. They came here. Nobody from Martinez can even support their own town. So they had free run of Martinez.” She chuckles mirthlessly.

“And who did the police go after? The Martinez kids. So you know, Pittsburg's like, ‘Hey, we can go and do whatever the hell we want now.’ ”

Alhambra High School students pose giving a Nazi salute while congregating in the parking lot of a nearby convenience store.