San Jose prides itself on its diversity — a myriad of different cultures represented by an equally diverse City Council.
But behind the scenes, many lawmakers in the heart of Silicon Valley are bombarded with aggressive and threatening hate mail, often mirroring stereotypically racist rhetoric. Though some councilmembers didn’t report receiving much hate mail during their tenure, many on the City Council – including Mayor Sam Liccardo – have received everything from death threats to racial slurs.
It’s unclear if the attacks have increased amid the divisive national political landscape, but local officials have reported a rise in hate crimes citywide in San Jose and have proposed creating a task force to address hate speech.
On the extreme end, Councilmember Johnny Khamis told San José Spotlight that he received what he thought was a death threat while campaigning back in 2012. Called out for being a Palestinian by a “Zionist,” the hate mail went so far as accusing him of being a Muslim fundamentalist that would bring Sharia law to San Jose and that he “must be stopped.”
“You know, that could be interpreted in so many different ways, so we were really scared,” Khamis said.
These days, Khamis said the messages he receives tend to focus more on the way he votes on issues and his recent departure from the Republican Party. But he doesn’t let that negatively affect his role.
“For every one of those emails that I received,” he said, “I got like 20 positive emails.”
While drastically less than his fellow councilmember, Sergio Jimenez can recall about a dozen hateful comments directed his way during his 2 1/2 years in office.
“It exists, but I don’t want to overblow it and suggest we get them every day,” Jimenez said. “It happens every now and again, but that’s sort of par for the course.”
Comments have ranged from suggestions that he spends his day drinking at a Mexican flag raising, that he left his “dishwashing job” in order to get better pay as a councilmember or folks shouting “build the wall” during his public meetings.
The District 2 representative said this isn’t anything new for him, especially growing up as a person of color in East San Jose. While the comments may now fly under his radar, that has changed during his tenure in office.
“My office and team has to draw me in now and again, as this role sort of requires a certain level of restraint,” Jimenez explained. “My natural personality is to take some of the stuff head-on, but I’m brought back in and sort of talked down, so to speak, from actually engaging.”
Now in a position to speak up — for himself and others — Jimenez tries to have a conversation and address misinformation, whether it deals with strong feelings about the homeless, immigrants or something in between. But he won’t stoop down to address anything overtly racist or hateful.
“I think we need to counter with optimism,” Jimenez said. “My belief is that people are inherently good, and certainly there’s bad people out there, but I believe in a better world. I think it’s just countering some of that with — it may sound a little simplistic — but with positivity.”
And, he said, that’s exactly how he’s going to run his re-election campaign.
Two other lawmakers, who are of Mexican heritage, have also been attacked with racist messages, and said hate mail sparks up during times that controversial legislation is passed.
Councilmember Raul Peralez said he has been told to “go back to Mexico,” a country in which he was not born in but that some people have “assumed” he was from.
Peralez added that messages tend to “always revolve around race” when lawmakers discuss policies related to immigration or gun control. But unlike Khamis, Peralez has never received a death threat.
“We’ve never had any direct threats of harm. There’s definitely been some indirect type of stuff, but nothing that we felt we needed to investigate further,” said Peralez. “We read it, we delete it and move on.”
Similarly, Mayor Sam Liccardo occasionally receives a comment about his far extending heritage.
“Someone will occasionally take shots at my Mexican heritage, which is pretty far back in my ancestry,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “Suggesting that the culprit is either doing a lot of research, or just spewing venom in all directions.”
Still, Liccardo said that as a white male he is not typically the “target of such abuse” and does not pretend to know the suffering that so many others in the community have faced. To combat hate speech, Liccardo believes it’s important to keep friends and allies accountable.
“The one thing that I believe all of us can do to counter “hate speech” is to take responsibility for our friends,” said Liccardo. “I do believe, though, that we should all step in when allies say something that might be clearly unfair, ad hominem, incendiary, and not constructive, even if it doesn’t sink to the depths of “hate speech.”
Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco, Maya Esparza, Lan Diep, Sylvia Arenas and Pam Foley could not be reached for comment.
Vice Mayor Chappie Jones tackles hate mail that comes across his desk — if it does at all — with a positive mindset.
Council assistant Rachel Davis Disbrow said her office will simply ignore the few and far between messages that include racial slurs.
“We don’t rise to the occasion, we just delete it and move on with our lives,” Disbrow said. “Unfortunately, it is probably in vain and still exists, but we’re doing everything we can to just be better than that, because that’s kind of what you have to do in life.”
Luckily, she said this “when they go low, you go high” card doesn’t have to get played too often. Nothing has sparked feelings of danger yet, and if it continues to not warrant any worry, Disbrow won’t bother Jones with the news.
“We’re focused on governing and trying to make this a better place for the residents,” she said.