San Jose Councilmember Maya Esparza knows first hand the pain of losing a loved one to hate violence.
Her 6-year-old nephew, Stephen Romero, was killed at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in 2019. The gunman appeared to have ties to white supremacist ideology.
Now, Esparza is leading Santa Clara County’s first ever hate crime task force — created in December as hate crimes across the U.S. spiked, particularly among Asian Americans.
“It’s easy to grieve in these situations and we all understand that. It’s easy to point a finger at a lone person with a gun and condemn that person,” said Esparza, who co-chairs the task force. “What is so much more challenging is understanding that it’s not just a lone person with a gun. It’s a culture of hatred, it’s a culture that has spread, in my opinion, in the past four years and it spreads further through inaction.”
The 10-member group’s goals include ensuring state and federal laws prohibiting hate crimes are enforced in the South Bay, as well as creating school-based programming to help ameliorate violence resulting from prejudice. The task force, which is also co-chaired by county Supervisor Cindy Chavez, met for the first time last week.
Between March and December last year, more than 700 anti-Asian incidents were reported in the Bay Area, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a San Francisco State University-based project. San Jose had the second most incidents of hate in the Bay Area, following San Francisco with 58 incidents since the pandemic began.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Jay Boyarsky told the task force his office just filed its eleventh hate crime charge for the past year. Boyarsky admitted that only a small fraction of incidents get prosecuted, namely because there has to be a crime and an identified suspect.
Of the past 11 crimes Boyarsky’s office has worked on, four involved race, six involved a victim’s nationality and one involved sexual orientation.
Three of the nationality-based crimes were anti-Latino, two were anti-Asian, and one was anti-Middle Eastern. The four race-related crimes were all committed against African Americans, Boyarsky said. Those numbers aren’t the full picture, he added.
“I am very interested in discussing more about what I believe to be a disparity between the types of cases that eventually make their way to the DA’s office … or those that make it into the media, but don’t end up being things we can take action on,” Boyarsky said.
The difficulty, the task force decided, would be determining the true number of hate crimes and incidents in the region.
“Many communities are not comfortable reporting to any government agency at all,” said Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of Islamic Networks Group. “I can tell you a lot of immigrant communities like Muslim-American communities just don’t do it and don’t have longstanding relationships with law enforcement.”
Professor Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino said he expects hate incidents and crime to rise post-COVID-19.
“Once these COVID-19 restrictions end and these stressed out people … are able to gather and rub elbows, I think you’re going to see other things,” Levin said. “(And) as these bigger, more notorious groups (like QAnon and Proud Boys) get larger and begin to splinter, (we’ll see) more loners, duos and larger cells.”
Levin’s department is working on assembling a report on the rise in crimes against Asian Americans, which have already been noticeably rising.
According to Stop AAPI Hate, more than 2,800 hate incidents nationwide were documented against AAPI individuals in 2020.
“I do not know one Asian American colleague at San Jose State who has not told their elderly parents not to go walking outside in their neighborhood without anyone escorting them, including my own,” said Kathy Wong, diversity officer at San Jose State University and a member of the committee. “I’ve stopped jogging outside alone.”
The committee meets next on March 26 at noon. You can watch the last meeting here.