Hate crimes in Orange County continue to escalate, particularly against the Jewish and LGBTQ populations, said Norma Lopez, executive director of the O.C. Human Relations Council.
The O.C. Human Relations Council’s 2018 hate crime report, presented at the Los Olivos Community Center in Irvine on Sept. 26, acquired reports from law enforcement, school districts, colleges and universities and community groups.
Citing a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that monitors activities of hate groups around the country, Lopez said 1,200 hate groups were tracked in the U.S. in 2018.
Orange County experienced 67 reported hate crimes in 2018 overall, a 12% spike from 2017 and the largest one-year increase over the last five years, according to the Council’s report.
Hate crimes against the Jewish community represented 13% of the total number of hate crimes in the county, the most of any single group.
Members of the LGBTQ communities were targeted 11 times in 2018, up from two the year prior.
The Latino and Middle Eastern communities each represented 6% of the county’s hate crimes, the report stated.
Vandalism, simple assaults, aggravated assaults and criminal threats represented a combined 40% of all reported hate crimes in O.C. in 2018, with vandalism (21%) being the most frequently reported. Murder and terrorist threats represented 1% each, and the remaining fraction wasn’t shown due to limited data about the offense.
The California penal code defines a hate crime as “a criminal act committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim: disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.”
The Council’s hate crimes report characterizes a “hate incident” as one that is motivated by hate but does not rise to the level of a criminal act. It usually involves behaviors protected by the First Amendment’s right to freedom of expression.
Of the 32 cases reviewed as possible hate crimes by the District Attorney’s Office in 2018, criminal charges were filed in 25, with 15 including a hate crime charge. In all but one, the defendant was convicted of a hate crime or still faces hate crime charges.
Gideon and Jeanne Bernstein, parents of the late Blaze Bernstein, were the keynote speakers of the event. As they described the life and violent death of their son, they presented a human side to the hate crime statistics that had been delivered minutes earlier.
In 2018, Blaze Bernstein, 19, was murdered for being gay by a former classmate connected to an anti-Semitic, anti-gay hate group, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office alleged. Samuel Woodward was charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement of committing a hate crime.
Speaking in front of about 200 attendees at the Olivos Community Center — a gathering that included representatives from Orange County law enforcement agencies, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, government officials and advocacy groups — Gideon Bernstein said his son was an amazing cook, a gifted writer and an above-average student with a passion for performing arts.
The Bernstein family started a Facebook page, “Blaze it Forward” which has more than 26,000 members, and the Blaze Memorial Fund, which supports charities that protect children from violence and foster emotional health, such as the Orangewood Foundation.
“This is someone who grew up in Orange County under the watchful eye of parents, and nobody saw anything,” Jeanna Bernstein said of Woodward. “And he went on to commit this horrible crime that impacted so many people and destroyed a beautiful life.”
“We must act now,” said Allison Edwards, CEO of the O.C. Human Relations Council. “We must send a message that we expect everyone in Orange County to speak out against racism and hate when they see it and that we intend to make this a county where everyone can feel safe.”
Reporting hate crimes and hate incidents, supporting victims and holding elected officials accountable are all ways to address hate, Lopez said.
“We have to teach empathy,” Jeanna Bernstein said. “We have to teach children to walk in the shoes of others. Somehow, we all have to get that message out there.”