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Anti-hate activists hope to ‘Light the Way for Change’ at Laguna Beach gathering

Anti-hate activists hope to ‘Light the Way for Change’ at Laguna Beach gathering
Jeanne Pepper Bernstein and Gideon Bernstein, parents of Blaze Bernstein, who was slain last year, will appear at Sunday's "Light the Way for Change" event presented by Women for American Values and Ethics. (Courtesy of Bernstein family)

A cluster of red cups arranged into a swastika at a high school students’ party. Nazi posters hung at two Orange County schools. A gay college student from Lake Forest stabbed to death.

Those and other cases became too plentiful for one Orange County group to ignore. So, Women for American Values and Ethics will present an event Sunday in Laguna Beach that it hopes will “Light the Way for Change.”

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The gathering, expected to draw about 400 people, will be held at Laguna Beach High School’s Artists Theater at 625 Park Ave. Doors will open at 2:15 p.m. and the event will run from 3 to 5 p.m.

One of the speakers, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, became an unwilling face of activism against hate when her son Blaze Bernstein was killed in January 2018. The 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania was stabbed at least 20 times before his body was found at Lake Forest’s Borrego Park. A Newport Beach man has been charged with murder with a hate-crime allegation of killing him because he was gay.

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Blaze Bernstein’s parents have become activists, pushing a #BlazeItForward online campaign and speaking at events around the county.

Pepper Bernstein plans to tell her son’s story at Sunday’s event, describing his love of cooking, his talent for writing and his commitment to social justice. She said she and her husband, Gideon, chose to “make the best of what is left of our lives” with the hope of continuing their son’s “legacy of kindness.”

“We’re not giving up,” she said.

Another speaker, R. Derek Black, godson of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, says he grew up immersed in white nationalist ideology. But his views transformed while attending a liberal arts college, Black wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 2016, and “ever since [he has] been trying to make up for it.”

Black will participate in a discussion led by Chapman University professor Pete Simi, who has devoted his research of the past 25 years to extremist groups and violence. Having a speaker such as Black is “a great illustration that change is possible,” said Simi, who added that he hopes to motivate people to become more active against extremism.

“The whole idea of ignoring [the problem] and it will go away if we don’t give it oxygen … that doesn’t work,” said Simi, who noted an increase in hate crimes in the past four years. “We’ve done plenty of ignoring. … It doesn’t make the problem better.”

Pepper Bernstein agreed, saying the people who “come to these events get it, they care,” but they aren’t the people WAVE needs to reach. She intends to challenge those at the event to speak out and listen more to the stories of others with differing perspectives.

“Until you walked in their shoes and realize the difficulties they’ve had as a result of our indifference or our not willing to take the time to understand … we can turn that around and we can start listening more,” she said. “Things can be different. They can be better.”

The event is the first of its scale for WAVE’s new nonprofit arm, said organizer Rita Conn. The group previously held protests about the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, helped promote youth voter registration, hosted migrants’ rights clinics and participated in other “humane work,” Conn said.

“For me, the divisiveness that’s going on … is not just a matter of political opinion anymore. People are so spring-loaded for anger and hostility,” she said. “We have to stop that.”

Conn said bullying, anxiety and suicidal tendencies among young people also are problems to be addressed through education and community dialogue. She said she hopes Sunday’s event will inspire people to spread what they learn around their communities.

“It starts with the desire, the inspiration, the hope that we can make change,” Conn said.

State Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie Norris (D-Laguna Beach), a founding member of WAVE who plans to attend Sunday, said: “This, to me, feels like such a powerful opportunity for us to all come together and say … we reject the violence that seems all too pervasive in our world right now, we reject the kind of hyperpartisan vitriol that is all too pervasive in our world right now and we want to come together as a community that is focused on creating positive change.”

She compared Sunday’s event to one WAVE co-presented in 2017, when nearly 800 people gathered.

“Similarly here, I think the goal is to inspire and not just to ... hold hands and things and sing ‘Kumbaya’ but inspire more and more people to take action and for more and more people to become the grassroots leaders that we need all across the community,” she said.

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