Vandals in the night: Spike in Sacramento-area hate incidents coincides with Trump travel ban

Incidents targeting Muslims ignite both grief and resolve in surrounding communities

illustration by serene lusano

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the February 16, 2017, issue.

It was two hours before closing, and every item at MoMo’s Meat Market, minus the sodas, was sold out. A line of customers curled beyond a boarded-up broken window decorated with signs depicting messages of support scribbled in felt marker and emblazoned with hearts.

“We’ve never been this busy,” owner Glenn Miller said as he watched the line from behind three massive grills emitting colossal plumes of smoke.

Ironic, considering the popular barbecue joint was snared by a criminal act meant to terrorize, not inspire.

Two days earlier, on January 31, MoMo’s front window was smashed during the course of a burglary next door at the adjoining Supreme Barber Lounge. As best as police can figure, a suspect or suspects broke in and slashed the shop’s chairs, stole equipment and spray painted the walls with a racial slur and a backward swastika.

“Everything was in the middle of the floor; everything was broken; things were gone,” recalled Sharon Miller, Glenn Miller’s wife and business partner. “It was horrific, it was shocking, and nobody was ready for that. Everyone was in shock looking back into the shop.”

The barbershop and restaurant were just two victims in a recent spate of hate incidents that has ignited both grief and resolve in the Sacramento-area communities that surround these no-longer-safe spaces in the age of President Donald Trump.

Most of the intimidation has targeted Muslims and coincides with Trump’s efforts to keep a campaign promise to block their entry into America. Yet, while Trump’s executive order banning entry to legal immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations has faced numerous legal setbacks since its January 27 signing, its intent has anticipated—if not informed—a reported surge in local Islamophobia.

It started January 22 at the Islamic Center of Davis, where an assailant smashed six windows, destroyed two bikes on the property and wrapped the mosque’s door handles—leading into the area where the congregation receives services and prays—with uncooked bacon. (Pork is forbidden in the Islamic faith.) Ten days later, a vandal spray-painted “obscene and hateful graffiti directed at Muslims” on the outside walls of a Roseville mosque, police reported. And a couple of days after that, on February 3 or 4, someone left a package of pork tenderloins on the doorstep of a Davis apartment occupied by Muslims.

The anti-Islamic fervor continues an uptick in identity terrorism since Trump’s November election.

The Southern Poverty Law Center aggregated and reported the occurrence of 1,064 hate crimes and incidents in the first month after Trump’s election. That pace died down in the weeks leading to last month’s inauguration, but picked up locally around the time Trump inked his controversial travel ban. The restrictions were chaotically enforced at airports around the country against visa holders, green card holders and vetted refugees who aided U.S. military forces until a federal judge stopped it with an emergency injunction.

On February 9, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Trump administration’s attempts to overturn the injunction, setting up an expected showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This victory should not lead to complacency,” Nihad Awad, national executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil-rights and advocacy organization, said in a statement. “This and other Trump administration orders and policies still pose a threat to communities of color, religious minorities, women, and others.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has thrown the state’s support behind legal attempts to overturn the travel ban, one in Washington state and the other in Virginia. And last week, Democratic state Assembly members Kevin McCarty, Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher and Adrin Nazarian introduced a legislative package intended to improve educational and employment opportunities for refugees entering California.

Sacramento holds the distinction of being the most welcoming among California counties to Afghan and Iraqi citizens who aided U.S. forces in their countries. Some 1,962 were brought to Sacramento County on Special Immigrant Visas over a 12-month span ending in September 2016, according to the California Department of Social Services. Another 1,299 refugees settled here during that time, as well. Over a recent four-year period, most refugees coming to Sacramento originated from Iraq or the former USSR, state data show.

Still, hate crimes were relatively rare in Sacramento before Trump entered the political scene.

In 2015, most hate crimes recorded by the Sacramento Police Department involved assaults in and around the city’s businesses and downtown public spaces and displayed a diverse identity parade of suspects, according to information obtained through a Public Records Act request.

Of the eight hate crimes the department reported that year to the FBI for the federal agency’s 2015 Uniform Crime Report, five were classified as being motivated by an anti-homosexual and/or anti-transgender bias. Suspect IDs varied in the eight crimes, from young to middle-aged, male and female, Asian, white, Hispanic and black. All except two crimes resulted in arrests.

Of the five anti-LGBTQ crimes, three incidents involved assault with a deadly weapon (non-firearm), and one involved battery resulting in injuries.

One incident, from June 21, 2015, garnered national coverage and shook the downtown music community—an assault near the Alley Katz sports bar on O and 21st streets that allegedly started over skinny jeans and involved the members of two local rock bands.

The suspect, Timothy Brownell, stabbed Blake Abbey, the lead singer of Musical Charis, and two members of Hardcore Slaves, Weston Richmond and Alex Lyman, in an altercation that allegedly ensued after Brownell heckled the group, calling them “faggots” and taunting them over the skinny jeans they were wearing, SN&R previously reported.

Brownell’s mother spoke out in the aftermath and during court proceedings, claiming that her son was not homophobic, and that she was in a same-sex relationship that he was wholly accepting of. She said that Brownell, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, likely suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Brownell’s attorney alleged that the 25-year-old was defending himself and his friend from the group.

Last February, the judge declared a mistrial after jurors couldn’t determine whether Brownell attacked the musicians as a hate crime. A retrial was avoided after Brownell accepted a plea deal, maintaining one assault-with-a-deadly-weapon charge and dropping the remaining two assault charges, one allegation of inflicting great bodily injury and the three hate crime allegations. He was released June 21, 2016, from North Kern State Prison and placed on county probation, according to the California Department of Corrections. In July, Brownell was ordered to pay around $55,000 to Richmond and $7,000 to Lyman in restitution fines.

Classifying hate crimes requires that investigators make a subjective determination on the suspect’s motive, and police will initially err on the side of classifying if the victim alleges it, said Officer Matt McPhail, a department spokesman. But, as the June incident shows, those determinations can change, if not within the investigation, during the prosecution. The toughest call rests on jurors, he said.

“We have the benefit of not having to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt when we’re making an arrest,” McPhail said. “Whereas, when you go through the criminal process downstream of that, from the arraignment to actually securing a conviction, the threshold becomes greater and greater.”

Most reported hate crimes were person-to-person attacks that happened out in the open, including at a Valero gas station at the corner of Broadway and Alhambra Boulevard, Miller Park and around Mango’s nightclub on K Street, and at all hours of the day. One incident, classified as child abuse, targeted a 15-year-old girl at a residence near Mack Road.

Some communities may be more likely to suffer—and more empowered to report—the abuse than others.

The LGBTQ community has traditionally shown the highest count of bias-related crimes categorized by sexuality in the FBI’s statistics. Members of that group may be more likely to recognize when they’re being targeted because of bias, McPhail said. Another explanation could be that Sacramento’s sizable and active LGBTQ population makes a convenient target, he said. McPhail pointed out the Lavender Heights district, a neighborhood that the gay community openly thrives in.

“It’s easy—if you had hate in your heart and wanted to seek these people out—to know where to find them,” McPhail said.

Of the remaining incidents, two were classified as anti-black, including racist graffiti found on the morning of April 4, 2015, at the Sacramento Executive Airport on Freeport Boulevard, and an assault with a deadly weapon at 13th and G streets, a residential part of downtown, in the early morning of June 27, 2015.

The final incident was classified as an anti-white civilian battery crime around Cesar Chavez Plaza in the late afternoon of April 17, 2015. As SN&R reported previously, experts explained that hate crimes are highly under-reported nationwide for several reasons. (Read “Bigots on a warpath,” News, December 29, 2016.) Aside from the challenge investigators face in determining a suspect’s motive, not every police department is equal in its ability to identify and report hate crimes, and most victims don’t report.

McPhail acknowledged underreporting and said that crime data aren’t an ideal source.

“We have roughly 20,000 crimes per year, so when you talk about the raw number of crimes, and how many of those have any bias component, it’s a fraction of a fraction of 1 percent,” McPhail said. “You either have to conclude that there really isn’t that much hate going on, or that there’s dramatic underreporting, or that it’s simply not a good way to get a pulse.”

Recent vandalism episodes have been more public, and community members have responded with donations and around-the-block business.

Imam Ammar Shahin, of the Islamic Center of Davis, managed to find that silver lining. “We consider it minor damage compared to mosques that have been burned and destroyed,” Shahin told SN&R. “To us, this was easy. The worry to us was how are we going to fix it because six doors cost $10,000 or so.”

A crowdsourced campaign immediately scuttled that concern, to the tune of a little more than $20,000, a sum that went to replacing the doors and heightened security measures.

On Tuesday, Davis police arrested Lauren Kirk-Coehlo, 30, after a young woman was caught on surveillance video committing the vandalism.

“I wish that she came and asked questions, if she had any misconceptions about Islam,” Shahin said. “I’m sure what led her was a lack of knowledge.”

Two weeks after the attack on the Islamic Center of Davis, another mosque, the Tarbiya Institute in Roseville, was spray painted with anti-Muslim graffiti on the building’s exterior as well as on a vehicle. The congregation appears unshaken and, if anything, strengthened through the show of support from the conservative-leaning community.

“Roseville was not that Islamophobic country we imagined,” writes Imam Azeez on Tarbiya Institute’s Facebook page. “Hundreds of folks walked into our building, with flowers, cakes, cookies, balloons, cards, and an overflow of emotions and love. Families brought their kids to drop off gifts, and interfaith leaders organized church events to show support.”

As it turned from day to dusk inside MoMo’s on February 1, Sharon Miller announced that all the food was sold and thanked the remaining customers who were hoping to eat. Tears gathered at the curves of her eyelids, she hugged the remaining customers, who didn’t gripe about not being served.

Next door, the barbershop remained closed. Owner Nick Fink has yet to reopen.