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Los Angeles Community is Fighting Hate Crimes - 2002-07-31

U.S. authorities reported a surge in hate crimes against Middle Easterners and Muslims after the terrorist attacks of last September 11. In Los Angeles, one community fought intolerance and its efforts have improved relations among the city's people.

Officials of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission said this was their busiest year ever. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington by members of al-Qaida, although immediately condemned by American Muslim organizations, led some to strike out blindly, seeking revenge. There were scattered incidents of violence against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent across the United States.

In Los Angeles, the three weeks after the attacks saw a marked rise in hate crimes, sometimes against people who bore only a passing resemblance to Middle Easterners. Indian Sikhs, Latinos and Armenians were among the victims of violence and threats.

Marshall Wong, who monitors hate crimes for the human relations commission, said there was also another response, as many spoke out against the violence. "In pretty quick succession, "Mr. Wong said, "elected officials and community leaders across the country and locally stepped up to the plate to call for tolerance and unity in the face of this national tragedy. So I think that it does indicate that there has been some progress, which shows the immediate recognition of intolerance as being the worst kind of reaction to something like the September 11 attacks."

There were town hall meetings to assist threatened communities and a telephone hotline for people to report hate crimes.

There have been public service announcements by major celebrities. This ad was released recently and features the actor Dennis Quaid, singer Harry Belafonte, and others.

Remember what that flag you're waving stands for.
Remember, please stop the hate.
We're stronger when we are united.
Remember what that flag you're waving stands for.

There has also been aggressive prosecution of hate crimes, said Caroline Wittcoff, chief of the civil rights section of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. she said, "These crimes are particularly onerous because the victims are targeted because of their race, their color, their religion, their national origin, and the perpetrators who commit these crimes are targeting not just the victims, but they also are intending to send a message to the broader community at large."

Ms. Wittcoff says that message is a threat to an entire ethnic, religious or national group.

Los Angeles has had its share of ethnic tensions over the years, from a 19th century massacre of Chinese immigrants to the so-called Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s. During World War II, white sailors and soldiers confronted young Mexican Americans who wore flamboyant period outfits, leading to beatings and brawls on the streets of East Los Angeles.

In 1965, the black community of Watts erupted in violence. The whole city exploded in violence again in 1992, after the acquittal of four white police officers who had beaten a black motorist.

Borden Olive is an African American who has worked with the Los Angeles human relations commission since the 1960s. He said that in that time, immigration has brought new ethnic groups and different tensions. Mr. Olive said there have also been improvements. "I think police have made great strides in trying to promote community relations," he said, "trying to make the officers aware of the feelings of minority groups. I think the schools have made great strides in this area. I think we've learned as a group how to be better citizens."

The Los Angeles human relations commission has programs in the schools, where racial differences can lead to confrontation. The commission's Elisa Makunga is trying to head off problems in the city of Gardena, where local ethnic divisions are reflected among students. "For example," Ms. Makunga said, "in Gardena there are 17 different languages spoken on the campus, and it's a very segregated campus. So we are working with the parent community collaborative and with the administration of Garden High School to be able to put together a human relations plan that's going to work for their school."

Teachers and students are being given training in conflict resolution.

Robin Toma, executive director of the human relations commission, said Los Angeles has a greater mix of ethnic groups than most other cities, and many reasons for tension. "If you look back in any community's past, you'll find tremendous injustice, often for arbitrary reasons: because of where they live, because of the language they speak, because of their ethnic origins. All of these become the source of conflict that can result, unfortunately, in very violent and bloody results."

But the official said that outcome can be averted through active intervention before tensions erupt.

Workers at the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission said laws against discrimination and hate crimes are important, and that community groups can also help by giving people the knowledge they need to understand each other, and the skills they need to resolve their problems without resorting to violence.