Independence week in Humboldt County saw a series of hateful, bigoted events, spawning multiple criminal investigations from Fortuna to Arcata and the county's unincorporated areas.
The incidents include the assault of a Black man by multiple white men on Eureka's waterfront after he reported being called a racial slur, the widespread distribution of anti-Semitic flyers and a trans man reporting he was targeted, harassed and threatened in Fortuna, which are being investigated by multiple law enforcement agencies.
The incidents occurred a week after state Attorney General Rob Bonta released the 2021 Hate Crime in California Report, which showed a 33-percent increase in bias events over last year — reaching levels not seen since the aftermath of 2001 terrorist attacks — with Bonta describing the numbers as showing the "epidemic of hate we saw spurred on during the pandemic remains a clear and present threat."
"As our state's top law enforcement officer, I will continue to use the full authority of my office to fight back," he stated in a news release. "We will keep working with our local law enforcement partners and community organizations to make sure every Californian feels seen, heard and protected. While there is no single solution, it's up to all of us to heed the call, because when our communities feel empowered, they come forward. Now, more than ever, it is critical that we stand united — there is no place for hate in California."
Here's a look at this week's incidents:
Fortuna's Hate Crime Investigation
The Fortuna Police Department is investigating allegations of a hate crime after a trans man reported being harassed and threatened at the Dollar General last week.
According to Lt. Matt Eberhardt, the man came into the police department around noon on July 7 and reported that the evening prior, around 7 p.m., he had been waiting in line at the store when the male customer immediately in front of him asked, "Are you trans?" Eberhardt said the man at first thought the question was a sign of someone being friendly and curious, wanting to ask questions.
According to Eberhardt, they responded, "Yeah, I am. What are you?"
"Then, right off the bat, it was aggression from the other person," Eberhardt said. "Just things like, 'I'm a real man,' 'People like you shouldn't be allowed in the store,' threatening to kick the persons' ass. Just a lot of aggression."
Eberhardt said the trans man said he calmly asked the other customer to just pay and move on, wanting the interaction to end, but the male customer kept at him, calling him a "fucking faggot" and threatening them, saying as he was yelling, he was "constantly repeating that he was going to beat them up."
After the man left the store, the victim asked the clerk if he could stay in the store awhile, afraid the other customer might be waiting outside. After a few minutes, he left for his car, which was parked directly in front. He was able to get inside the car and lock the doors before he saw the other man across the parking lot, at which point the man started yelling again and ran toward the victim's car, before he drove away.
"An officer took a hate crime case and it's still under investigation," Eberhardt said. "We're hoping we can identify who the person is and forward a case on to the district attorney's office, because this is unacceptable."
After watching body camera footage of an officer's interview with the victim, Eberhardt said it was clear to him the man was shaken by the incident.
"They were scared," he said. "They definitely were fearful."
Eberhardt said staff at Dollar General have been helpful and are looking for surveillance footage that might capture the exchange and help identify the assailant. The victim in the case kept his transaction receipt, Eberhardt said, so police are also hopeful they may be able to use that to see if there is any identifying information associated with the transaction immediately prior to his. The lieutenant also asked that anyone with information to call the Fortuna Police Department at 725-7550.
In California, Penal Code section 422.55 defines a hate crime as a criminal act committed because of the victim's actual or perceived disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or association with a group with these "actual or perceived characteristics."
Eberhardt said this is the first hate crime investigation he can remember in Fortuna, saying it's troubling.
"Nobody should be treated like this," he said.
The Eureka Assault
In Eureka, meanwhile, an investigation into an assault that may have been racially motivated or instigated by racist language, remains ongoing.
At approximately 10:30 p.m., during the July Fourth fireworks show, officers came upon an assault in progress in the gravel lot at First and D streets involving multiple people, including a Black man who'd suffered a head injury.
A couple days later, a video surfaced on social media capturing the assault, though it does not capture the entirety of the event.
The posted video — which has since been set to private and is no longer viewable — shows a verbal exchange between the victim and another man in a baseball hat, both of whom are on foot, as cars wait to file out of the parking lot. It appears the man in the baseball hat is confronting the man about an incident that just took place and got him out of his car, to which the victim responds, "He just called me nigger," seemingly in reference to someone not shown in the video. The man in the hat responds by telling him, in essence, just move on, he's Black, too, and, it's not a big deal. The victim then asks the man if he would let someone disrespect him like that, at which point some of the man in a baseball hat's friends begin yelling from their car and the parties seem to separate. The video picks up again some time later, evidenced by the fact that the cars are in different position, just as the Black man is being assaulted. Appearing to have already been hit by a bottle, he's then hit in the head from behind by someone before the man in the baseball hat sucker punches him twice as he turns to confront the other assailant.
EPD Capt. Brian Stephens told the Journal before it went to press July 12 that his department had procured two arrest warrants — both for assault with a deadly weapon in the case — and was hoping to execute them the following day. As such, he declined to identify the suspects at that time, adding a third suspect in the case also remains unidentified and wanted for simple assault.
Stephens said it doesn't appear the attack was racially motivated, though it's certainly possible the use of racial slurs escalated the altercation. Witness interviews and videos reviewed by police — which include the one posted to social media and at least one other, according to Stephens — indicate the initial altercation had to do with "an aggressive driver type situation" and things escalated from there, including the use of epithets.
Ultimately, Stephens said it will be up to the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office to determine if the circumstances of the assault meet the legal definition of a hate crime.
"It's all in the report and it will be up to the DA's office to review the materials and see if the facts fit that designation," he said.
Stephens asked anyone with information about the case to call the Eureka Police Department at 441-4060.
Anti-Semitic Flyers in Arcata, Eureka
Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are working together to investigate a rash of anti-Semitic materials distributed in Humboldt County over the holiday week.
"Hate has no place in Humboldt County, and we will not tolerate the use of fear or intimidation to promote a hate-filled political agenda," Sheriff William Honsal said, adding that he would like to thank community members who came forward to notify his office of the flyers.
According to a press release, the sheriff's Terrorism Liaison Office, "in coordination with state and federal law enforcement partners, is investigating the origin of this material and its distribution within our county."
The materials were first reported in an Arcata neighborhood July 4, with flyers bearing the names and faces of prominent Biden administration officials and national media executives, some of whom were depicted with a blue Star of David on their forehead.
At least three different flyers were distributed in the Sunset neighborhood near Lincoln and Eastern avenues, not far from Arcata Elementary School, where one resident told the Journal they found the leaflets on their driveway in separate plastic bags, each weighed down by three pennies.
One flyer was titled "Every aspect of Disney child grooming is Jewish," using an attack buzzword increasingly being baselessly thrown around by right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists who turned their ire on the entertainment and theme park powerhouse when the company criticized Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay Bill," included a rainbow-colored Star of David.
Each bore a dubious attempt at a disclaimer, which states, "These flyers were distributed randomly without malicious intent" and links to a YouTube-like video sharing website with right wing, conspiracy theorist hate videos.
Eureka residents have also reported finding similar material in that city, including near the Temple Beth El.
The origins of the flyers are being investigated by the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office, Arcata Police Department and the Eureka Police Department, with the aid of state and federal partners. Local officials urged residents to report similar materials if they come across them.
"With each person we talk to we can continue to piece together the who, what, why, where, when and how, which gives us more of ability to figure out who did this and for what purpose," Arcata Police Chief Brian Ahearn said, describing the flyers' distribution as a "heinous act" and urging anyone in affected neighborhoods to review security camera footage for evidence.
(The Arcata Police Department can be reached at 822-2424, the Eureka Police Department at 441-4044 and the Sheriff's Office at 268-2539.)
The neighborhood resident who contacted the Journal described finding the flyers as "difficult, hurtful, scary and confusing," noting they don't know other Jewish people in the area and "it felt super directed."
The individual, who asked not to be named, said they took the flyers to the APD.
"It's crazy to be reminded that people think this way, that they still think this way," they said, adding that if the person or persons who dropped off the flyers really do believe in the hate rhetoric, it's "scary to think if they'd act on this."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson. Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.