Hitler birthday party at UCSC not investigated as a hate crime; law enforcement say incidents are a ‘very grey’ area

UC Santa Cruz sign
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

UC Santa Cruz campus police are not currently investigating a birthday party students threw for Adolf Hitler as a hate crime, but a spate of recent antisemitic acts raises questions about the frequency of hate crimes and incidents in the community as a whole — as well as the difficulties of investigating and prosecuting them.

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UC Santa Cruz said it is not investigating a birthday party that a group of students threw on campus for Adolf Hitler as a hate crime.

UCSC spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason said the university’s police department isn’t investigating the incident because the university has not found evidence of any crime being committed. Instead, he said the April 20 incident was being investigated by the Student Conduct division of the Dean of Students Office.

Hernandez-Jason said he didn’t know if the incident was reported to the Hate/Bias Response Team — a team of campus administrators that helps students navigate how to respond to incidents of hate and bias. The university was also still looking into how many students participated, and Hernandez-Jason said he couldn’t provide more details about the event.

The birthday party, complete with what university officials said was a rendition of “Happy Birthday” and “cakes adorned with hateful and horrific symbols,” is the most high-profile in what Jewish students say has been a series of recent antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ incidents connected to UCSC.

In a separate incident April 21, the school said a student found an antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ+ flyer on the windshield of their car in downtown Santa Cruz.

Two Jewish UCSC students, Donna Harel and Eva Hecht, told Lookout this week that the students who reported the incident said the flyers were handwritten notes rather than flyers, and that they were found only on the cars of two Jewish students.

They said the two Jewish students found “horrifyingly antisemitic flyers” and a “pretty hefty packet” in multiple instances on their cars, which were parked in the Locust Street parking garage, near the University Town Center, a UCSC off-campus housing complex where the two students lived.

“To be honest, I feel [it] should be getting more attention because that specific incident was very targeted, very concerning,” said Hecht. “I see it as having a huge potential for physical violence and I don’t think it was portrayed the way that we know about it.”

Hernandez-Jason said he wouldn’t provide any further details on the incident of the flyers downtown or confirm what Harel and Hecht said.

The incidents have sparked widespread condemnation from the community, along with an outcry from Jewish students. They also raise larger questions around the prevalence of hate crimes and incidents locally, including how they are tracked and prosecuted, as well as what even constitutes a hate crime.

While UCSC tracks reported hate crimes through its police department, and tracks reported incidents of hate or bias through its Hate/Bias Response program broadly, there are no available statistics to understand the rate of antisemitism on the campus.

Local hate incidents tracked by the Anti-Defamation League in 2022

The Anti-Defamation League tracks incidents of hate, extremism, antisemitism and terrorism, which may or may not rise to the level of severity of a crime. In 2022, the organization documented seven antisemitic and white supremacist incidents in the Santa Cruz area, at least four of which took place at UC Santa Cruz.

February 2022: An anonymous person submitted antisemitic slurs in an RSVP for a Hillel event originally slated to take place at UC Santa Cruz.

February 2022: A UCSC student blocked a Jewish student from entering a friend’s dorm room unless she said “free Palestine.”

March 2022: Antisemitic, anti-Black and white supremacist graffiti was found on the UCSC campus.

March 2022: An anonymous person spread promotional materials for a white supremacist website.

May 2022: A Jewish student at UCSC faced antisemitic and anti-Israel harassment from a fellow student.

October 2022: The neo-Nazi group Folkish Resistance Movement distributed stickers, including a Star of David that read, “Break debt slavery.”

December 2022: The white supremacist group Patriot Front spread propaganda materials.

— Compiled by Jean Yi

During the 2021-22 academic year, a total of 107 incidents of hate or bias were reported to the program — the most since 2016’s 151 reports. The pandemic shut down the campus for about two years, starting in spring 2020, and therefore likely had an impact on reported incidents for those years.

The incidents from the 2021-22 year saw race as the primary category for hate or bias, with 38% of the reports. Following race were other categories including sexual orientation, ancestry, gender, citizenship/nationality and creed/religion.

Lookout asked newly appointed UCSC Executive Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police Kevin Domby on Tuesday about the number of potential hate crimes the campus police investigates, if and how the department responds to reports that swastikas have been scrawled on the doors of Jewish students, and if the department received a report about the Hitler birthday party. He said he needed more time to respond and could provide answers later this week.

As for data on hate crimes and incidents within the City of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante said this week that the agency does collect that information, but it would have to be accessed through a public records request. As of Wednesday afternoon, Escalante said that he did not know if the flyers are under investigation, but he said that the alleged nature of the incident does “definitely capture some of the hate crime elements.”

Similarly, Santa Cruz County Undersheriff Chris Clark said Tuesday that countywide data on hate crimes and incidents was not immediately available, and he would need to get it from the agency’s analyst. Both Clark and Escalante did note, however, that the agencies take reports of hate crimes very seriously and have policies on how to proceed with investigations.

When asked about hate crimes and incidents that the county district attorney’s office has prosecuted and how many of those cases have been referred to the office, Assistant District Attorney Steve Drottar said he had never run numbers like that, and would need to get them through IT personnel. He said the turnaround time would be about one day. On Wednesday afternoon, Drottar sent data to Lookout that shows 11 hate crimes referred to the district attorney’s office during the 2022 calendar year. Only two of those were officially filed as hate crimes. Three were rejected and four were charged as something other than a hate crime.

The Anti-Defamation League documented seven antisemitic and white supremacist incidents in the Santa Cruz area in 2022. The California Department of Justice reported 43 hate crimes in the county in 2021, eight of which resulted in convictions.

One issue in gauging the scope of hate crimes across the county is that the difference between hate crimes and hate incidents is “very gray,” Escalante said, which leads to challenges in investigations.

“If you have physical violence, then it’s pretty clear,” he said. “Most cases are something like vandalism against a protected group, but we also have to be able to prove that the act of either physical violence or vandalism was directed towards an individual because of their protected status.”

For example, Escalante says, if an intoxicated person gets into a bar fight and they use a derogatory term or slur, and the person on the receiving end is not a member of the demographic that the language pertains to, it will not be prosecuted as a hate crime. The person would have to have been targeted because of their status.

“But there’s a lot to that, you have to prove that the suspect knew or thought that person was within that protected class, or even just that the suspect thought they were because of appearance,” Escalante said. “There’s a lot of dots to connect.”

Then there is the First Amendment. If a person is participating in an offensive activity that is protected by the First Amendment, it will not fall under the umbrella of hate crimes.

“Let’s say you put signs out front of somebody’s house that you know is Jewish — that’s a problem. If you have an event at your own house that isn’t directed at anybody specifically, you have a right to do that,” said Escalante. “There are a lot of things that people say or do that are offensive to others and could be considered hatred, but it’s also a First Amendment-protected right.”

The legal system is yet another layer to consider when prosecuting or investigating a hate crime. Escalante said that police make arrests based on probable cause, and then the district attorney’s office will make a decision on whether prosecutors are able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, often but not always in front of a jury. “Ultimately the district attorney’s office is the deciding factor,” the police chief said.

Drottar, of the district attorney’s office, articulated many of the same difficulties in prosecuting hate-crime accusations.

“You have to look at all of the circumstances surrounding what they’re doing,” he said. “The background of the perpetrator, the perceived characteristics of the victim, and determine that this was an actual substantial factor in why they did what they did.”

Drottar added that, locally, hate crimes and incidents are not common in his experience, but he has prosecuted some. He recalls a case from last year, in which Nicholas Wayne Sherman was prosecuted for placing white supremacist literature on people’s front doors in Aptos. He was prosecuted under California Penal Code 11411, and pleaded no contest.

— Jean Yi contributed to this report.

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated with additional quotes from Santa Cruz Police Chief Bernie Escalante, and with data from the district attorney’s office.

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