Image of people gathering around the pride flag at Cabrillo College
Cabrillo College organized a rally in front of the Pride flag at its Watsonville campus.
(Via Cabrillo College)
Higher Ed

‘It feels like a personal attack’: UCSC, Cabrillo College officials condemn hate-related vandalism

Two weekend hate-related incidents have left UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College students, faculty and administrators feeling shocked, vulnerable and angry. At UCSC, suspects scrawled anti-Black, antisemitic and white supremacist graffiti on five areas at Crown and Merrill colleges, while at Cabrillo, someone set fire to the rainbow Pride flag at the Watsonville Center. School administrators have denounced the incidents and police are actively working to see if the cases are related.

Elizabeth Abrams, provost of UC Santa Cruz’s Merrill College, awoke Saturday morning to learn that overnight, an unknown number of suspects spray-painted swastikas and anti-Black, white supremacist messages on trash containers, trees and retaining walls of her college and adjacent Crown College.

A student saw at least one person spray-painting early Saturday and called police, said campus spokesman Scott Hernandez-Jason.

In a separate incident, someone burned the Pride flag that usually flies near the El Patio study space and outdoor eating area at Cabrillo College’s Watsonville Center. A student worker found the charred remains Saturday near Building B. UCSC and Watsonville police are working to determine if the incidents are related.

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It’s the second potentially hate-related incident within the span of a couple of weeks at Cabrillo. Last month, someone scrawled racist graffiti on a bathroom wall at the Aptos campus.

The sudden spurt of potential hate crimes has left professors, students and administrators befuddled, angry and sad. Abrams — a senior teaching professor, who for 21 years has worked for UCSC and helped steer the writing program — found out about the graffiti at Crown and Merrill in phone calls from Mary Garcia, interim chief of campus police, and Santa Cruz Hillel Director Sarah Cohen Domont.

Abrams lives at Merrill College, but did not see the graffiti before campus workers cleaned it up. She said Jewish students felt particularly upset by the incident and attended a virtual meeting with Domont on Saturday.

“What I can say is as a Jew myself, and as a person who has been around in a position of authority, through quite a number of incidents of racism, bigotry and antisemitism, that every time something like this happens, people just are shaken,” said Abrams. “While it looks generic, it feels so personal. And it feels like a personal attack.”

UCSC is viewed as a tolerant, liberal campus, but it is not immune to allegations of discrimination. Since March 2021, UCSC has received reports of 91 incidents it classifies as hate-related. These are not “hate crimes,” which are criminal offenses such as arson or vandalism motivated by hate or bias against someone’s race, religion, gender, age, abilities etc.

At UCSC, a wide array of incidents can generate a report. Any student, staff or faculty member who feels they have experienced bias because of race, gender or religion can file a report. Reports cover a spectrum of activities: exchanges with professors, exchanges among students or staff or fliers posted publicly, among numerous other possibilities.

Of the reports UCSC received in the past year, 27 were race-related, according to Hernandez-Jason. The others related to ancestry/ethnicity (11), citizenship/nationality (six) and creed/religion (nine). The rest spoke to other concerns, among them, sexual orientation.

UCSC police are actively working on the case, but Hernandez-Jason — whom the university has designated as its spokesperson for its own police force in this case — said he did not know if any suspects had been identified.

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Police have video surveillance from Crown and Merrill colleges, but Hernandez-Jason said he does not know if there is footage of the incident itself. The campus, he added, is not releasing the actual words or images of the graffiti to avoid amplifying the hate-related language.

Hernandez-Jason said he couldn’t say how Saturday’s crimes fit into the greater context of reported hate incidents on campus. He also said he couldn’t provide access to any other campus official who could discuss trend lines of those recent reports.

The pandemic shuttered campuses partially or fully for the past two years, making comparisons of recent patterns of reported hate-related incidents on campus difficult to assess.

In the 2016-17 academic year, UCSC reported 151 incidents, the highest number in the past six years of data the school provided to Lookout. Across the country in 2016, hate-related crimes also rose significantly.

In subsequent years, UCSC reported the following numbers of hate-related incidents:

  • 2017-18: 95
  • 2018-19: 80
  • 201920: 91 (students left campus in spring due to the pandemic)
  • Fall 2020-winter 2021: 35 (with a limited number of students on campus)
Jules Sherriff on the steps at Cabrillo College on Nov. 22, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cabrillo’s experience

On Monday, Cabrillo hosted a ceremony and raised a new, replacement Pride flag. At the ceremony, attended by about 50 people, speakers shared how hate-related incidents have affected their lives.

Cabrillo trustee Adam Spickler said that as an out LGBTQ elected leader, he understands the importance of feeling like someone belongs in a community. He said he wants every Cabrillo student to feel welcome.

“Acts of violence and intimidation at Cabrillo that target any minoritized community are unacceptable, and the burning of an LGBTQ pride flag on our Watsonville campus is no exception,” he said.

He said the college will increase events and opportunities to share positive representations of LGBTQ people at Cabrillo, and work to celebrate inclusion in classrooms and on the campus.

Cabrillo board of trustees president Donna Ziel and board members Felipe Hernandez and Steve Trujillo also also attended the flag-raising, alongside students and community members.

Cabrillo could not offer ready statistics of reported hate incidents on campus.

Cabrillo spokesperson Kristin Fabos said the two weekend incidents “are the only ones in my memory from this year so far.”

In Cabrillo’s annual security report — which tracks hate crimes — the college reported nothing for 2020, one hate crime in 2019 and one in 2018. Both were at the Aptos campus. She said the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and Watsonville Police Department, which have jurisdiction over the Aptos and Watsonville campuses, respectively, might have additional data of hate-related incidents, which Lookout was unable to obtain by deadline.

‘My heart is just kind of broken’

On Monday and Tuesday, UCSC students — who are entering their last week of classes before finals and spring break — talked about the crimes on Reddit and other online platforms. Second-year film and digital media major Korbin Brown didn’t see the graffiti, but said that as a Black man on the UCSC campus, hearing about it makes him feel uneasy.

“I’m never really surprised. My heart is just kind of broken,” he told Lookout. “I really don’t want to see that here. Obviously, I don’t feel welcome [when I hear about that].”

UCSC Chancellor Cindy Larive and Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Lori Kletzer sent out a joint message Saturday to students condemning the crimes. Neither returned Lookout’s messages this week seeking further explanation of the campus’ response.

“The spray-painted images and words are horrific and have historically been used to inspire terror and to degrade and dehumanize Black and Jewish people,” their message reads. “These symbols have taken on broader white supremacist meanings in the 21st century and have also been used against many communities of color. We resolutely condemn this crime.”

Brown appreciates the message and thinks it’s important that the campus talk about hate crimes when they happen.

“I think you should report [crimes] to help. Like, [the person who did this] needs help,” he said. “Their way of thinking on our supposedly progressive campus isn’t reflective of who we are as a community here at UC Santa Cruz.”