Racist messages on rocks, flyers shock Santa Cruzans as propaganda uptick mirrors state, nation
White supremacist propaganda has been found on rocks and flyers around Santa Cruz County recently. The incidents, which have been discussed on social media and, most recently, in a Capitola City Council meeting last month, have prompted some to worry about their neighbors’ stances on racial and social equity.
But the propaganda found in Santa Cruz is just a drop in the bucket of white supremacist messaging that has been found in California for years, according to data on hate groups. And it comes as a deeply divided country continues to grapple with a racial divide only exacerbated by Donald Trump’s presidency, one national expert says.
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Still, in the wake of racist graffiti being found in Santa Cruz just this week, rocks with the words “no white guilt” painted on them found countywide in recent weeks and months, and a swastika turning up in Boulder Creek last summer, some residents can’t help but be unnerved.
Longtime Capitola resident Ruby Perry-Swick said she was walking toward Capitola Village on Feb. 4 when she found a small piece of white paper decorated with hearts and glitter. The message on it said “no white guilt” and included a link to a website that embraces white supremacist ideology.
She took a picture of the paper, ripped it up and threw it away. “It worries me that there might be some more of those people than I realized around here,” she told Lookout.
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“No white guilt” was a phrase used in the 1960s, and thereafter, as part of the debate in California over affirmative action, according to University of San Francisco professor James Lance Taylor, a political scientist and author who studies race and ethnic politics.
When Proposition 209 passed in 1996, outlawing the use of affirmative action when it comes to race or sex, white people had to determine what “obligation” they had to address issues of race, Taylor explained. The propaganda found in Santa Cruz County hinges on the same messaging that has been used for decades to try and create a monolithic white identity — and political ideology — that doesn’t actually exist, Taylor said.
“The guilt associated with ‘white guilt’ is forcing people from the white community to bring this up, because Black folks don’t care about white guilt,” he said. “‘White guilt’ is just, again, an attempt to play a Jedi mind trick on the racial reality by making white people the victims of their own reality.”
The website on the no-white-guilt rocks and flyers found here is run by a podcast host and video blogger whose work has been mentioned by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, according to a report by the news website Quartz.
Despite liberal reputation, county not immune to hateful messaging
The first time that Black Lives Matter activist Bella Bonner learned of rocks painted with the words “no white guilt” on them was in September, around the time Black Surf Club that she helped organize kicked off in Santa Cruz. The group of surfers had gathered for a photo to commemorate the day. Later that week, Bonner received a message alerting her to pictures and video of multiple rocks with the no-white-guilt message in the same area where the Black surfers had taken their photo.
The person who sent the message had been walking on East Cliff Drive, collecting the rocks and throwing them in the trash, Bonner said.
Months later, Bonner saw a rock for herself. She is also aware of sightings around Pleasure Point and Eastside Santa Cruz.
The Santa Cruz Police Department said in an emailed statement that no such incidents have been reported to the agency.
But, “if you really look, they’re around. They’ll be in the landscaping,” Bonner said.
Hateful speech in Santa Cruz isn’t new to Bonner: She got her start as an activist and organizer in 2011, after a series of racist graffiti incidents at Soquel High School when she was a sophomore.
Now, to see white supremacist messages on rocks so close to where she and other surfers gather is disconcerting. Sometimes, Black Surf Club members get weird looks just for being out in the water, she said.
“Sometimes it’s just really sad to realize just how deep anti-Blackness goes. They really don’t want to see joy,” she said. “Most times I’m like, just let us be.”
Propaganda on rise, both nationally and statewide
Propaganda is a common tactic used by hate groups to “maximize media and online attention, while limiting the risk of individual exposure, negative media coverage, arrests and public backlash that often accompanies more public events,” according to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. The center found a “near-doubling” of white supremacist propaganda nationwide between 2019 and 2020 — from 2,724 reported cases in 2019 to 5,125 the following year.
That increase marked the highest levels the center had ever recorded for white supremacist propaganda, with California being one of the states with the most cases.
“The barrage of propaganda, which overwhelmingly features veiled white supremacist language with a patriotic slant, is an effort to normalize white supremacists’ message and bolster recruitment efforts while targeting minority groups including Jews, Blacks, Muslims, non-white immigrants, and the LGBTQ community,” according to the Center on Extremism.
From 2019 to 2021, hate group researchers have identified at least 638 incidents of white supremacist propaganda in California, but actual numbers are likely to be much higher due to cases that go unreported.
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Locally, white supremacist propaganda was found at Cabrillo College in April 2019, according to the Center on Extremism’s database. College campuses statewide have been targets for such propaganda in the past two years, although COVID-19 meant many groups pivoted to digital recruitment efforts and campaigns, according to a report by UCLA researchers.
There has been an especially dramatic uptick in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States since the start of the pandemic. In the wake of the March 16 murder of eight people, most of them Asian American women, in Atlanta, many AAPI residents of Santa Cruz have reflected on the racism they’ve endured here.
Santa Cruz County has also had other instances of extremism, including the murder of Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Sergeant Damon Gutzwiller, who officials say was killed on June 6, 2020 by Steven Carillo, an alleged member of the anti-government “boogaloo” group.
Later that summer, in August 2020, a swastika and “white lives matter” were found spray-painted on a neighborhood street in Boulder Creek, according to the ADL database.
As recently as Tuesday night, Santa Cruz Police deputies responded to a report of racist graffiti painted onto a sidewalk. Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime, and said it is the first such case in 2021.
Statewide, there are reports of hateful propaganda, too. Pro-Ku Klux Klan flyers have been spotted in Newport Beach following reports that a white supremacist march has been organized for April 11 in neighboring Huntington Beach, Newsweek is reporting.
Capitola leaders speak out
Capitola Police Chief Terry McManus said Mayor Yvette Brooks notified him on March 14 that two “potentially inappropriate and/or insensitive propaganda” fliers with the words “no white guilt” on them were found on a telephone pole near the historic Rispin Mansion. The person who found the fliers removed them from the pole, McManus said, and police weren’t able to find other evidence of the propaganda when they went out to the property.
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Capitola councilmember and former mayor Kristen Petersen said she also heard about a flier near Rispin Mansion, as well as no-white-guilt rocks in a nearby garden on Capitola Avenue. Petersen publicly denounced the propaganda at the March 25 Capitola City Council meeting.
“I think it makes people feel unsafe and question if they are welcome in our community, and that’s not OK with me,” she told Lookout afterward.
Although she has witnessed or heard about “implicit or explicit bias” in her city, Petersen said coming across “outright” white supremacist propaganda was a new experience.
“This, to me, is the first time that I’ve seen — I can only describe it as a — pro-white propaganda or pro-white agenda that was explicitly advertised in this way in our city. And it’s especially interesting and concerning that one of the fliers showed up near Rispin ... when we are starting this conversation around what to name the new park,” she said.
Earlier this year, a Capitola resident brought to light racist connections to the Rispin mansion during a community workshop about renovations planned for the structure and an adjacent park, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Some deeds to the Rispin property barred anyone except people of “the Caucasian race” from occupying it. They date back to the period during which the mansion’s namesake, Henry Rispin, was a major landowner and developer in Capitola. City leaders and community members have started debating whether to rename the property as a result of the revelations.
County a microcosm of America
When looking back at American history, it becomes clear that cycles of white reaction and violence often come after “a mobilization of Black people toward some kind of reform,” according to Taylor, the aforementioned University of San Francisco professor.
Taylor sees what is happening in Santa Cruz County as a microcosm of the national racial climate, a new iteration made bolder by support from high-ranking elected officials, including President Donald Trump.
“The anti-Blackness that we’re seeing at the national level was there before Trump. ...[But he] gave new energy to these movements, and new confidence and a new sense of political efficacy,” he said.
Stark realities — like a devastating pandemic economy, the opioid crisis and capitalist structures that don’t elevate whites to the middle class as easily as in the past — have created actual suffering and fertile ground for racial resentments to grow, Taylor said. When young white people take to the streets en masse with people of other races and ethnicities, like during the litany of Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer, that only causes more panic by white supremacists, he said.
“For every social action, there is an equal and opposite reaction in racial politics,” he said, noting how the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 came after a summer of racial justice protests and a historic election, in which Black voter turnout shattered records.