LOS ANGELES, Aug. 15 In a small grove of trees on the campus of Pierce College in Woodland Hills this past Sunday, a group of government officials and concerned citizens gathered to honor the victims of hate crimes.
About 300 people attended the Unity Over Hate Rally, each representing a cross-section of the diverse Los Angeles community, all braving the intense August sun to share their support for peace, both locally and across the nation.
The rally’s main focus was to commemorate the events of Aug. 10, 1999. The families of those wounded that day in the shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and of Joseph Ileto, the Filipino-American postal worker gunned down by the same alleged perpetrator, came up to the podium and tried to bring meaning to their personal tragedies. Alongside the stage stood a poster of Ileto, with his first name used as an acronym for Join Our Struggle to Educate and Prevent Hate.
Ismael Ileto, Joseph’s brother, gave the morning’s most moving speech, noting that it had been a year of heavy losses for his family.
“It is one thing to (lose) a father from a heart attack. It is another to lose a brother to a senseless attack,” he said, then went on to speak about Joseph’s always being there to offer a helping hand, of his pride in working for the postal service and his love of chess.
“He was at the right place at the right time, doing what he was supposed to be doing delivering mail. His killer, on the other hand, was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong set of moral values.”
Ileto asked the audience to remember another acronym using the family’s name, Instill Love, Equality and Tolerance for Others, and urged the assembled to keep pressure on government representatives to pass hate crime legislation.
“It is time for us to lead this nation into being a hate-free society. Let’s not lose momentum,” he said.
Donna Finkelstein, mother of Mindy Finkelstein, the then-16-year-old camp counselor wounded in the JCC attack, told the crowd she would never forget receiving the call from Holy Cross Hospital that terrible day.
“Some Jew-hater had shot at and tried to kill my daughter. I will never understand how anyone could (do this),” she said. “We must never forget that hate crimes exist and must be stopped. Education is the only solution.”
Since the crime, Finkelstein has become active with the Million Mom March. “Working for common sense gun control and hate crime legislation has helped get my family back on track,” she said.
Also asked to speak were Kim Lynch, whose son was killed in a racist attack and Simon Hollis, who lost his daughter, 21-year-old Renesha Fuller, in a gang-related shooting in 1998.
Sunday’s event was put together by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) along with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission and the Million Mom March. Sherman is a co-author and major proponent of H.R. 1082, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999, which has been stalled in the House’s Subcommittee on Crime for more than a year. In an effort to get the bill moving (a similar bill passed the Senate this year), Sherman encouraged rally attendees to sign oversized petitions which he intends to bring to the House floor.
At Sunday’s ceremony, Rabbi Yitchak Etshalom of the Simon Wiesenthal gave the invocation and Rev. Zedar Broadus of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the NAACP gave the benediction. Also present at the rally were virtually every prominent San Fernando Valley lawmaker and local office.
Guest speakers included Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Council members Laura Chick and Michael Feuer and City Attorney James Hahn as well as state representatives, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa.
Chief Bernard Parks summed it up best, stating: “What makes hate crimes such an insidious type of crime is that it affects the entire community. When this man attacked the JCC, he went after our two most precious commodities: our children and our religion. ”
Unlike the usual long set of speeches, participating officials were asked to each share a story about a hate crime that took place in their district. Villaraigosa spoke of a Jewish couple who were the targets of a graffiti attack, including swastikas painted on their home; Feuer told a similar tale of a 48-year-old black woman whose home was also targeted by white supremacists.
Chick told two stories of racism, one that took place some years ago in which an African-American colleague and her husband tried to move to the West Valley and could not find a real estate agent willing to show them a house and another more recent story where a young woman of mixed race attempted to rent an apartment next to her college and was told the place was full. A few minutes later, the landlord said he would rent it to the next applicant, a white man the young woman’s father.
Feuer said such stories called for a vigorous response.
“If our highest aspiration is merely tolerance, that is not good enough,” Feuer said. “Tolerance means there may be something you don’t like about someone but you learn to live with it. What I feel we really need to seek is a higher understanding and appreciation of what each of us has to offer.”
With the Democratic National Convention in town, rally organizers had hoped for appearances from big-name politicians but received only one out-of-town visitor, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who praised Sherman’s efforts to gain passage of H.R. 1082. Holt, a former arms-control expert for the State Department, spoke of the dual need for hate crime legislation and tighter gun control laws.
“The weapon this madman used was a retired police firearm,” Holt noted. “I’ve heard from a lot of police personnel who do not like this situation and I’ve introduced legislation to keep retired weapons from being re-sold in this way.”
The topic of gun control resonated with the audience, especially the women of the Million Mom March and Women Against Gun Violence, both of whom had booths at the event. Laura Kelly, whose son Hunter was one of the “daisy chain” of preschoolers led out of the JCC by police the day of the shooting, said she hoped the rally would become an annual gathering.
“We need to keep coming back until we get done what we need to get done,” Kelly said. “People who have a history of mental illness should not be able to get hold of assault weapons and open fire on children.”