Experts Aim To Explain Spike In L.A. Hate Crimes

Click on image to track the number of reported hate crimes in Los Angeles County since 1980. In 2007, 763 crimes were reported, the highest number in five years. Courtesy Los Angeles County Commission On Human Relations hide caption

GRAPHIC: Hate Crimes By Year
itoggle caption Courtesy Los Angeles County Commission On Human Relations

What's A Hate Crime?

Hate crimes are criminal acts or attempted criminal acts against an individual or group of individuals because of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability.

You can read the Los Angeles County Commission On Human Relations' report here.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office offers additional information about the difference between a hate crime and hate incident.

In 2007, 68 percent of the hate crimes in Los Angeles County were related to race, ethnicity or national origen. Click image to see the other major motivating factors. Courtesy Los Angeles County Commission On Human Relations hide caption

GRAPHIC: Hate Crimes By Group
itoggle caption Courtesy Los Angeles County Commission On Human Relations

More In This Series

In Part 2, we meet a man who has chosen to forgive the ex-skinhead who almost killed him three decades ago.

Panzerfaust

Panzerfaust Records' motto is, "We don't just entertain racist kids, we create them." Courtesy Free Your Mind Productions Web Site hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Free Your Mind Productions Web Site

Last year, the number of hate crimes reported in Los Angeles County shot up 28 percent. It is a staggering increase when you realize that nationally the incidence of hate crimes actually declined slightly.

Among the reasons for the jump, some experts say, is a resurging white supremacist movement in Southern California.

One area resident says she was shocked during her morning commute one day in January as she drove by the tawny stucco houses and manicured lawns of Tarzana.

"Right where those boxes are right now was a giant swastika,"says Carol Koransky, pointing to a retaining wall in front of her. "And I don't remember if next to it said 'Kill the Jews' or 'F- - - the Jews.' "

Those bits of graffiti were the first in a long stretch of swastikas and profanity spray-painted along a two-mile route in the San Fernando Valley. Though Tarzana officials painted over the graffiti within hours, so many people had seen it on their trips to work, the story led the news for days.

"The reason it got the attention it did is because it is very unusual," Koransky says. "It was in multiple sites that sprung up overnight and it was very big, very visible and pretty hateful."

Right now, police have no suspects in the case.

Racist Groups Growing

Tarzana isn't alone. Hate crimes are up all over Los Angeles County, according to the local Commission on Human Relations. The most frequently targeted groups in 2007 were blacks, Latinos, gays and Jews.

A more widespread understanding of what a hate crime is may have contributed to a spike in reports of such crimes. But experts say another factor is an increasing number of hard-edged, hot-eyed white supremacists.

Amanda Susskind of the local Anti-Defamation League says her group has counted more than 1,000 racist skinheads in Southern California alone. Nationwide, she said, they have uncovered 110 skinhead groups they didn't even know existed five years ago.

"With the advent of the Internet, it has a democratizing influence in the sense that a small group can do just as much damage," she says.

The Roots Of White Supremacy In L.A.

But why are there so many skinheads in Southern California? For one, there's history there.

Richard Butler was an engineer at Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, part of Los Angeles County. It was here he founded the Aryan Nations. The large number of immigrants in the Los Angeles area has also stirred up latent hatred; anti-immigration groups have found common cause with supremacists.

Visiting a local high school makes it clear how this is unfolding at a grass-roots level. At William J. "Pete" Knight High School in northern L.A. County, freshman Kayleen (her parents asked that her last name be withheld) says matter-of-factly that her school has a white supremacist clique. Members tend to hang out together in the cafeteria, dressed in plaid shirts and sporting shaved heads.

"They are just really weird," she says in typical high school parlance. "They'll like go around doing their Hitler stuff and they'll be like 'Heil Hitler' and they say all that kind of stuff and it's annoying. It's not necessary."

White-Power Music

Some say one reason there are so many skinheads in high schools like Kayleen's is that kids are being recruited, actively, through music.

Back in 2005, a music label called Panzerfaust Records started what it called Project Schoolyard USA, an effort to get 100,000 CDs into the hands of students across the country. These CDs include a variety of insidious hate rock songs, including "Wake Up" by the group RaHoWa (Racial Holy War), which calls on listeners to wake up to the fact that they are surrounded by minorities.

"They say the N-word and the F-word and stuff so you kinda get the hint — what they're doing," says Kayleen. "Like when I go on my friends' MySpace pages or stuff I'll hear the music. ... You kind of hear the lyrics and you get what it is and you're kinda like 'Oh, I'm not going to listen to this anymore.' "

Before the Internet, the white power music scene was an underground affair, which pulsated below the radar. Now kids can simply play or download the music off the Web. This makes Richard Eaton, who studies the white supremacist movement at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, worry.

"We asked kids, 'What do you think of the lyrics?' And they said, 'I only listen to it because I like the sound of the music,' " he says. "But when you are listening to this all the time and hear the lyrics, they stick with you."

The Tolerance Mobile

That's one of the reasons the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has started proactively going into the schools to counteract hate crimes. It has a trailer that it calls the Tolerance Mobile, which officers take from school to school.

One recent afternoon, as concussive hip-hop music shakes the trailer, freshman students straggle in, looking around nervously. Detective Chris Keeling, a beefy man with an easy smile, is standing at the back.

The lights go out and a movie starts up. It's a half-hour stream of cautionary tales, exploring racist gangs and violence in L.A. For freshmen in Palmdale, it isn't just a rhetorical exercise. One of the incidents in the video — a beating of two Hispanic kids by black schoolmates — took place here, at William J 'Pete' Knight High School. After the movie, Detective Keeling tries to engage the kids.

"First I want to ask a question," he begins. "Is there anything in that video that kind of looked familiar to you guys? Anybody?"

A girl pipes up. "The Geraldo and Pamela, the two in the movie, I know them."

"You know them?" Keeling begins. "What does that tell you?"

The girl gets instantly shy. "I don't know."

"What it tells you is that it isn't just happening in Highland Park, or L.A. or Orange County," Keeling says. "Where else is it happening?"

The teenagers respond in chorus, "In our community."

"Right here," he says. "Right here."

Keeling says that the sheriff's office has stopped waiting until high school to start teaching about hate crimes and has started showing this movie to middle school students.

"By the time these kids are freshmen, many hate groups have already got their hooks in them," Keeling says.

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