San Bernardino anniversary: How a city countered hate in the wake of tragedy

A national surge in hate crimes against Muslims followed the terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif., on Dec. 2, 2015. But residents say that rather than dividing the community, the tragedy brought them closer together. 

Jae C. Hong/AP
Kate Bowman, 15, casts a shadow over a chalk message written by her mother on the sidewalk outside the Islamic Center of Claremont in Pomona, Calif. on Nov. 25, 2016. Bowman's father, Harry, was killed in the Dec. 2, 2015, terror attack at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. Almost a year after his death, Bowman etched the word "love" in yellow chalk on the sidewalk outside a mosque - just one of the messages of peace the teenage Lutheran and her mother have left in an effort to unify Muslims and Christians in the hardscrabble city east of Los Angeles against the violence that many community members feared might divide them.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of an event that forever changed the city of San Bernardino, Calif.: the terror attack, carried out by husband-and-wife assailants, that killed 14 people and left 21 injured at a holiday party for county employees.

Across the country, a surge of anti-Muslim backlash followed the Islamic State-inspired massacre. Eight hate crimes against Muslims were reported in the five days after the attack, and in the weeks that followed, two southern California mosques were sprayed with graffiti and another set on fire. 

But in San Bernardino, the site of the attack, a very different response was occurring as a community came together to heal and combat the hate and fear that often arises after such assaults. Neighbors supported suffering neighbors. Victims' families encouraged open, tolerant dialogue. Muslims launched a campaign to help other citizens better understand Islam. Congregations of different faiths came together to mourn and pray. And through it all, for the remainder of 2015, not one single hate crime was reported in San Bernardino. 

"When you have a tragedy that makes everyone feel vulnerable, in a way, it counters the very hate that caused the event in the first place. It's a unifying thing," says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "The vulnerability of coming under the grip of evil makes people a lot more likely to work together and overlook differences that they might not have before." 

"At a time when the rest of the country was escalating," he adds, "we came together." 

The sense of unity that continues to grow in San Bernardino today cannot be attributed to one person or group, Levin says, but rather to contributions from city residents from all walks of life: first responders, medical workers, law enforcement, educators, interfaith leaders, and others. 

This community-wide effort has resulted in a better understanding of, and increased compassion for, one's neighbors, residents say. About a month after the attack, an event at the First Presbyterian Church of San Bernardino featuring a guest speaker from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in nearby Chino attracted a standing-room only crowd, many of whom came prepared with questions for the visitor. 

"I think there are people who are afraid," Sandy Tice, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of San Bernardino, told the Associated Press. "But mostly I think there are people who have risked getting to know others that they didn't know before. There is a kind of urgency about getting to know one another, figuring out how to co-exist." 

A sense of peace and normality has not, of course, entirely returned to the city rocked by what was, at the time, the worst terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. Many residents now lock their windows, avoid public places, or rely on guard dogs or guns for protection, the San Bernardino Sun reports. Area Muslims remain wary of potential backlash, and authorities investigating the attack still don't have all the answers. 

But the progress that those in the community have made can, in many ways, serve as an example for a country divided in the wake of the recent presidential election. The one-year anniversary of San Bernardino comes weeks after the FBI reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015, a surge that experts have attributed to a string of terror attacks in Europe and the US, as well as the 2016 campaign rhetoric. 

As reports show a spike in hate crimes across the US in the days following the presidential election, Levin urges Americans to remember that, as it has in San Bernardino, leadership can often come from "the regular folk – from the bottom up, not necessarily from the top down." 

"There’s a certain type of civic communication," he says. "It's not just voting. It’s becoming a part of an inclusive community...Don't look for the governor or the president to set the tone of your community. You set it." 

Already, there are signs that many Americans are doing just that: amid the post-election surge in hate speech and crimes, advocates say they have also noticed an increase in support and compassion from people wishing to unite, rather than divide, their communities. 

"Over the coming weeks and months I think we are going to see a lot of coalition building and finding strength and sources of hope and solidarity through these efforts," Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney at Muslim Advocates in Oakland, Calif., told the Monitor in the week after the election. "It’s important for communities to come together – and I think there's been a lot of this the past few days. That, I think, brings strength to those communities who are impacted, helping them recognize that no one community is going to be alone." 

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