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California Pride Flag Shooting Was a “Crime Against Unity”
The Trump-DeSantis culture war threatens values, freedom, and safety in America.
Lake Arrowhead, California
THERE IS NO REFUGE THESE DAYS from the scourges afflicting America, even in the small San Bernardino mountain towns along the cliff-edge Rim of the World highway.
Too many guns and too many of them in the wrong hands. Too much anger that sparks and flames among likeminded, too often troubled people on social media. And much of it fueled rather than calmed by politicians, led by former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who target and isolate vulnerable groups.
This is a big week, legally speaking, for Trump and his attempts to reverse the 2020 election that he lost. Democracy and the rule of law are most definitely on the ballot in 2024. But so are bedrock American values like pluralism, personal freedom, and personal safety. Those are among the stakes of the “culture war” that has grown increasingly dangerous since 2015, when Donald Trump attacked Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals and called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering America.
On Saturday, a shooter who had written hate manifestos against black people killed three of them at a Dollar Store in Jacksonville, Florida. Eight days earlier, just before my family arrived in Lake Arrowhead for a mini reunion, shop owner Lauri Carleton was also killed by a young man with a gun. He shouted anti-gay slurs about the Pride flag at her mag.pi clothing store in nearby Cedar Glen, then shot her with a semiautomatic Smith & Wesson 9-millimeter handgun that was not registered to him.
Those who knew Carleton through her business and her community work posted memorial messages online. “We all heard the 2 shots that took away her last breath yesterday, all because she supports our #LGBT community and is an advocate for #equality supporter of our local community and lover of life,” her neighbors at Timberline in the Glen, a home furnishings store, said in an Aug. 19 Facebook post. Mountain Provisions Cooperative, about a mile away, mourned the loss of “our dear friend, mom to many, ally, organizer, entrepreneur, founding member and soul of our co-op,” and urged people to “pay an act of kindness forward” to honor “an immovable force in her values for equality, love, and justice.”
Last week, as we sat in his office a couple of doors away from mag.pi and the flowers, Pride flags, and American flags memorializing Carleton, Timberline owner Bob Stuhr said he and the rest of the community were reeling. He is gay and his partner, Joe Arredondo, is the operations manager of Timberline. “I’ve been here 30 years,” Stuhr said. “I’ve been open about my life the entire time. The entire community has embraced my partner and me. We’ve never felt threatened or unsafe, ever.”
The alleged gunman, identified as 27-year-old Travis Ikeguchi, fled on foot and was killed in a shootout with police. Starting in 2015, social media accounts linked to him on Gab and Twitter posted increasingly extreme anti-LGBTQ sentiments as far-right politicians and media figures amped up their rhetoric and attacked Democrats as “groomers” and “pedophiles,” according to NBC News. The Gab account said the “LGBT dictatorship” was an abomination, that same-sex marriage should be abolished, and that there will “come a time” when it will be necessary to shoot police officers, NBC and the San Bernardino Sun reported. The Twitter account believed to belong to Ikeguchi, now suspended, called LGBTQ inclusion “a cancer” and in June showed a Pride flag on fire. The accounts on both sites promoted conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic and the Federal Reserve.
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In short, Ikeguchi had all the earmarks of a person who might move from thoughts to action in an era dominated by Trump and his political disciples. A term used by some criminologists and scholars of terrorism is apt here: stochastic terrorism, an act of politically motivated violence that is not directly incited or ordered, and that cannot be predicted but that becomes statistically likely when a large enough population is exposed to rhetoric that demonizes a person or group.
Trump and DeSantis are masters of this kind of rhetoric. Think of Trump’s insistence that there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the 2017 Charlottesville protest staged by white supremacists, and his abusive, sometimes racist attacks on the prosecutors who have charged him with 91 felony counts. DeSantis has already gone after black voters, black history, LGBTQ rights, books, and colleges. Now he’s threatening that if elected president he will “start slitting throats” of federal workers and, in a flourish that smacks of vigilantism, will leave drug smugglers “stone-cold dead at the border.”
And witness the actions of those listening to Trump’s and DeSantis’s rhetoric, from the 2019 shooting rampage at an El Paso Walmart by a man who “characterized himself as a white nationalist, motivated to kill Hispanics because they were immigrating to the United States,” to the January 6th Capitol attack in 2021, to Saturday’s murder of three black shoppers by a racist who set out to target black people with his swastika-decorated guns.
Statistics bear out the trend of hate crimes on the rise along with anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation. The Human Rights Campaign declared a “national state of emergency” for LGBTQ+ Americans after finding in June that over 525 anti-LGBT bills (including 220 specifically aimed at transgender people) had been introduced in state legislatures in 2023, up from 115 in 2015. By early June, at least 76 of those 525 bills had become law. HRC and the Center for Countering Digital Hate reported last year that anti-LGBTQ posts on social media were surging before the midterms and achieving “astonishing visibility” driven largely by Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw, and a few other accounts. More recently, GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League documented “at least 145 incidents of anti-LGBTQ hate and extremism nationwide during Pride 2023,” more than three times the documented count of 48 incidents last year.
Stuhr has personal experience with at least one hate crime. It happened decades ago when he walked out of a gay bar in Alaska and a guy who didn’t like gay people punched out some of his teeth. He’s been dealing with the dental aftermath ever since, including on the day we met.
Still, Timberline does not display a Pride flag—“I wouldn’t put out something that I know is going to trigger people,” Stuhr said—and he tries to stay away from politics. In fact, Stuhr advised Carleton when she opened in summer 2021 that her flag might cost her some sales. “As a business owner I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to do it. But I respected her own private beliefs and how she felt,” he said. “She felt that she didn’t need to cater to haters.” She started with a small flag but it was stolen several times and each time she’d get a bigger flag. Ultimately, “it was the size of that door,” Stuhr said, pointing to his office door.
Carleton didn’t mind losing business if people didn’t like her flag. But her death is a painful reminder that far worse consequences are possible, even amid the serenity of these mountains and lakes.
This is far from the America of my dreams. Stuhr’s vision comes close. He calls Lauri Carleton’s death a hate crime, but also—because she was a straight woman who fiercely defended LGBTQ rights—something more. “It’s really a crime against unity,” he says. “We have enough diversity. Let’s have some unity.” Later, he adds: “I would like it if diversity was not an issue and everything was inclusive. But that’s a utopia, isn’t it.”
He’s right, of course. But we can dream.