By Cathleen Falsani 1-17-2017

“Mayberry-by-the-Sea.”

That’s usually how I describe my hometown of Laguna Beach, Calif. 

It’s a groovy artist’s colony and bonafide surfing town of about 22,000 souls where everybody seemingly knows everybody else and many of us don’t lock our front doors or cars. Laguna is a place where, generally speaking, it feels as if people don’t care how much money you have (although plenty of our neighbors have plenty of it), what you look like, or what you do, as long as you are kind and trying — in whatever way you can — to make the world a better place.

My husband, son, and I moved here from the suburbs of Chicago in the summer of 2009, drawn to this idyllic place in part because of the sense and kind of community it has been and is. That our son is a black child, who was born and spent the first nine years of his life in Africa and would be among the 0.8 percent of the population in town who are black, gave us not a moment’s pause, because of how we understood Laguna to be.

And when we arrived, sure enough, our neighbors — the kind-hearted hobbits of our Shire — greeted our little family with open arms. My son wasn’t simply “tolerated” or even “accepted.” He was celebrated. While he may be one of (statistically) perhaps nine African-American students in Laguna Beach High School’s 1,140 student body, much of the time he goes about life unmolested and unfettered, largely living the life of a typical American teenager.

And then something happens that reminds us, and not in the good way, that he is not typical. At least not here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea. At least not in the small minds of a few who have let stupidity, arrogance, entitlement, privilege, and hatred take root in their hearts.

On Dec. 27, 2016, shortly before 9 p.m., our family was just sitting down to eat dinner and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with my brother, an Air Force pilot who had recently returned from a six-month deployment overseas fighting ISIS. This was the first chance he’d had to see his only nephew in more than a year. We watch the comedy classic together every year and laugh at all the same places. My brother wasn’t able to make it to us by Christmas, so we were a few days late and looking forward to tucking into our Thai food and watching Chevy Chase chew the scenery.

Then we heard something outside. Our front door was open, as it almost always is, and we heard shouting. It got louder and some of it sounded high-pitched. We thought perhaps someone was having a fight on the street. I worried it might have involved a woman. All of us adults began to move toward the front door. My husband got there first, just as we heard a thud, and screams that sounded like someone calling my son’s name, Vasco.

My husband, Maurice, turned in the threshold and came back into the house. “We just got punked,” he said, his face ashen. “Somebody just threw a watermelon at the house.”

“A WATERMELON?!” my brother and I said in concert. I immediately looked at my son, who sat silent in front of his Massaman curry. He wore an expression of pain and disbelief.

I called the police and took pictures of the melon shards that riddled our driveway, while my husband and brother talked to neighbors. Within 10 minutes, a police officer arrived at our home to take our statements. She was professional, apologetic, and thorough. When she left, my husband cleaned up the mess outside, while Vasco retreated to his room to write in his journal. He said he wanted to be left alone, which was unusual. He was angry in his quiet way, but he wasn’t scared. If that had been the perpetrators’ goal, they failed.

More than anything, right after the incident, my son’s heart was troubled.

“I don’t understand why anyone would hate me like that,” he said.

There were no words of explanation I could offer. I told him that I was sorry, that he was safe, and that I loved him. I wanted to scream and throw up, quaking with rage.

Not long after we put away the food — who could eat? — my husband mentioned that he thought he saw a sticker on a shard of melon. So I grabbed the fireplace tongs and dug around in the tall waste bin in the driveway until I found it. Maurice Googled the brand and discovered it was locally distributed. I phoned one of the supermarkets in town (we have three) and quickly learned that several boys from the high school (they were wearing various hoodies and other clothing bearing the Laguna Beach High School name and sports teams) had been there perhaps 15 minutes before 9 p.m. and bought a watermelon. A clerk at the store later recalled them discussing whether to buy one or two and when they settled on one, which one. They were blocking the aisle, she recalled — strapping athletes that they are — while they conferred and made their decision to go with just one melon, which one of them held aloft like a trophy.

All of this, we later discovered, was captured on store surveillance video, as was the boys getting into the pick-up truck outside the grocery store. A different security camera caught the truck pulling up outside our home not long after. It takes approximately seven minutes to drive from the store to our front door. They came straight here.

Police continued their investigation with vigor, led by a detective who is the first African-American police officer in the history of the Laguna Beach Police Department. They asked us to keep the incident quiet over the school break — it was the holidays, some folks were out of town, school wasn’t in session and school officials would need to be involved, too — until classes resumed. Then, the police could speak to all five of the boys identified via the video tapes at the same time. We told only a few close family members and friends who we trust to keep a secret, even a terrible one. And to his credit, so did our 17-year-old son, demonstrating the almost preternatural self-control, discipline, and character he has had from the moment we met him by the side of a dusty road in Africa nearly a decade ago.

On Jan. 9, police and school officials interviewed all five of the boys, some of whom we know, some not. And all five of the boys made statements implicating themselves, police and school officials told us. Through the boys’ statements, we learned more details of the racist incident.

Earlier on the night of Dec. 27, the five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to that grocery store where the video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items  —  including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant  —  to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate. They chanted our son’s name in unison as they drove up the hill and down the street to our house, where they stopped and called Vasco’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside. Then one of them hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.

You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet — “F--- you, n----er!” — before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.

So much for Mayberry-by-the-Sea. 

This is the part where I am supposed to say I was surprised by the attack on our home. But I can’t.Shocked? Yes. Surprised? Sadly, no. That’s not meant to be a commentary on the particular community where we live. Rather it reflects an awareness of both the current zeitgeist in our nation and its troubled and troubling history with race and racism.

History tells us that if left unchecked, this kind of behavior tends to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not  —  who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed and beaten, who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, call it out, and try to stop it.

Some of the boys involved in carrying out those acts in December we know, and we know their parents. The parents we do know are not frothing-at-the-mouth bigots. We can’t imagine their sons learned racist ideas at home.

But they learned them somewhere.

Racists and bullies aren’t born. They are made.

I’m not going to lay the blame at the feet of any particular celebrity or public figure, candidate or politician, although the president-elect’s public speech and actions are not doing a single thing to model the kind of behavior most of us would want our children to emulate. I agree wholeheartedly with Meryl Streep when she said in her Golden Globes speech the night before police interviewed the five boys in Laguna:

“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”

With our children in particular, such blatant disrespect, incivility, and hatefulness permeates the air like sarin gas. We all breathe it.

We are blessed to live in a community where the prevailing culture says racist attitudes and behavior are neither acceptable nor tolerated. Despite what happened two days after Christmas, we still believe this to be true. The scores of neighbors who have reached out to us directly or indirectly and spoken out publicly to express support for our son and condemnation of the behavior of the five perpetrators are a testament to the prevalence of “higher angels” here.

But here’s the thing about racism that makes it so dangerous: It hides. It secretes itself behind wealth and privilege. Behind gates and reputations and influence. Behind bullies of all ages and threats spoken and unspoken.

The racism that lives here is the most pernicious kind.

I was born and reared in Connecticut, the granddaughter of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, the child of educators (my father spent nearly 50 years of his life teaching in one of the most prestigious public high schools in the nation). Our family was solidly middle-class then, as mine is today, but I always have been well acquainted with the rich and powerful. They were neighbors and friends. They still are.

The town where our family lived throughout my teen and college years, just a few miles away from Newtown, is fairly Norman Rockwellian in terms of New England ideals. And yet, when I was a junior in high school, just as my son is now, a neighbor in our quaint Connecticut town became the “imperial wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan — the “top klansman” in the nation.

It is a fact so incongruous to the values and culture in which my brother and I grew up that I have thought it might be an apocryphal memory. It’s not. While his racist wizarding days have come and gone, the guy, now in his 80s, still lives in my childhood home town.

I guess that story telegraphs the most important point I’m trying to make: Racism is perhaps most dangerous, pernicious, and destructive where people assume it doesn’t abide.

I learned long ago that racism doesn’t stop on the Southern side of the Mason-Dixon line. It doesn’t seem to care whether the company it keeps has a billion dollars or two cents, a PhD or a GED, a white collar, blue collar, or no collar at all. It’s alive and well on the East and West Coasts, just as it is in big cities and tiny villages all across these United States.

To think that it is not is to do a disservice to ourselves and, most importantly, to our children.

In the nearly three weeks since the racist incident at our home, a line from the little-seen Roland Joffé film There Be Dragons has run through my mind when I’ve considered the five boys and why they chose to do what they did:

“In a child’s heart many seeds are planted. You never know quite what will grow.”

All of us must be vigilant. When racism or any other kind of hatred rear their ugly heads, we must call them out, name them, and shame them publicly. We must do our best to prevent their seeds from taking root and bearing ugly, horrifyingly strange fruit.

We have heard that a few of the boys involved in the watermelon incident are trying to parse their culpability. They were “just passengers.” They were “uncomfortable.” They “felt terrible” immediately afterward — and yet didn’t step up to admit what they’d done until confronted by very unhappy police detectives, school administrators, and coaches.

I have a lot of things I’d like to say to all the boys, but to those who believe they were somehow “less involved,” let me remind them of the words of British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1867 inaugural address at the University of St. Andrew’s:

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” 

“Don’t forget, Vash, you have to stand in your power and use your voice — only you can do that.”

That’s what the woman who takes great joy (as do we) in referring to herself as “Vasco’s Jewish grandmother” told him by phone from her home in Whitefish, Mont., last week.

A week or so before the watermelon landed on our doorstep, Ina Albert and Allen Secher (her husband, a rabbi, who is our son’s joy-filled “adopted Jewish grandfather”) became the targets of alt-right neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic hate groups who posted their names, likenesses, and contact information online. They were harassed, threatened, and called the most awful names.

Because they are Jewish.

Because they have spent a lifetime standing up for what is right, decent, and just. Because they insisted that in their very beautiful, very white, very privileged town in Montana love will always trump hate.

In 1962, as a young rabbi just out of seminary, Allen joined the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Freedom Rider in Georgia. He was arrested in Albany, Ga. Two years later in 1964, Dr. King called on rabbis to join him for a march in St. Augustine, Fla. Allen and 16 other rabbis headed to Florida, where, the day before he arrived, a protestor had been shot and killed. Allen ended up leading the march, hand-in-hand with a young black woman singing freedom songs.

Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day…

I wish everyone I love could have listened in on that phone call between my son and his chosen grandparents, encouraging each other to be brave and courageous, to stand up for what’s right because it’s not just about them. It’s about all of us. And if we don’t, who will?

While we all are angered and disgusted by what happened, and by some of the excuses still being offered privately by some of the perpetrators, we are not interested in retribution. We don’t want revenge. We are Christians who try daily not to horrify Jesus while we fulfill our duty as the hands and feet and voices and faces of God’s love in the world.

We would like to see the boys who did this held accountable for their actions. Moreover, we’d like to see hearts changed and lives transformed by the miracle of truth and reconciliation.

This is a teachable moment and we don’t want it to be squandered. So we are working closely with school and community leaders to make sure what happened isn’t swept under the rug. Again. We have heard from dozens of neighbors, parents, and students that this kind of thing happens here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea a lot more often than any of us would like to imagine or believe.

You probably would like to know, as so many people of good will and faith have asked in recent days, how Vasco has handled all of this? Remarkably well. In fact, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up. Vasco has deep reserves of peace and calmness that are rare in any human, no matter age or life experience. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has navigated these fraught waters with characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.

He would like to have the chance to sit down with the five boys and ask them about the choices they made. “I want to know why they decided to do what they did, and why to me,” Vasco’s told us. “I want to understand what they were thinking.”

I don’t believe Vasco or any of us ever truly will “understand” the thought or lack thereof that fuels such horrendous behavior. While he may not get the answers to his questions now or ever, our son is fine. He is brave and mighty, as our prayer and blessing for him has been each day that he’s been our son and long before that.

I am so very proud of and grateful for Vasco’s heart. Being his mother is the greatest honor and privilege of my life.

Every day, Vasco gives me hope for our collective future.

And a child shall lead them…

Cathleen Falsani

Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and columnist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture.

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