How My Town Became a NIOT Town | Not in Our Town

How My Town Became a NIOT Town

NOT IN MY TOWN - El Sobrante Comes Together to Start a NIOT Group in the Wake of Hate 

by NIOS Director Becki Cohn-Vargas

NIOS Director Becki Cohn-Vargas and Amit Singh, from the Sikh Gurdwara at the El Sobrante library.

For the last ten years, I have been involved with Not In Our Town, working with educators, students, and community leaders  across the United States to build more inclusive communities. Suddenly, in late 2016, in the wake of the presidential elections, hate reared its ugly head within a mile of my home.

In September 2016, Maan Singh Khalsa, a Sikh man was attacked when two men threw a beer can at his car, jumping from their truck, shouting insults. They punched him and cut his hair, a particular sacrilege for people of the Sikh religion. He subsequently lost one of his fingers as a result of the beating. When the case went to trial, the men were found guilty of a felony assault with hate crime enhancements. 

A month later, only a week after the presidential elections, Will Sims, a young African American musician, was beaten and fatally shot. Despite the fact that the N-word was hurled during the murder, a grand jury declined prosecutors’ request to charge the murder as a hate crime. Local residents immediately took action. Candle-light vigils were held at the library across the street from the site of the murder.

El Sobrante citizens gathered at the Sikh Gurdwara came together on May 24, 2017 for an evening of music and storytelling.
For the last 27 years, I have lived in the town of El Sobrante, loving the rural feel where horses might pass my living room window only 20 miles from San Francisco.  El Sobrante is a tiny town of 13,000 residents, a town so small that it is not incorporated, has no mayor and just two long main streets. There is a mix of racial groups, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and Asians. There are many churches, one synagogue, and a Sikh Gurdwara that all serve this small community, a community which had lived together peacefully.
Members of NIOT El Sobrante congregated in the El Sobrante library to commemorate Will Sims.

In the wake of this hate violence, local residents reached out to NIOT for support. I joined with them and Not In Our Town, El Sobrante was launched. Our small group started a Facebook Group Page  that rapidly grew to 223 members.

Local civic leaders, Supervisor John Gioia and Representative Tony Thurman made added momentum to our movement when they sponsored an anti-hate forum at the Boys and Girls Club. Over 300 people attended on a rainy Saturday morning, less than a month after Will Sims' murder. The overwhelming response and the sense of urgency spurred us forward.

Applying learnings from other NIOT groups, our next step was to print large posters with the words “Not In Our Town, El Sobrante, Stop Hate Together Respect for All”. Our members canvassed the two main streets of town asking business members to post them. We were glad to discover that most businesses were happy to post them they remain up to this day.

Will Sims' father speaks to the gathering as Pastor Hardy looks on.

We decided to do our next event on May 24, 2017 at the local Sikh Gurdwara. The beautiful golden dome towers majestically on the hill, visible to anyone who drives down San Pablo Dam Road, our main street. Yet many El Sobrante residents had never set foot inside. “You Are Not Alone” was the message we wanted to share with all our neighbors, especially with those Sikhs wearing turbans who could be feeling more vulnerable after the recent attack. Over a hundred people joined together for a wonderful evening of Sikh music and storytelling.  Sikh community leaders shared about the Sikh religion and culture and members of other ethnic backgrounds also shared about their experiences living in El Sobrante. In keeping with the Sikh “open door” tradition of welcoming and feeding all visitors, the evening ended with a delicious meal.  

Recently, on November 19, on the anniversary of the two hate crimes, NIOT El Sobrante decided to hold an event to remember and celebrate Will Sims. We invited the Sims family, to the community library to dedicate a rose to Will in the library’s rose garden. It was an unforgettable evening filled with warmth and love. The Sims family joined El Sobrante community members for a standing-room only evening of celebration/remembrance.

On November 19, 2017, a night dedicated to Will Sims, attendees listen to music and various speakers.

Our small, but mighty NIOT El Sobrante Committee, featured Sarah Dunham who moderated along with Amit Singh who shared a Sikh story of moral courage. He also brought delicious samosas. Unitarian Pastor Theresa Hardy, another one of our members, read a non-denominational prayer. I told the Billings Montana story about the birth of NIOT, the first town to come together to stand against white supremacist hate violence and say, "NOT IN OUR TOWN". Michael Baefsky, the arborist who actually planted the rose, played the oud and sang with his guitar with his wife, Jini. Special words were shared by our County Supervisor John Gioia, ACLU chair, Antonio Medrano, and local Pastor Marvin Webb.  Michael De Wall and Lida Grinfeld sang Guantanamera, a popular protest song of Cuban origin, and we were wowed by Anthony Mills-Branch and Ashanti Johnson of the Oaktown Jazz Workshops, a mentoring group Will Sims had been active in before he was killed.

We recognize that our efforts are as unique as our community. They reflect our laid back local style and our desire to get to know and celebrate all our neighbors. Each Not In Our Town group has its own character, yet how wonderful to know that we are part of a growing movement, standing together to stop hate and to promote welcoming and diverse communities. Here in El Sobrante, California –as in other towns who’ve suffered hate violence– we’re determined not to  forget Will Sims. We will not let hate win in our town.

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