Acts of intolerance, discrimination and violence are being committed against members of various communities around the nation. How is Tucson doing at combating hate crimes?

As many of us did, for the past few years, Tony Zinman watched from his Tucson home as events unfolded nationwide, horrified to see attacks on people based on their race, sexual orientation, religion or nationality.

“It’s something I hadn’t really experienced before as an adult,” says Zinman, who works as a public defender for youths. “It was quite scary.”

Then an angry world seemed to descend on Jews, which terrified Zinman because he is Jewish.

“I read about people getting the heck beaten out of them because they are Jewish,” he observes. “I felt like, where was the support? We try to be there for other people. Where was everybody for us?”

Zinman, who is active on social media, had seen hashtags such as “#stopAsianhate” when Asian Americans were attacked and wondered why there weren’t any hashtags defending Jewish victims of hate crimes.

“I felt like people were not caring about us. I was feeling pretty scared and alone.”

And then, the violence became even more personal. In May, someone threw a rock into the window of his synagogue, Congregation Chaverim, and within days, a swastika and anti-Semitic graffiti were painted on the door of another synagogue, Chabad on River.

“It felt like a death march,” Zinman remarks. “It’s not something that used to happen, especially in Tucson.”

Tucson legislator Alma Hernandez, also a member of Congregation Chaverim, expressed her shock over the two crimes.

“When it happens to one, it happens to all of us,” she posted in her social media. “The amount of Jewish hate isn’t shocking. The silence is.

“This is NOT my #Tucson that I love and respect,” she wrote. “You don’t need to be Jewish to understand why this is hurtful.”

Tucson hasn’t experienced the wave of violent hate crimes seen in larger U.S. cities, the kind that spurred Congress to overwhelmingly pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Bill that President Joe Biden signed into law in late May. Statistically, Tucson ranks low for reported hate crimes, barely reaching into the double digits, and no prosecutions have passed through the Pima County Attorney’s Office in recent memory.

But that doesn’t mean that sporadic crimes against groups based on race, ethnicity or sexual orientation doesn’t cut deep into the hearts of Tucsonans. The repercussions last long after deaths are grieved, wounds are healed and properties repaired.

Todd Rockoff, president and CEO of the Tucson Jewish Community Center, says although anti-Semitic violence in the nation ramped up over the pandemic, Tucsonans drew together as a community.

“We certainly don’t speak for the entire Jewish community, but from a local perspective, we here at JCC are certainly aware of what has been happening and it’s natural to take precautions,” he says. “We’re very fortunate here.

“The Jewish Community Center is open to all,” he comments. “We have a wonderful sense of community here and have experienced that throughout the pandemic. We rally around each other. That speaks beautiful things about Tucson.

“That said, it certainly is concerning the level of hate we hear about,” he adds.

Support for Asian Americans

Likewise, the president of the Tucson Chinese Association notes that Tucson showed its storied tolerance throughout the pandemic. Peter Chan says that other than a few rude comments left on voicemail, when the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center was closed to the public, he hasn’t heard of any major incidents.

“When we did have events, people showed up with canned food for the food bank and were supportive of members and non-members,” he says. “The overall atmosphere is probably pretty favorable in Tucson, at least the atmosphere about Asians specifically.”

Tucsonans watched with distress as anti-Asian sentiment grew over the past several years of the Trump administration, when the president referred to the novel coronavirus as the “China virus.” Chan says violence isn’t the answer.

“Am I offended that some called it the Chinese virus? I’m disappointed that someone chooses that term instead of one that relates more to the facts,” Chan remarks. “But instead of blaming people, we should be offering solutions.

“I do see the importance of protecting everyone’s rights, to be treated equally with the ability to speak their mind,” he says, “but they have to be respectful to others.”

Chan notes that Tucson has a growing number of residents from many parts of the world, including refugees from third-world countries, as well as many from Mexico, Central and South America. Tucson is not only a more diverse community as a result, but because we’re welcoming of other cultures we’re less likely to erupt in cultural violence.

“There are kids of many different colors in Tucson’s school districts,” he observes. “We’re a diverse people and tend to be open-minded.”

That’s not to say people here aren’t intolerant or racist, but Chan credits the entire Tucson community for the relative lack of hate crimes that many cities across the nation are experiencing.

“It says a lot about Tucson,” he comments.

Started With a Tragedy

One fatal hate crime years ago led to Tucson becoming one of the first cities to protect the LGBTQ community from violence. On June 6, 1976, a 21-year-old Nebraska man, Richard Heakin, was beaten to death by 13 teenagers after he left a gay bar on North First Avenue near Glenn Street.

Only four of the 13 were tried. They were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and received probation and sealed records because they were minors.

The effect on the community was much longer lasting.

Shocked Tucsonans responded by organizing the city’s first LGBT group, Tucson Gay Coalition, which started what is now the annual Tucson Pride Parade. The city of Tucson reacted by becoming one of the first in the nation to add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination law.

David Zinke was living in Phoenix at the time of Heakin’s murder and vaguely recalls hearing about it. Years later, when he moved to Tucson, the murder would have a more profound effect as he began working on a renovation of the then-vacant and burned bar, which had changed names, and now is home to a used-car lot.

The pivotal moment came when Zinke befriended a man who was bartending the night Heakin was killed.

“I thought, ‘There’s a good play in this,’” Zinke recalls.

Several years later, Zinke enrolled in a play writing class, in which he wrote a scene set at the bar. Zinke set the exercise aside until he joined Old Pueblo Playwrights and remembered the seed of the idea for a play.

Earlier this year, OPP held a reading for the first act of Homophobe, Zinke’s play thatwas inspired by Heakin’s killing. He is working on finishing the script and turning the play into a musical.

“I do want to illustrate the nature of homophobia, the irrational fear of homosexuals,” Zinke says.

“Homo means human, not gay boys,” Zinke says. “Homophobia is not the fear of any one person. It’s hatred of a kind of person who is not like you.”

Although Zinke’s play is being created years after the reallife inciting incident, it comes at a time when hate crimes are on the minds of millions.

“The point of this is to point out how really destructive hate crimes are,” he explains, “Not just for the victim or the victim’s family, but for how many more people who are touched by this violence. We should do better than perpetuating stereotypes.”

Zinke, like many, wonder where this hatred springs from.

“It’s like the song goes, ‘you’ve got to be carefully taught,’” Zinke says, referring to a song from the musical South Pacific, which addresses racial prejudice.

Joel Dvoskin, a clinical and forensic psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the University of Arizona, says the reasons teenagers commit violent acts go deeper than their upbringing. He has done extensive research studying people who have committed hate crimes.

“That word, ‘homophobic,’propagates irrational fear,” he reveals. “People hate people because they fear something about those people. They might have doubts about their own masculinity, their own sexuality. When teenagers get scared, they react and they often react in a manner that’s far too extreme for the circumstances.”

Given the time Heakin’s murder took place, the age of the accused killers, the light punishments and the time that has passed, it’s not a big stretch to wonder who those men are now and how they may have raised their own children.

“You cannot necessarily assume that they would raise kids who would be hateful,” Dvoskin says. “People are complicated, though some people are so invested in ugliness that it’s hard to think of them as ever changing.”

The light punishment of Heakin’s killers spurred outrage at the time, but oddly enough, might have done more good than bad.

“The most common age of a first incarceration, 18 to 25, is when people are pretty suggestible and influenceable,” Dvoskin says. “Their brains haven’t fully matured.”

An American criminal justice system that is focused on incarceration and not rehabilitation doesn’t help.

“We send them to a place where the only people they’re around for years are other prisoners,” he observes. “What they think about, what they talk about, is life on the cell block. They don’t talk about how to build a better life.”

Hate speech and hate crimes, deeply rooted in the United States, aren’t going away anytime soon, Dvoskin predicts.

“It’s certainly true that Americans always have had hatred from biased individuals, and in the last four years, it’s become more socially acceptable to say things out loud.”

“I think the fact that it has become socially acceptable to say hateful things, to do violent things certainly has made things worse,” he adds. “I hope not irretrievably so.

“People don’t listen to each other. They don’t speak sincerely to each other. Nobody changes their mind about anything. That’s been a really bad change for our society,” he comments. “We don’t have meaningful conversations.”

Keeping the Lessons Alive

On the state level, long before the Tucson anti-Semitic attacks, state Rep. Alma Hernandez re-introduced a bill in the Legislature to teach students about the Holocaust in schools. A recent poll by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found 42 percent of Arizona millennials couldn’t name one Nazi concentration camp and less than half recognized the name Auschwitz.

The attacks on Tucson synagogues highlighted the absence of historical knowledge.

“This is precisely why we need to teach about the Holocaust,” Hernandez observed.

The House passed the bill earlier this spring and in the waning hours of the Arizona Senate’s session, the bill passed on an impressive 27 to 2 vote, so it goes to Gov. Doug Ducey to sign into law.

“This is for all of us,” Hernandez said. “To our survivors who have now passed and weren’t here to see what they worked so hard on, I hope you are proud and know your memory will not go in vain. I can’t express how thankful I am right now and the feeling of joy. We can close this chapter. I can genuinely say this is my proudest moment as an elected official.”

In Tucson, Zinman and Hernandez sought community healing by holding a vigil after the anti-Semitic attacks on the synagogues. Mayor Regina Romero gave a brief speech and publicized the event on social media, as did the Pima County Democratic party.

“We started to feel the support and felt that people were starting to care,” Zinman says. “We had 150 people show up, and a big thing for me was that there was a letter in the Tucson Sentinel from Church of Christ pastors supporting us, and they spoke at the rally. It was quite touching.”

Zinman hopes Tucsonans will continue to show support for their Jewish neighbors here and worldwide.

“We want people to support us, to have our back. We want to see hashtags online saying it’s not OK. It’s not acceptable and we can’t normalize it,” he sums up.

“Last year, we made sure we had a Jewish presence at the Black Lives Matter rally to show them we know attacks on them are not acceptable. We hope people will stand with us.”