Petaluma man’s hate speech has people on edge. Why can’t police do anything about it?

Some fear that antisemitic flyers distributed around the Bay Area could provoke violence.|

On Oct. 28, a Petaluma resident sent two emails to Mayor Teresa Barrett, alerting her to recent news reports she had seen about a local man who was generating a vast amount of derogatory, primarily antisemitic content through his Goyim Defense League network.

“I am quite concerned that this hate filled man is a ticking time bomb and am wondering if he is being monitored in Petaluma?” she wrote to Barrett in a message she has since shared with The Press Democrat. “Are the police and city council aware that we have a Nazi hate group being nationalized all over the United States right from Petaluma?”

The woman never heard back from Barrett — until last week, when the mayor replied to a follow-up email in the wake of revelations that Jon Minadeo II’s media brand, Goyim TV, was credited for antisemitic flyers recently distributed in neighborhoods around the Bay Area, including in Napa, on Feb. 24.

In that response, Barrett apologized for not recalling Minadeo’s name when she was interviewed about him by The Press Democrat, and explained she receives hundreds of emails and letters.

“I also hope you are aware that without the actual evidence we cannot do more than be aware of him and condemn ALL acts of hate, no matter who is the source,” Barrett wrote.

The resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted by Minadeo, wishes her local elected leader had taken notice earlier. But most observers agree with Barrett’s assertion that local authorities have limited ability to counter hate speech in their midst.

“Dealing with an individual bigot is difficult,” said Phyllis Gerstenfeld, professor and chair of criminal justice at Cal State Stanislaus. “One option is to make their presence as uncomfortable for them as possible — legally — by making it clear that they’re not welcome and that nobody shares their views.”

More tangible censure can be trickier, Gerstenfeld said, because of the chasm that exists between “hate speech” and “hate crime.” Only the latter is easily actionable.

“In general, it’s a crime if the speech is likely to incite violence,” said Gerstenfeld, who responded to Press Democrat questions by email because she is out of the country. “The line here is really fuzzy. For example, writing ‘I wish all Jews would be killed’ is probably protected speech; writing ‘Everyone should pick up a gun right now and kill Jews’ is probably not. And of course there’s a gray area in between.”

Minadeo has built a media persona in that gray area, allowing him to operate with impunity thus far.

In his most recent video recorded for his streaming channel Goyim TV, published Dec. 21, he makes a point of telling viewers not to advocate violence. But as he talks into the camera, the left side of the screen rotates through T-shirts he is hawking, including one that commends Adolph Hitler by proclaiming, “The Austrian painter was right.” The right edge of the screen is a crawl of viewer comments, many of them a celebration of murder.

“who wants to kill jew (right now),” one reads.

“gas every f**king one of these filthy pedovore rat Jews,” says another.

“CLIP THIS F**KING RETARD,” offers one more as Minadeo chats with a guest who disagrees with him.

Minadeo might not be openly calling for genocide, but he has created a platform that serves as a convenient breeding ground for its discussion. And messages of hate, many argue, can spark acts of brutality when received by an angry and in some cases unstable audience.

“I believe that even absent calls to violence, this content can be very dangerous in that it reinforces biases and makes other bigots feel as if their feelings are endorsed,” Gerstenfeld said in her email. “We know that in at least some cases (i.e., the Oklahoma City bombing), violent extremists have been at least partly inspired by what they’ve read.”

Some feel that may have been the case when members of the Goyim Defense League hung a banner over a major highway in Austin, Texas, reading “Vax the Jews” on Oct. 26. Minadeo downplays the coronavirus and calls its vaccines a Jewish moneymaking conspiracy.

Five days later, someone started a fire at Congregation Beth Israel, a temple perhaps 5 miles from where the banner had been draped.

Several Texas news outlets drew a connection between the two events.

On Nov. 10, criminal investigators with the Austin Fire Department arrested Franklin Barrett Sechriest, 18, and charged him with arson.

Despite a pervasive threatening atmosphere, jurisdictions have found it hard to confront hate. A Napa Police sergeant told The Press Democrat last week there was nothing his department could do about flyers like those left in the neighborhood adjacent to the Congregation Beth Shalom synagogue last week.

Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano said much the same thing.

“Hate in any form is deplorable and not welcome in our community, but there no criminal recourse for hate speech not related to a crime,” Savano wrote in an email Wednesday.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s office took a more forceful stance after Nicholas Sherman left antisemitic propaganda at homes and an elementary school in Carmichael on Oct. 4.

They charged Sherman, who is affiliated with the Aryan Nations hate group, with a felony count of desecrating a religious symbol, because he had taped several flyers to a menorah outside the Shalom Le Israel synagogue.

Prosecutors there also filed a dozen misdemeanor counts against Sherman on the lesser-known charge of “terrorism by symbol.” His flyers had included a Nazi swastika, which prosecutors argued fit a California statute meant to deter the use of symbols like nooses and burning crosses to strike fear into citizens.

Sherman pleaded guilty to the felony and one of the misdemeanors on Wednesday, and received 180 days in county jail and two years of probation.

The recent Goyim TV flyers did not include swastikas, however. It isn’t clear if the “terrorism by symbol” standard would apply. The Sacramento County DA’s office did not respond to a request for clarification.

There is no direct evidence that Minadeo is personally distributing the flyers, which are readily available via messaging apps.

One tactic that does seem to work against hate speech is civil law. Gerstenfeld noted several examples, such as lawsuits against the KKK and one of its grand wizards, Tom Metzger. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued both of them in separate cases — the KKK in 1987, and Metzger in 1990. The latter, over the murder of Black college student and father Mulugeta Seraw, bankrupted Metzger’s organization, White Aryan Resistance.

Gerstenfeld also mentioned a case from her own Cal State Stanislaus campus.

Last November, former student Nathan Damigo was ruled partly responsible for organizing the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that erupted into violence, leaving 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead. A federal judge order him to pay $500,000.

Outside the legal system, communities are left with mostly symbolic acts to fight hate speech. Such was the case last weekend in Danville, where the nonprofit group Interfaith of the San Ramon Valley organized a march in response to Goyim TV flyers distributed there. In a rally at the Danville Library to cap the march, mayor Newell Arnerich read a proclamation titled “United Against Hate.”

Rabbi Ted Feldman of B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma said he was planning to contact city council members there, hoping for a response to Minadeo with “a little more oomph to it, as far as antisemitism.” Feldman was quick to add that the Petaluma Police Department has been very supportive when troubling events have emerged in the past.

Few would discourage civic demonstrations of solidarity. But in the end, they may be flimsy comfort to anyone who feels truly endangered by a hate purveyor down the street.

Michéle Samson, president of Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma, knows that feeling, and she is convinced malevolent words can translate into acts of violence.

“When you have hate, there are people who hate deeper than others,” Samson said. “And with that hate, unfortunately, sometimes comes a lot of danger. As president, I’m constantly looking out the door, looking out the window. It’s terrible.”

Congregation Shir Shalom is reviewing its safety protocols to be better prepared for the possibility of a violent attack, Samson said. The other day, she found herself watching an older member of the synagogue during a service.

“Her name is Ruth. She’s sweet as hell,” Samson said. “And I’m thinking, Can I lift her up to go through the window if necessary? I’m honestly thinking, If I throw her out the window, will she survive? Can you believe it?”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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