Before the pandemic stay-at-home orders became commonplace in our community, I didn’t leave the house. The place that I consider my sanctuary, my home, became a place where I was unsure of my own safety.
On the night of Jan. 25, 2020, Johnny Roman Garza, as part of a conspiracy planned with the neo-Nazi organization Atomwaffen Division, glued a poster on my home’s front bedroom window that depicted a figure in a skull mask holding a Molotov cocktail in front of a burning house. My name and address were on the bottom of the poster along with the threat, “Your actions have consequences. Our patience has its limits . . . You have been visited by your local Nazis.”
What followed after I found the poster was a blur of police, FBI agents and Homeland Security personnel descending on my property. There was only so much they could tell me about what was going on, only that I was one of many targets as a journalist connected with a Jewish publication. I agreed not to post or say anything to not interfere with the ongoing investigation.
I had the FBI and Homeland Security phone numbers loaded in my phone – just in case. I also opened my mailbox with a stick for fear of explosives, and when my daughter had to travel for work and left her car at our house, I drove it before she came home – just in case “they” had done something to tamper with her vehicle, she would not be the one to find out. I laid awake at night wondering if the Molotov cocktail would become a real threat.
We installed a security system, and every time the app on my phone would alert me of some movement from one of the cameras, my heart would skip a beat. I didn’t leave the house unless accompanied by my husband.
On Feb. 26, I breathed a sigh of relief when Garza and three others were arrested on “suspicion of organizing a campaign to threaten and intimidate journalists and activists” across four states.
I was also confused as to why a young man of Mexican-American descent would find kindred spirits in a white-supremacist hate group. There was talk but little detail of a turbulent home life, and he admitted during his sentencing on Dec. 9 that he “looked elsewhere in a time of “darkness and isolation” and “fell in with the worst crowd I could have fallen into with.” He also said that he and his family “count this experience as a blessing because if consequences had not come down on me the way they did, I would not have changed.”
During the sentencing, I was surprised to hear Garza’s attorney, Seth Apfel, was Jewish. He had recommended that Garza take classes on Jewish history and culture and that through doing so, stated Garza has “made a complete and sincere change. Not just disavowed but embraced a new way of being. He has become an ally for the Jewish people.” Apfel went on to say that it was “one of my proudest moments as an attorney.”
This experience has conjured up so many emotions. As time went on and my feelings of fear changed to anger and then to sadness.
I admit when I was younger, I made some bad decisions, not to the extent of Garza’s actions, but things that may have gotten me into trouble at the time. I also have children in their 20s and have seen from their classmates what can happen when children seek approval and belonging from the wrong group of people.
On Dec. 9, Garza was sentenced to 16 months jail time and three years probation by U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle. Judge Coughenour says he believes Garza’s remorse but that he felt he needed more than just the probation time that his lawyer recommended.
He also made a statement on not just the aspect of the hate crime, but who specifically was targeted. “Referring to journalism and the press and media as ‘fake news’ enables people who are vulnerable to suggestions like this, very young people … that this kind of conduct is appropriate,” he said.
As editor of two Jewish publications, I have interviewed victims of anti-Semitism and hate crimes. I have been a general target of anti-Semitic rhetoric and hateful comments, but nothing that targeted me so personally. Like many people who are not Jewish, I could never fully understand how it felt until now.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Woods opened his statement to the court on Wednesday with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He also commented that many of the community members that Garza targeted have lost faith in that justice.
Someone asked me if I was satisfied with Garza’s sentence, and I honestly don’t know. If Garza continues on the path away from the darkness that once enveloped his soul, it will be a win for our community. I would like to think that this may spark others to shun anti-Semitism and hate, but unfortunately, history shows us that there will always be that component in our society.
What we have to do is make sure that our light shines brighter and to share another quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”