No, Santa Cruz, the KKK Isn’t ‘Weird’

Local magazine photo backlash illustrates Santa Cruz’s racial blind spots

The crowd at last year’s downtown Santa Cruz “March for the Dream” to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day. PHOTO: SANTA CRUZ POLICE DEPARTMENT

Ah, Santa Cruz. The city where street performers with a penchant for pink umbrellas and techies into one-wheeled electric skateboards are free to “Dream Weird.”

Such carefree nostalgia seemed to be the gist of a five-page article in the winter issue of local magazine Santa Cruz Style—that is, until you see the photo of a figure in the white robes and hood synonymous with America’s most notorious hate group standing under a hot pink awning that says “Bikinis Beach & Sport.” A caption reads, “A Ku Klux Klan member makes a phone call from a pay phone on Beach Street in Santa Cruz.”

The decision to run the photo absent any historical context not once but twice, also in the magazine’s table of contents, has sparked condemnation online and and letters to the editor at multiple area media outlets, including GT. Last week, Santa Cruz Style quietly deleted the photo from its online edition, though print copies are still available at some newsstands that distribute the free quarterly lifestyle publication.

Brenda Griffin first saw the photo when a concerned reader copied her local chapter of the NAACP on a letter to Santa Cruz Style two weeks ago. After Griffin’s initial reaction—“I was incensed. I was insulted. I was outraged.”—she says the lack of explanation and magnitude of the image set in.

“I’m saying to myself, ‘This has nothing to do with Santa Cruz’s weirdness,’” Griffin says. “It’s insulting because of the history—the violence and the torture and the murder of black Americans. To use that image to represent Santa Cruz, the town in which I live, is mind-boggling.”

Amid national controversy over white supremacist rallies, confederate statues and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Santa Cruz has also seen racial tension boil over in recent years. In 2017, a UCSC administrative building was “reclaimed” by student activists with the Afrikan Black Coalition, who occupied the building for three days calling for more support for students of color. Months later, Westside restaurant O’mei Szechuan Chinese closed after the owner’s 2016 campaign donations to former KKK leader David Duke came to light. Art exhibitions like photographer Allison Garcia’s “Black Lives in Santa Cruz: What Matters” have also pushed residents to consider a lack of racial diversity and common slights—conscious or not—in a county where about 1 percent of residents are black, 2017 Census data shows.

In the case of the recent KKK photo, “We’re always disappointed when we see things like this, but we weren’t incredibly surprised,” says a representative of UCSC’s Black Student Union, who declined to give their name after the group received death threats following the 2017 campus occupation. “The casual context was pretty indicative. Santa Cruz is so cut off and such a big bubble that it’s almost like blind sheep leading the blind.

On Jan. 10, Santa Cruz Style Editor Michael Seal Riley wrote a public post on the magazine’s Facebook page acknowledging “numerous posts concerning the historic photo.” The image shot by longtime photojournalist Dan Coyro first appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1999, Riley wrote, before numerous follow-up stories about the subject and his eventual suicide.

“I felt the juxtaposition between the person’s outfit and surf shop created a unique photo,” Riley wrote in the Facebook post. “The photographer and I both felt it represented the wide range of ‘weird or unusual’ people that over the years have called Santa Cruz home.” Though some readers felt the photo was “harmless,” Riley wrote, he added that the magazine’s staff and advertisers “of course” do not support the hate group.

What next?

The explanation has done little to temper backlash, both on- and offline. Sharla Jacobs, CEO of business consultancy Thrive Academy, is among those who have posted the magazine’s advertisers on Facebook and urged others to voice their concerns. “If you live in Santa Cruz and you want to stop perpetuating racism, please call their advertisers and complain,” Jacobs wrote. “They obviously aren’t getting it.”

Griffin also says the explanation falls short. Ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. day next week, she quotes the civil rights icon: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance.” Still, she says, her goal is not to shame Riley, but to meet with him. While she says the editor has yet to respond, the NAACP is in talks about a community discussion with local religious and social justice groups, including Temple Beth El, the Resource Center for Nonviolence and Innerlight Ministries.

Neither Riley nor Coyro respond to GT’s requests for comment. The author of the story, local writer Ryan Masters, says he was unaware of the photo “until I opened the finished magazine.” (At many media organizations, reporters do not select images or write headlines for their stories.)

“My article has nothing to do with the KKK or racism in any form,” Masters tells GT in an email. “I was totally baffled by the decision and felt the photo was at best a bizarre non sequitur, at worst a totally tone deaf and potentially offensive mistake.”

As for what comes next, representatives of the Black Student Union say that Riley’s online comments about encouraging “dialogue on the subject” ring hollow given ongoing local issues. In November, for instance, a student rally ended in reports of physical altercations with police, sparking calls this month for an official review of the incident from UCSC’s ethnic studies faculty.

“We make the effort and we’ve been making the effort,” the representative says. “There’s only so much we can do.”

UCSC’s Black Student Union offers one-on-one support for local residents of color at [email protected]. The 2019 MLK March For the Dream will start at 10 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 21 at Cathcart Street & Pacific Avenue; details at cityofsantacruz.com.

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