Social media users and officials in a small southern California city condemned photographs spreading online showing an unidentified man shopping in public while wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood as a “face mask” during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The man was first spotted and photographed at a Vons supermarket in Santee, California on May 2 2020.
“Several employees came over together and told the man to either remove the hood or he would have to leave, so he removed the hood,” said Tiam Tellez, who posted his photos of the man on Facebook. “So troublesome in so many ways this is still happening in Santee at Vons. Disgusting!”
Tellez’s post was shared 449 times within 24 hours of going live. But within a day of the incident, photos spread on both Facebook and Twitter after being shared by others — including Tammy Gillies, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) San Diego office.
“Don’t know which angers me more – the person wearing this or the fact that no one in management [for] @Vons Santee did anything about it,” she wrote. “@ADL_SD would be happy to educate your team. San Diego is #NoPlaceForHate.”
Don’t know which angers me more – the person wearing this or the fact that no one in management @Vons Santee did anything about it. @ADL_SD would be happy to educate your team. San Diego is #NoPlaceForHate pic.twitter.com/jMOzQqpcoi
— Tammy Gillies (@tgilliesADL) May 3, 2020
“He was behind me in line. Standing quietly,” one woman told the Times of San Diego. “A man in a wheelchair [went] past and saluted him and he laughed. I took the photo because I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I’ve grown up in Santee and have never seen such racism right before my eyes.”
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement at the time that it had “been made aware” of the incident but that deputies were not called to the store while the man was there.
“Detectives from the Sheriff’s Department are looking into the matter and will pursue any appropriate criminal charges,” the department said. “The Sheriff’s Department does not condone hate or any acts of intolerance in our communities. We are a county that is welcoming of people from all backgrounds.”
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, though, the department later said that it would not pursue charges against the man citing “insufficient evidence.”
Located in the eastern part of San Diego County, Santee has been derisively nicknamed “Klantee” by other San Diego residents. At least eight white supremacist groups are reportedly still active in the San Diego area, and local white nationalist figure Roger Ogden was identified as the organizer of an event protesting measures seeking to limit the spread of COVID-19 using “freedom” as a pretext. The demonstrations, largely organized via Facebook, have largely attracted white nationalist groups, who have taken the opportunity to spread anti-Semitic and Nazi-related rhetoric.
Mayor John Minto released a joint statement with the Santee City Council condemning the unidentified Vons shopper’s behavior.
“Many thanks to all who stepped forward to curtail this sad reminder of intolerance,” the statement read. “Santee, its leaders, and I will not tolerate such behavior. Santee and its citizens are great, and this particular individual’s actions are not representative of us as a people and a wonderful city.”
Albertsons, the parent company for the Vons chain, also released a statement:
At Vons, fostering an environment of courtesy, dignity and respect is one of our highest priorities, and we work hard to hold everyone in our stores to these standards, including customers.
Unfortunately, an alarming and isolated incident occurred at our Vons store in Santee, where a customer chose an inflammatory method of wearing a face covering. Needless to say, it was shocking.
Several members of our team asked the customer to remove it, and all requests were ignored until the customer was in the checkout area. This was a disturbing incident for our associates and customers, and we are reviewing with our team how to best handle such inappropriate situations in the future.
A second man, identified as Dustin Hart, posted video online of himself shopping in a Food 4 Less store in the same community wearing a mask bearing the Nazi swastika symbol on May 7, 2020. Hart has claimed that he wore the symbol to “peaceful protest” stay-at-home measures implemented by Gov. Gavin Newsom. He refused to remove the mask when asked about it by both authorities and store personnel. The Sheriff’s Department is also investigating that incident.
During its meeting on May 13, 2020 the city council voted to address the two incidents by allowing Minto to nominate more people to a separate group, the Community Oriented Policing Committee (COMPOP). The mayor said he planned to nominate at least one Black member as well as a member of the ADL. Video of the meeting can be found here.
In both late December 2019 and February 2020, our own staff members repeatedly found copies of the Epoch Times publication displayed alongside actual newspapers in at least two different Vons stores in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas. The publication has been banned from buying advertising on Facebook due to its penchant for spreading disinformation.
We have contacted Albertsons seeking further comment.
Update, May 4 2020, 12:55 p.m. PST: Updated with comments from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
Update, May 15 2020, 3:40 p.m. PST: Updated with notes on a second racist display in Santee, as well as the response from the Santee City Council.