Marin residents awoke to discover antisemitic flyers on their lawns, driveways and streets last week. Now, local law enforcement is struggling to determine whether any crimes have been committed.
The leaflets were distributed in Tiburon, Novato and Marin City under the cover of darkness in the early morning hours on Sunday, Feb. 20. The hate-filled materials were folded into clear plastic bags with rice, presumably added to prevent the packets from blowing away. Napa and other cities across the Bay Area and Southern California received similar flyers, making California one of at least eight states targeted within the last three months.
The propaganda blamed Jewish people for “the Covid agenda.” Some Marin neighborhoods received a second page, which stated, “Every single aspect of the Biden administration is Jewish.” Both flyers contained the website address of a small hate group based in Petaluma.
The Anti-Defamation League, a worldwide organization that fights antisemitism and discrimination, says the group behind the flyers is a loose network of individuals. While primarily directing its vitriol towards Jewish people, the group has also focused on the LGBTQ+ community and others.
“This stunt is the cowardly work of a group espousing white supremacist themes and Holocaust denial,” Teresa Drenick, the ADL deputy regional director of the Central Pacific Region, said. “It’s a fringe group with the aim to intimidate and sow fear in the Jewish community.”
The group’s leader, a failed actor and writer who lives in Petaluma, co-founded an antisemitic website that allows users to upload vile videos. His girlfriend was recently fired from her job as a yoga instructor, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Tuesday, because the yoga studio owner said the woman seems to share the beliefs of her boyfriend and “assisted him in his business of hate.” The woman has denied sharing his ideology and said the couple has sought legal advice.
Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, provided it does not incite criminal acts or contain violent threats. “Hate itself is not a crime,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
However, hate crimes, which have been on the rise over the last 12 years, are not protected. More than 8,200 hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 2020, although the agency said experts estimate the number is higher because data submission by local law enforcement is voluntary. The FBI defines a hate crime as a bias-motivated offense against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.
In 2020, the ADL received more than 2,000 reports of antisemitic incidents throughout the United States, which ranks as the third-highest year on record since the organization began compiling the data in 1979.
The Petaluma-based hate group that disseminated the flyers around the country was responsible for at least 74 antisemitic propaganda incidents in 2021, according to the ADL. Stunts and schemes by the group, including hanging antisemitic banners from overpasses on busy freeways, are designed to draw attention.
“This group craves publicity,” Drenick said. “They have not, to our knowledge, resorted to violence.”
In Tiburon, 90 residents called police to report finding a plastic bag with an antisemitic flyer in their yard or driveway on Feb. 20. Rather than targeting specific addresses, the materials were randomly distributed at homes on Stewart Drive and Paradise Drive.
A resident who received the flyer has a camera pointed toward the street and captured video footage of a vehicle passing by during the 3am hour. Although the license plate cannot be seen, Tiburon police believe the antisemitic handbills were tossed from that car. With the time frame narrowed, license plate-reading cameras mounted at the town’s entry and exit points may assist police in identifying the suspect, especially with the light traffic early on a Sunday morning.
“We have some good possible leads here,” Laurie Nilsen, Tiburon police spokesperson, said. “Numerous officers are working on this around the clock. We’re investigating to see what crime may have occurred and talking to the district attorney’s office to see what, if any charges, could be filed. It’s tough. Where does freedom of speech end and a hate crime begin?”
In Novato, the leaflet distribution occurred in the unincorporated Wildhorse Valley neighborhood. The Marin County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating the incident, according to spokesperson Sgt. Brenton Schneider.
A Marin City resident posted on Nextdoor that he found his street littered with the plastic bags and antisemitic materials when he went outside on Feb. 20. The Sheriff’s Office has not received reports of the flyer drop in Marin City and encourages anyone with information to contact them.
A joint statement issued by the Marin County Police Chiefs’ Association and Marin County District Attorney’s Office on Feb. 24 said they are tracking the incidents. Unfortunately, Marin District Attorney Lori Frugoli doesn’t appear optimistic about filing charges against the people responsible for dispersing the propaganda on private and public property in Marin.
“This is infuriating and repugnant, and we reject this hateful behavior,” Frugoli said in the statement. “Such as they are, the messages in these flyers were intentionally designed and distributed in a manner that is protected as free speech under the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The hate group’s organizer is counting on Frugoli’s legal interpretation. He recently sent a message to followers that he is proud their flyer distribution was “completely SAFE & LEGAL,” according to J., the Jewish News of Northern California.
Marin’s Jewish community has been working with the district attorney and local law enforcement to ensure that they are aware of and take all reports of antisemitism seriously, according to Rabbi-Cantor Elana Rosen-Brown, of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.
Antisemitic incidents in the county have become all too frequent, with the ADL recording several in Marin on an annual basis. In addition to the flyers delivered to homes last week, other Marin cases have been covered by the media during the last 18 months.
A Nazi supporter slapped swastika stickers on property in downtown Fairfax. Jewish students at Redwood High School in Larkspur were threatened on social media by a person displaying a photo of a young male holding a bullet and wearing a helmet with a swastika.
Rosen-Brown said many people and organizations in Marin have joined the Jewish community to bring attention, awareness and education to the issue of antisemitism. They are committed to showing up for one another whenever instances of hate speech and hate crime occur.
“To be Jewish, sadly, has always meant to grapple with the understanding that there are people in the world who hate you,” Rosen-Brown said. “We internalize this in different ways. For me, I love Judaism, and encounters with hatred only enhance my love of Judaism and being Jewish.”
Reporter’s Note: After much debate, the Pacific Sun deliberately omitted the names of the antisemitic group and its leader. It is my belief that when the media identifies them, it helps fuel their mission by providing the publicity they desperately desire. As a Jewish person, I am opposed to leading lost souls to the doorsteps of hate.