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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

The Legacy of Hate Crime Is Passion With Which to Fight It

February 04, 2001|BOB RECTOR | Bob Rector is opinion page editor of The Times' San Fernando Valley and Ventura County editions

It began Aug. 10, 1999, when Buford O. Furrow Jr., on a mission to send a "wake-up call for Americans to kill Jews," fired 70 rounds from his rifle into a Granada Hills Jewish community center filled with kids at play. When he was finished, four children and an adult lay wounded. Soon afterward, Furrow shot and killed a postal worker on a Chatsworth delivery route because "he looked Asian or Latino."

It ended quietly in a federal courthouse Jan. 25, when Furrow pleaded guilty to his crimes. He will be sentenced to life in prison.

Thus concludes a particularly violent and terrifying chapter in the San Fernando Valley's history.

But what are we to make of it? And where do we go from here?

Furrow is a coward who will suffer a coward's fate. He is also mentally ill.

In our hearts, we knew that, of course, but prosecutors formalized it by uncovering voluminous medical records showing he had a history of homicidal and suicidal urges.

Because of his history of mental problems, he will not be executed by the state, an exercise that could have been viewed as a further act of violence passed off as public policy.

So be it. We should direct our energy and attention elsewhere.

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We should learn from the courage of postal worker Joseph Ileto's family, ripped from comfortable anonymity by his death and set on a nationwide odyssey to combat hate crimes.

We should remember Ben Kadish, Mindy Finkelstein, Joshua Stepakoff and James Zidell, the children who were wounded in the attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center.

But most of all, we should make sure that the legacy of the Furrow case is more than the metal detectors and guards that now exist at many Jewish community centers and temples. We must keep apathy from overshadowing the rallies and marches and legislation and alliances that have mushroomed in the wake of the shootings.

Fortunately, there are many organizations and individuals working diligently to make sure that we do not forget.

One is Loren Lieb, whose son, Joshua Stepakoff, was one of the victims at the Jewish community center.

Joshua's wounds have healed now, although Lieb says he still suffers from occasional bad dreams involving guns. But Lieb's life has changed forever.

Lieb was front and center when the Million Mom March took place on Mother's Day last year in Washington, D.C. Motivated by the Jewish community center shootings, more than 500,000 women from across the nation rallied for common-sense gun legislation.

Unlike other movements that wither away with time, the Million Mom March is evolving. More than 200 chapters have formed, and this Mother's Day, members will march in every state capital to promote stricter gun control laws.

Lieb, who is on the executive board of her chapter, will join others from throughout California in Sacramento. Given the November election results, Lieb said the group thinks it can accomplish more at the state than national level.

Although Lieb was pleased that a trial was avoided and felt some sense of closure after Furrow's guilty plea, closure is an elusive concept.

"Our lives have changed," she said. "We are doing things we would have never been doing."

Lieb's husband, Alan Stepakoff, spent time last year lobbying in Washington for tougher hate crimes legislation. He is an active member of the San Fernando Valley Hate Crimes Alliance, formed after the shootings to make sure the community does not become complacent about the bigotry behind the shooting of his son.

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Among the alliance's goals is to increase hate crime reporting because increased reporting equals increased awareness, according to Aaron Levinson, director of the Anti-Defamation League's Valley office and a member of the alliance.

The alliance also has held a series of town hall meetings exploring such topics as the roots of hate and how bigotry manifests itself in violence. The next meeting will be held March 1.

"It's certainly not a piece of cake mobilizing people to come to meetings and town halls and to help plan them," Levinson said. "But it's important enough that we do it. Community education can be an uphill battle but it's very rewarding."

Rep. Brad Sherman is also making sure we remember.

The Democratic congressman from Woodland Hills is reintroducing his Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed the Senate last year but was blocked from making it to the House floor.

The bill would allow the federal government to assist in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes regardless of whether the victim was exercising a federally protected right, such as voting or attending school.

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