In 2015, when tensions between law enforcement and the black community were at a particularly high point, then-Undersheriff Don Barnes met with The Rev. Mark Whitlock, pastor of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church (COR) in Irvine.
The year before, the controversial fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. had catapulted the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking tense national conversations about fatal confrontations between the police and young African-American men.
Barnes wore a suit to the meeting.
“Don, you’re never going to know what it feels like to be stereotyped and profiled,” Whitlock told Barnes, who is white.
“Pastor Whitlock,” Barnes responded, “I know exactly what it feels like to be profiled.”
Barnes continued: “Every day when I put on my uniform, I’m stereotyped and profiled by the public, based on their preconceived notions, based on their interactions, based on their bias.”
Barnes, elected as Sandra Hutchens’ successor as O.C. sheriff last November, recounted that meeting in front of more than 100 faith leaders Tuesday, March 12, at a first-ever open house of the O.C. Sheriff’s Interfaith Advisory Council (IAC).
Formed in 2015 by Hutchens, Whitlock, and Rusty Kennedy, then head of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, the IAC brings together members of diverse faith communities to engage with the OCSD to impact policy, improve mutual understanding, and develop relationships.
Although Barnes praised the good work of the IAC so far, he said he plans to take the council “to the next level” to counter an environment of hate in which crimes against members of certain faith communities and races continue to occur with distressing regularity.
In 2018, a Pittsburgh synagogue attack left 11 people dead in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Days after that, the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Irvine was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
Just last week in Orange County, furor erupted over photos posted on social media that showed students from Newport Harbor and other area high schools doing a Nazi salute over beer pong cups arranged in the shape of a swastika at an off-campus party.
A few days after that, Newport Harbor High was vandalized with Nazi posters.
Such incidents, said Barnes and other speakers at the open house, underscore the importance of the IAC’s role in combatting hate.
“In Orange County, we’re not going to tolerate (hate),” Barnes said. “I’m intolerant to hate. I will not stand for it anymore, nor should anybody else….We cannot be implicit in…the hateful acts happening to somebody else simply because it’s not associated with our faith tradition.”
Barnes said he wants to put the IAC “on steroids” by getting more people involved in it, including municipal police chiefs.
“It’s a unique opportunity for us,” Barnes said. “It’s all about relationships. It’s simply that. We can build relationships rather than to sit in our safe communities.”
Although Orange County didn’t experience the social unrest over police shootings that unfolded in Ferguson and elsewhere in 2015, distrust of law enforcement reverberated everywhere.
In August 2016, the IAC held a Solidarity March in Irvine that brought together members of faith organizations with numerous O.C. law enforcement agencies.
Whitlock, speaking at Tuesday’s open house, held at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s Regional Training Facility in Tustin, referenced the march.
“It was a sign to love our neighbors as ourselves,” Whitlock said. “It was one of the most beautiful scenes that you’ll ever see. We had every policing agency in Orange County come together and there were thousands of people marching.
“Orange County was marching in celebration of coming together as we should come together, not only to overcome but to demonstrate that we, as a county, are the representation of what God wants us to be.
“It just makes sense to me that we need to partner more than we need to throw stones and point fingers.
“People of faith need to come together in a show of unity.”
In an effort to develop relationships and engender mutual understanding, members of the IAC over the last three years have visited dozens of faith centers in Orange County.
The IAC also has held diversity and implicit-bias training, as well as educational sessions on topics ranging from undocumented immigrants, homelessness and school safety.
More needs to be done, Barnes said.
One goal he has is to hold, by the end of 2019, an OCSD citizen’s academy devoted solely to people from diverse faith backgrounds; in short, an IAC-focused academy.
“We really want to grow the interfaith group as large as we can,” Barnes said.
“This is not just frosting on the cake,” he added. “We (on the IAC) ask tough questions, we deal with difficult issues. I don’t want people to come here and tell me how great we’re doing. I think we’re doing great work, but if we think we’ve arrived, (that) we’ve accomplished everything, we’ve become a liability to ourselves.”
Whitlock, in his remarks, mentioned the massacre on June 17, 2015 of nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, N.C. White supremacist Dylann Roof was convicted of the church mass shooting.
Whitlock visited members of the congregation and families of the victims, and for about a month after the mass shooting, he said Irvine PD officers patrolled his church in Irvine regularly out of concern of a copycat crime.
“I don’t know about you,” Whitlock said, “but I have to celebrate the police every time I see them.”
His remark got loud applause.
Kicking off the open house, Rabbi Rick Steinberg, of the Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine, said “there’s a sadness in my soul” because of how much time he has to worry about security at his synagogue.
“We should be spending our money and our time sending kids to religious camps, getting them their education … but the reality of the world doesn’t allow us to do that,” Steinberg said, adding that he’s grateful for Barnes for his support of the IAC.
Barnes fielded questions from the audience.
One man mentioned the beer pong incident in Newport Beach, which Barnes agreed was very unfortunate.
“If you look at what’s happening nationally,” Barnes said, “we have political platforms that are based on who can hate each other more. It’s not a good representation of who we are as a republic. We have partisan politics happening across this country that are based on hatred. There’s no civility anymore.”
Barnes said the IAC provides an opportunity “to model appropriate behavior.” And he decried the state of social media.
“Social media is not social,” Barnes said. “It’s antisocial.”
He added: “Our kids are not being raised by us. They are being raised by outside influences … Orange County has 3.2 million people and they are all our kids and they’re all our families. It doesn’t matter what religion you are. We all have to become good neighbors. And that means getting to know your neighbors.”
Barnes urged people to get involved in the IAC, which is run by an executive board.
For more information about the IAC, click here.