On Dec. 12, I received an email from our Adult Program director in Cortez. The email subject was simple: “Bus Vandalism.” When I opened the attached pictures, it was clear that this was not simple vandalism.
Overnight, someone spray-painted messages on the accessible van we use to transport people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to appointments, shopping and recreational activities. An obscenity scarred the side, and across the back was written what many of us now call “the R word.”
As you might imagine, my heart lodged in my throat. The entire purpose of Community Connections is to create opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to be safe and happy and healthy in their communities. And here we’d allowed hate and discrimination right at their doorstep.
The van was quickly cleaned and restored to its previous condition, but the words left their mark. Employees at Community Connections with people with intellectual disabilities felt devastated, hurt and scared. Though the words were erased before the Community Center where the van was stored opened, the clients arrived to feelings of tension. When we began to release details of the situation, people started to wonder if they were safe.
This is what hate crime does. If the vandalism had been mere scribbles, the van would have been fixed, and it would merely have cost a local nonprofit money that it couldn’t afford to spend. But when the crime includes the messages of bias, hate and intolerance, the effects spread beyond the direct victim of the crime. It affects all members of the targeted group as well as the people who love and support them.
Hate crimes breed fear. They serve to intimidate people, and for good reason. The Department of Justice warns that slurs often turn into harassment, harassment into threats and threats into physical violence. The hate must be stopped at its roots: the beliefs that fuel it.
Fortunately, for every one perpetrator of a hate crime, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people willing to stand up against it. After people found out about the crime, Community Connections received dozens of phone calls and messages from people who were as horrified as we were about the event. The outpouring of support showed that members of our community believe that people with intellectual disabilities are important and worthy and deserve respect for their contributions.
Soon after the incident, a group of Community Connections employees, family members, community members and law enforcement met to discuss a community response. It is our goal to make sure that people with intellectual disabilities feel safe wherever they go and that everyone of every age knows how to be an ally to people with disabilities.
If you want to stand with us, call or email Community Connections at 259-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org to get on our contact list for future community meetings. Or contribute to our Go Fund Me campaign to install a security system to help keep our employees, clients and visitors safe.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections, Inc.