You haven’t been to Gilroy’s Garlic Festival if you haven’t tasted its garlic ice cream. Yes, mixing garlic and ice cream is at best a poor culinary idea, but it speaks to the good humor of the festival, which almost immediately became a beloved institution the day it was born in 1979. It now regularly attracts over 100,000 attendees. It also has become a major community-building event (even inspiring a book) in a world that could use more such gatherings. And it appears that it’s precisely its success at building community in Gilroy that led to the festival being targeted.
The Los Angeles Times reports that “disturbing details” have begun to emerge regarding the shooter, who killed two children and one adult before being mortally wounded himself by police. Central among these details were “possible links to the white supremacist movement.”
Reportedly, among the photos the 19-year-old shooter posted on Instagram prior to the festival was one of “a Smokey [the] Bear sign warning about fire danger, with a caption instructing people to read an obscure novel glorified by white supremacists: Might Is Right, published under the pseudonym Ragnar Redbeard.”
Criminal justice professor Brian Levin, who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, tells the Times that “The notion that people of color are biologically inferior is a key tenet of this book, and that biological determinism, the Darwinian view of the world, justifies aggression against diverse people and vulnerable people.” Gilroy, a city of slightly under 60,000 people about a half-hour south of Silicon Valley, is more than 60 percent Latinx.
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Of course, this is not the first time a festival has been targeted by a white supremacist shooter. Two years ago, a shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas left 59 dead and injured an estimated 527. As we know too well, any large gathering can be a target—notably, religious institutions, including churches, synagogues, and mosques.
In this case, the target was a nonprofit-run festival that itself has raised millions for local nonprofits. As Scottie Andrew and Saeed Ahmed of CNN report, the festival “had raised more than $11.7 million for local charities since 1979.” They add, “In 2018, the event raised more than $255,000 that was distributed to 170 different groups, including churches and school sports teams.” The nonprofit organizer, the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, which coordinates the efforts of the more than 4,000 volunteers, put out a statement expressing sympathy for the victims and appears to have shut down the rest of its website for the time being.
Because of the quick police response, the toll in Gilroy was mercifully less than it has been for many other mass shootings: four people lost their lives (including the shooter) and an estimated dozen additional festival attendees suffered injuries. But the damage will not be so easily repaired. The local garlic-growing company Christopher Ranch—whose founder Don Christopher helped launch the festival—noted, “Our community has worked for over 41 years to bring together our hometown of Gilroy. And in a series of selfish acts, the unspeakable has shattered what we’ve always known to be a safe and united cultural experience.”
Sadly, as we know, Gilroy’s case is less than unique. As Robin Abcarian writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, echoing singer Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), “This is America”—a country in which, even as overall violence falls, “mass shootings have become depressing common.” And, as Abcarian points out, most often the shooter is “a white man, probably a young adult, with legal access to weapons he should never, ever have been able to buy.”
Last year, in an article addressing the scourge of bigotry as a public health concern, NPQ’s Cyndi Suarez remarked, “The current wave of increasingly explicit bigotry in the US affects the work of our sector and calls on us to add higher-level cultural strategies to our repertoire.” It’s a message that bears repeating as our sector finds itself, as in Gilroy, literally on the front lines. —Steve Dubb