Mariela Hernandez says she was walking her 9-year-old son to school on Nov. 9 when she saw a group of men in a white pickup slow down on Hillsborough Road near the Cates Farm community.
“I see this guy with a big smile, and they’re (yelling), ‘You’re going to get sent back to Mexico,’ ” said Hernandez, who is a legal immigrant seeking her citizenship and a zone navigator helping families in Orange County’s Family Success Alliance cradle-to-career or college program.
“My reaction was completely surprised. I didn’t think,” she said. “I’ve been targeted, and racist stuff has been said to me before, but I didn’t think it would happen like that.”
The alleged encounter was among hundreds of incidents, protests and student walkouts reported nationwide after Donald Trump won the presidential election. UNC students also staged a walkout and protests, and undocumented students met this week to talk about their fears.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County Schools spokesmen said they haven’t had any major issues. Both sent messages to parents letting them know that schools are safe places and to get in touch with any harassment or bullying concerns.
Orange County leaders also issued a letter Monday in response to reports of racial, religious and homophobic harassment, urging victims to call 911.
Trump’s election doesn’t change the county’s values, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger, Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens and Orange County Board of Commissioners Chairman Earl McKee said in the joint letter.
“As we move forward with this transition, we need to listen to each other and pay special attention to our values of inclusiveness and respect. While not perfect, this is the way democracy works in our country, and we believe this ultimately makes us a stronger nation,” they said. “In the meanwhile, we all need to work hard and keep advocating for our very important community values.”
But listing those “community values” – on immigration, climate change, universal health care and common-sense gun laws – lit a Facebook firestorm.
More than 100 people responded to an online post from Hillsborough resident and former Town Board candidate Ashley DeSena about the letter. The post – “Thanks for the reminder that I need to keep my head down and my conservative mouth shut” – was meant to start a conversation, DeSena said.
The letter is insulting to roughly 23 percent of local voters who supported Trump, she said, because it conflicts with their values.
“I understand the local elected officials want to do their best to provide good governance to us and they want to ensure that we have the sort of community that everybody wants to be part of, but when they get into specific values – what values are welcome vs. what values are not – you start excluding a lot of people,” DeSena said.
The letter’s advice to call 911 about verbal harassment drew jeers from some. DeSena said it encourages a climate of fear and victimization.
“I don’t want anybody to feel like they’re not welcome,” she said about Hernandez’s experience. “As long as they’re peaceful, productive members of society, they should be treated with more respect than that.”
McKee, who was called out by name on the page, posted that anyone with concerns should call him. Orange County is a diverse community with views from the far right to the far left, he said later. While he may not agree with every line in the letter, it was his duty as the board’s chairman to sign it, he said.
“The letter was in some ways intended to calm down the situation, and it seems to have not done that,” McKee said. “Personally, I think people just need to take a deep breath and calm down. The election is over; the election is what it is. It’s not going to be the end of the world.”
The letter responded to public concerns they had been hearing, Lavelle said, from Hernandez’s experience to emails about a spike in anti-gay harassment.
“It’s hearing from those vulnerable communities that they are genuinely, really, not just sad, but scared and worried, and so we wanted to offer some reassurance to them,” Lavelle said.
And it’s not just Trump supporters who are harassing others, Hemminger and McKee said. She has heard about notes found on cars and people being yelled at by passing drivers, Hemminger said. McKee said Trump supporters have had signs in their yards destroyed and defaced; some said their cars were keyed.
Local law enforcement only received one report – of vandalism – since the election.
Chapel Hill’s Town Council put out its own statement Monday, noting that Chapel Hill prides itself on being a place that encourages and supports differences.
“In coming days, we urge everyone to be patient with one another and to listen with respect,” Hemminger said. “And, looking to the future, we will continue to work together to advocate for our values, because we are, truly, stronger as an inclusive community.”
Carrboro police respond
The Carrboro Police Department addressed reports of possible harassment since the election in a news release Friday morning.
The department has always worked to ensure no one in Carrboro is victimized because of gender, religion, ethnicity, cultural heritage, sexual orientation, or for any other reason, the release stated.
“Carrboro is an open, inclusive, and welcoming community. The Carrboro Police Department shares these values and will continue to work to ensure all residents and visitors feel safe in Carrboro. We thank you for helping us keep Carrboro safe and welcoming,” it stated.
Police advise anyone witnessing possible harassment to take these steps:
▪ Report it as soon as possible by dialing 911
▪ Record or otherwise document the incident if it’s safe to do so; documented evidence can help prove a crime has occurred
▪ Show your support for the victim by talking to them during and after an incident until a police officer can arrive