By Trevor Babcock, courtesy of the Times Republican
Monday’s fatal shooting at a Casey’s in Marshalltown sparked racist comments on social media across Iowa.
Many commenters assumed the alleged shooter Rocky Dean Trujillo, a United States citizen and Latino, was an undocumented immigrant. They called for stricter immigration policies and to institute the death penalty in Iowa.
Some racist commenters said the alleged shooter’s ethnicity equated to inherent violent tendencies, and others said the shooter would receive a light sentence by, “playing the race card.”
“The comments weren’t hard to find, they were everywhere,” Police Chief Mike Tupper said, who wrote a column in Thursday’s Times-Republican denouncing racist attitudes he witnessed on social media in response to the shooting.
He said he saw racially insensitive comments on virtually every news agency’s Facebook page which covered the shooting, and also saw them on the Marshalltown Police Department’s Facebook page.
“I generally cringe anytime we have a crime involving a Latino because I know this is what we’re going to have to deal with,” Tupper said.
When the Marshalltown Police Department arrests white individuals, he said social media comments look quite different compared to when police arrest people of color.
“It’s the opposite. We see, ‘People make mistakes’ or ‘He’s a good guy, respect his family,’ that sort of thing. They don’t ask about their immigration status,” Tupper said.
Some commenters, when called out for their racist statements by other social media users, claimed they never brought race into the conversation because they only mentioned the alleged shooter’s immigration status and not his race specifically.
Maria Gonzalez, co-organizer of Immigrant Allies of Marshalltown, said it becomes a racial issue when immigration status is assumed or mentioned in response to a Latino individual committing a crime.
“It’s very unfortunate that once people start seeing a Latino last name or a person’s skin color, the first thing that comes up is their legal status,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez agrees with Tupper’s call to focus on uplifting the community and supporting the family of the victim, Michael Ray West.
“It’s a small community, so when someone suffers such a tragic loss we all feel it, we all suffer with that family, and our greatest concern should be that family in particular and what they’re going through,” Gonzalez said. “But instead there have been trolls and racism brought out adding fuel to the fire.”
Owner of La Carreta and founder of No Love, No Tacos Alfonso Medina said there’s a pattern of racist comments on social media posts of Latino individuals committing crimes and ones directed at Trujillo didn’t surprise him.
“Somebody on the thread is always going to bring up the race of the individual and his or her legal status, someone always does,” Medina said.
He said social media comments regardless of where it was reported in Iowa would be similar, stating Marshalltown is a special community despite a few racist commenters on Facebook.
“It’s a very united community, when the derecho happened and when the tornado happened nobody looks at race here like that, until a crime like this happens,” Medina said.
Aly Wenner, program director at REM Iowa and an organizer of unity events this past summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, said she finds racist social media comments on news stories of people of color committing crimes strange and unnecessary, but is unfortunately typical.
“With black males you’ll always see, ‘Were they on drugs’ or ‘Was he selling drugs,’ it seems to be the go-to calling card of dehumanizing someone and degrading them,” Wenner said.
She said to combat racist attitudes like ones popping up online in response to the shooting, it’s important more people, including local leaders, be anti-racist.
“When you see something, say something, people are going to continue making comments if they aren’t addressed and I know people will continue to make them regardless, but sometimes making people uncomfortable by asking ‘What did you mean by that’ or challenging their statements is all it takes to make someone question it and think ‘Oh maybe I shouldn’t have said that,’” Wenner said.
Marshalltown Mayor Joel Greer said he is 100 percent behind the opinions stated in Tupper’s column and appreciates when local leaders step up to embrace diversity. To combat racism, Greer said education is where to start.
“There are speakers out there that can talk about inherent racism and know it and can address it well,” Greer said. “Another thing we need to do is make sure our history books are written right, and teachers are aware of inherent biases.”
Marshalltown High School Principal Jacque Wyant said one of the main reasons she took her current job was because of Marshalltown’s diversity and celebrates diversity within Marshalltown schools, but said the community still has some work to do.
“There’s a lot that still has to be learned within our community,” Wyant said. “Everybody comes from somewhere. Not everyone grew up in Marshalltown and we all have different values. We have to get to know each of our communities within the larger Marshalltown community.”