A 48-year-old Redondo Beach man was arrested on suspicion of a hate crime and vandalism Friday, Sept. 4, about a week after the owners of a Black Lives Matter sign discovered it had been tagged with racist slurs, police say.
Randall Michael Walton was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor vandalism and interfering “with (the) exercise of civil rights because of actual or perceived characteristics of (the) victim,” Sgt. Mark Valdivia said in a press release. Interfering with the exercise of civil rights, according to state law, is also a misdemeanor and carries a possible sentence of up to one year in prison and fines up to $10,000.
Police will present the case to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office to weigh whether to file charges, Valdivia wrote.
On Saturday morning, Aug. 29, a BLM sign hanging on a hedge in a south Redondo Beach neighborhood was vandalized, with derogatory and racist language against Black people scrawled on it, police said.
The sign, which has since been replaced, was displayed outside the home of Jeff and Gale Hazeltine in the 500 block of South Helberta Avenue.
Jeff Hazeltine had initially put the sign up on July 6 to show support for those seeking criminal justice and police reform in the wake of George Floyd, a Black man, dying on Memorial Day when a White police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes in Minneapolis.
Hazeltine reported the Saturday graffiti to police later that morning.
The sign, though, had faced vandalism since it went up, Hazeltine said, with the original sign even getting stolen. So he installed a surveillance camera.
The footage from Saturday showed a man who appeared to be White, with a long beard, in his 30s or 40s. The man was also seen driving a white pickup truck with a camper shell.
“Based on the language used to deface the sign,” Valdivia wrote, “Redondo Beach Police Department investigated this incident as a hate crime.”
The BLM sign, which went up in a residential neighborhood earlier this summer, has become a flash point in Redondo Beach: The weekend incident was the latest in a string of vandalism the sign has faced. But the couple that put it up has also received an outpouring of support. In all, the controversy surrounding the sign has underscored the division in communities across the country this year as the United States reckons with its history of systemic racism.
That reckoning stems from the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, a Black man, who died when a White police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes in Minneapolis.
Protests swept through the country, ushering in a modern day civil rights movement demanding an end to racial injustice and what the BLM movement calls pervasive police brutality against Black people.
Those protests even came to the normally placid South Bay, including the beach cities. About 1,000 people, for example, attended a BLM protest at the Manhattan Beach Pier on June 2. A car caravan demanding an end to police brutality also rolled through the South Bay on the Fourth of July, traveling from Redondo Beach to LAX.
Highlighting the reach of the BLM movement this year is that protests came to the South Bay beach cities despite those seaside towns being overwhelmingly White: In Redondo Beach, White people comprise about 72% of the population and Black people make up about 3%, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data. Manhattan Beach’s population is nearly 80% White people and a half-percent Black. Those percentages in Hermosa Beach are about 85% and 1.3%, respectively.
“It just seemed like the thing to do,” Jeff Hazeltine said about deciding to put up the sign. “We didn’t want to be silent and we had that nice corner. So we felt like saying, ‘Let’s let everyone know where we stand.’ It was just our way to yell.”
“And show support,” Gale Hazeltine added.
But controversy followed almost immediately after the sign went up.
It became the subject of repeated vandalism, with people tearing it down or writing other messages on it, such as “Trump 2020.” And in fact, the current sign isn’t the original: The original sign was stolen the first night the Hazeltines put it up — so they made a bigger sign and secured it better.
“We didn’t want them to think they could shut us up,” Jeff Hazeltine said.
Shortly after the second sign went up, the couple added a motion-detecting video camera in the hedge. And what they captured, they said, shocked them.
Two teenagers pulled it down. A woman smeared dog feces on the sign. Several people wrote competing political messages on the sign, as if the sign itself had become a canvas of discontent.
Then one day, Jeff Hazeltine followed a man on his bike who had ripped the sign down. The man denied the charge and actually led Hazeltine to the Redondo Beach Police Department, where officers detained him and, police said, plan on filing vandalism charges based on video evidence Hazeltine provided.
The neighborhood political wars culminated last weekend with the suspected hate crime.
The man suspected of vandalizing the BLM sign with slurs did so early Saturday morning, Aug 29. And then, according to the surveillance video, the man drove by the sign several times that morning and again the next day.
“That’s when it started to feel a little scary,” Gale Hazeltine said.
Detectives were still working to identify the individual caught on camera, Freeman said.
“Hate crimes don’t happen here very often,” Freeman said. “But when they do, we want to make sure the city shows that it won’t be tolerated.
“This is not a difference of opinion,” he added. “This is a hate crime.”
Representatives from Black Lives Matter Los Angeles did not respond to requests seeking the organization’s reaction to the BLM sign, the controversy it created or police investigating the weekend vandalism as a hate crime.
There’s another side to this whole sign saga, however. The Hazeltines, who are White, have also received support from others in the community.
Neighbors have left notes in their mailbox. Others have come by to say hello and thank you. One person even left a note and $100 in cash. All to show support for their neighborhood sign.
“If I’m outside gardening, they stop,” Gale Hazeltine said. “We get notes of encouragement. They say keep going.”
Other moments they caught on camera, the couple said, melted their hearts.
Take, for example, a pair of young boys the video caught admiring the sign, which has the names of Black people killed by police.
One of the teens can be heard explaining the meaning to his friend.
“It’s the names of those killed by cops,” one teen tells the other.
It was a heartwarming moment, which has now become a common occurrence among the rolls of video footage captured each day. Ultimately, the couple said, the positive responses have outweighed the negative.
“The whole neighborhood feels like they own this sign now,” Gale Hazeltine said.
On Thursday, Sept. 3, police received a tip about the possible identity of the man in the video.
Detectives went to Walton’s home on Friday, Valdivia wrote, and ultimately arrested him there. He was taken to the Police Department to be booked. By Friday afternoon, Walton had been released.
Police used the pickup truck, as well as other evidence from the surveillance footage, to identify the suspect, Valdivia said via phone Friday afternoon.
Hazeltine, in a Friday interview, said it was good news a suspect had been arrested.
“I hope that he’s done with all that behavior and that other people who are leaning in that direction would be discouraged from following his path,” Hazeltine said. “That’s about the best thing that could come of it.”