East County

Santee Residents Trying to Reverse City's Long Standing Reputation

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It's been a rough couple of months for Santee's reputation.

The East County suburb has long been associated with racial prejudice, and most locals know about its unpleasant nickname referencing the Klu Klux Klan.

And while the city and its residents have worked for some time to polish the city's image, it appears, based on some recent events within city limits, that there is still much work to be done.

Some residents are up for the challenge.

In May, a man was seen at a Santee supermarket wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood as he shopped, which drew outrage from local leaders and civil rights organizations. After an investigation, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department said there was not enough evidence to charge the man.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said deputies were not called to the store Saturday, but detectives were looking into the incident to pursue any appropriate criminal charges. NBC 7's Artie Ojeda has more.

Days later, photos surfaced of another shopper in Santee wearing a face mask with a swastika. Deputies were called and asked the man to remove his mask and he complied. The man told NBC 7 he wore the mask as a form of peaceful protest against California Governor Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home order.

"That does not represent the vast majority of the citizens of Santee, however that is real and it did happen and it was captured," said Santee council member Stephen Houlahan.

And last Sunday afternoon, amid nationwide demonstrations for racial equality and police reform in the wake of George Floyd's death -- some of which were accompanied or followed by vandalism, looting and arson by non protesters -- some among a group of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters said they were confronted by a group of self-described "defenders" who used racial slurs.

The protesters had just finished a broad-daylight march and demonstration that wrapped up at the Santee Sheriff's Department substation. As they headed to their cars parked in a nearby Target parking lot, that's when they were met by the defenders who claimed to be protecting the store from looting.

Some protesters told NBC 7 they believed some among the defenders were members of white supremacy groups.

NBC 7's Niala Charles followed the protests all day along with some tense moments after self-described defenders reportedly confronted protesters.

Thomas Jeffrey wasn't a part of either group, but was there when tensions lifted. He said he doesn't want people from outside of Santee using their community as a battleground for extremism on either side.

"There is no racism here. We don’t want that, Jeffrey said. "We don’t want the looting, we don’t want the rioting, that’s not what we are."

Rob Treadwell, owner of Al's Sport Shop in Santee, started making anti-hate signs after the incidents in the grocery stores, but since the killing Floyd they've become more popular. He hopes his symbols of hope and love can help people disassociate the city with hate.

"I think that focus, it's important that we use that focus to spread the right message, not only about our community, but about San Diego... and the world in general that’s changing for a better place," Treadwell said. "Hate has no home here, it has no home anywhere, that’s really what I believe."

So far Treadwell has given away 100 anti-hate signs for free. He has printed 100 more and is also giving out anti-hate decals for cars.

Another resident who participated in last weekend's protests said demonstrations of unity canhelp reverse the way people think and feel about Santee.

"We are known for having people that aren't as accepting," Tiffany Sundberg said. "Even though there's the history of that, it's not like that anymore. There's small pockets of it, but if we come together as a community then we can show everyone in San Diego and the world that we're not this racist community that people think we are."

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