(Pretty Close to) Santeria Panic?

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I’ve reported on this again and again; a dead animal (or animal part) turns up and local officials cry “Santeria”. This is despite the fact that academics, experts, and even officials within the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals say that this usually isn’t the case.

“According to experts, like local anthropologist and folklorist Dr. Eoghan Ballard, and Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anti-cruelty services for the American SPCA, sacrificial remains found in parks, especially those adorned with talismans like candles or pennies, are most often the work of religious novices, teens or satanic dabblers.”

So I wasn’t particularly surprised  to see this article from The Journal News in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley about animal heads turning up in a local park.

While no direct link between the two macabre discoveries has been made, investigators said the incidents were the latest in the Lower Hudson Valley linked to ritualistic practices, such as Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion that often uses animals for ceremonial sacrifices. “Something like this, from what we’ve seen, is pretty close to Santeria,” said Kenneth Ross, the law enforcement chief for the Westchester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is investigating the New Rochelle incidents. “What we’re finding is the ritual here looks like it has to do with the blood or sacrifice to a god,” he said.

The statements by the local SPCA head aren’t that unusual, we’ve seen them before from various law enforcement and animal welfare officers. Nor is the article from The Journal News all that bad, it even goes to the trouble of contacting Miguel De La Torre, a theology professor and all-around go-to guy for debunking Santeria scares. What stood out for me, and made me want to write about it, was this secondary quote from Kenneth Ross of the WSPCA.

“I think what happens is you have different cultures coming into the United States, and when the cultures come in they bring their traditions and they bring whatever they practice,” said Ross, the SPCA police chief. “If you look back in the ’70s … Satanism was the big thing and everybody was dabbling in Satanism. I’m sure it happens and that’s how different sects are created within Santeria,” Ross said. “But I don’t know if it’s the dabblers or is it just the influx of different nationalities that bring their own traditions?” the SPCA police chief added.

Everyone was dabbling in Satanism? Now folks are dabbling in Santeria and creating “different sects”? Or maybe it’s the “influx of different nationalities”? This sort of open conjecture is troubling. First off, I’m concerned when law enforcement agents of any nature start talking about Satanism. For instance, the case of a Humane Society Police Officer, and member of the Lycoming County SPCA, who intimidated a local Satanist and told him that practitioners of his religion sacrifice animals. Add in the not-too-distant “training” many officials received concerning “Satanic crime”, and you end up with officials who may hold dangerous preconceived notions about what’s going on in someone’s house if they are “Satanic”. Secondly, for the last few years there’s been an increasingly ugly dimension to some Santeria stories that point towards anti-immigration hostility, and have even led to what some have called racial profiling.

“Capt. Richard Conklin of the Stamford Detective Bureau said Wednesday that police are targeting people of African, Central American, Haitian, Cuban or Caribbean decent who practice satanic rituals as potential suspects in the grave robbing. “We’re starting to look at this as a ritualistic-type incident,” said Conklin … Conklin said evidence recovered at the grave site and in New Jersey indicate the body was taken for ritualistic reasons. For fear of compromising the investigation, he would not go into specifics …”

In many of these cases I’ve covered the terms “Satanic” and “Santeria” are used interchangeably by journalists and law enforcement officials.  Though both camps are quick to cover their rears with a quick statement that it could just be “vandals”, in case it turns out to be, you know, vandals.

“Still, police note that graffiti and other vandalism — and even more graphic discoveries such as those in New Rochelle this month — could always have another explanation: They could just be the work of vandals.

But how many casual readers are paying attention to the small disclaimer? How much fear and animus towards innocent practitioners of Santeria, and other African diasporic faiths, is being generated by this stream of “dead animal” stories? Why do we almost never see the follow-up stories where it turns out to not be Santeria? I keep insisting we have to on the lookout for the development of new moral panics in our society, are we seeing a “Santeria Panic” in the works? Fueled by sensationalism, ignorance, fear, and increasingly desperate occult “experts” grasping to the last straws of their relevance? Whether a moral panic ensues or not, what is clear is that journalists and law enforcement/animal control don’t seem to care if they all but blame Santeria and turn out to be wrong later.