In December 2012, the Davis Human Relations Commission held a public event at the Davis Community Chambers. Born out of a number of contemporary events at that time, including the noose at the Davis High School football stadium, we launched what we thought would be a novel approach – a reverse panel discussion.
We assembled a panel of community leaders: Rochelle Swanson from the Davis City Council, Rahim Reed from UC Davis, Darren Pytel from the Davis Police Department, Jonathan Raven from the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, Pam Mari from the School District and Kristin Stoneking from the faith community.
There was a catch – rather than speak to the group, the job of the panel was to listen to the public and respond. What caught us off guard I think was that, first, over 200 people showed up, and, second, more than 60 of them spoke. So many showed up to speak that we actually extended the time period by an hour – so it became a three-hour event rather than a two-hour event.
The other thing that caught, at least me, off guard were the communications from the public. As mentioned, we were just coming off the noose incident, we had long had complaints about racial profiling, and there was some of that, but the biggest issue by far were parents of school-aged children, many of the children of mixed race, who found Davis schools uncomfortable, and some of them even ended up leaving the school district.
Some have suggested that racism has not been silent – but I strongly disagree. We hear the cry of racism in high profile incidents for sure, but there is an everyday experience that people of color have in our community. I have heard from many African-American UC Davis students that they do not feel comfortable going into the downtown because of how few African-Americans there are in the community and they feel like they are singled out or, at the very least, they stand out.
We heard in 2012 from individuals who were indeed singled out in places of business. We heard from parents whose children felt they did not belong in the schools. We heard about incidents of bullying. These are stories of everyday experience that are not told.
On February 28, from 1 to 3 pm at the Davis Community Chamber, I will be moderating the third annual Breaking the Silence of Racism Event.
Things have changed since 2012. In a few weeks we will talk about a huge change that is about to occur.
The 2012 event taught us one thing, though – we need to expect the unexpected.
Nevertheless, national and local issues could push things back out into the forefront. The high profile cases involving the shooting of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police could well push police-community relations back into a huge topic of discussion.
On the Vanguard those national incidents led to vigorous debate over the role of race and racial profiling in terms of how police handle arrests and deal with resistance to those arrests. Key questions that arose, aside from whether the officers were in the wrong and should have been prosecuted, included the role that race played in those interactions.
Earlier this week, a New York Grand Jury indicted the officer responsible for killing Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed black man, in the stairwell of an infamous Brooklyn housing project. This decision followed the controversial decision for a grand jury not to indicate Daniel Pantaleo to face the accusations in the death of Eric Garner, after he was filmed placing Mr. Garner in a chokehold.
Now Peter Liang, who has spent less than 18 months on the force, has been charged with manslaughter and official misconduct in Mr. Gurley’s death.
As Christina Sterbenz writes in the Business Insider, “Now that a grand jury in the same state indicted Liang for Gurley’s death, the injustice against Garner and his family becomes all the more clear.”
She argues, “While both deaths are a tragedy for all those involved, a rookie cop getting spooked in a dark stairwell and accidentally firing his gun is easier to fathom than an officer forcibly choking the life out of a man pleading [with] him to stop, especially using a maneuver his force banned more than two decades ago.”
“Both officers also have some level of culpability — at least enough to warrant a trial. Liang paid closer attention to texting his union reps than helping the man he shot, and Palanteo could have released his chokehold on the victim,” she notes.
Nate Silver found that failure to indict is incredibly rare for grand juries. In 2010, the most recent year with available data, grand juries declined to indict only 11 cases out of 162,000 — or 0.0067%.
Adding to the national issue that has been in discussion since last summer and was inflamed in late November with the failure to indict in two high profile cases, is now the issue of anti-Semiticism and Islamaphobia at UC Davis and in the community.
We have the high profile case of the swastika on top of the ASUCD vote, that is seen by many to be anti-Israel. We also have the backlash against the vote that has played out nationally in right wing blogs such as Breitart.
Given two high profile issues and the focus on the militarization of police as the result of the MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle) debate locally, we can expect a potentially lively discussion in two weeks.
I am a big believer that there is an air of silence to racism. We often do not hear the real stories by members of our community about everyday occurrences. We take for granted that things like these are a thing of the past, when they are not. We simply do not experience them as part of our everyday lives.
What we hear, instead, are extraordinary incidents – Ferguson, Staten Island, ASUCD, the swastika at the Jewish Fraternity. However, to illustrate the point, until the swastika became publicized, a similar incident at the Hillel House had gone unreported. We need to bear witness to these acts of hatred in our community.
NPR on Friday published the prepared text of the speech given by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, one of just two African-Americans to have ever served as federal judges in Mississippi. He delivered it to three young white men as he sentenced them for the murder of a 48-year-old black man in a parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi.
“They were part of a group that beat Anderson and then killed him by running over his body with a truck, yelling ‘white power’ as they drove off,” NPR notes.
It is a long speech, and you can read it all here, and in it he laid out that the history of Mississippi, as one author put it, is “almost unspeakably primal and vicious.” Of forty martyrs whose names are inscribed at the national Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, 19 of them were killed in Mississippi.
The judge discussed lynching and noted that, “between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. The impact this campaign of terror had on black families is impossible to explain so many years later. That number contrasts with the 1,401 prisoners who have been executed legally in the United States since 1976. In modern terms, that number represents more than those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and more than twice the number of American casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom — the Afghanistan conflict. Turning to home, this number also represents 1,700 more than who were killed on Sept. 11. “
“How could hate, fear or whatever it was transform genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers?” he asks. “Those crimes of the past, as well as these, have so damaged the psyche and reputation of this great state. Mississippi soil has been stained with the blood of folk whose names have become synonymous with the civil rights movement…”
The judge argued, “The common denominator was that the last thing that each of these individuals saw was the inhumanity of racism. The last thing that each felt was the audacity and agony of hate, senseless hate: crippling, maiming them and finally taking away their lives.”
While Mississippi has “a tortured past, and it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and become a New Mississippi. New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in. Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their co-conspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi … causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.”
It was an amazing commentary by a judge and I encourage you to read the entire thing. While the legacy in Mississippi is more local, more brutal, more overt, it is a lesson and a legacy shared by the entire nation that out of expediency turned a blind eye to the atrocities for far too long.
And it is that silence that we must now break, whether it is for a local incident in our midst or for a local incident far away that enters the national scene.
Two years ago the most powerful stories that I heard were those small incidents of everyday life that people of color live with in our community. Those small incidents exemplify the indignity and inhumanity of racism and offer us a way forward to a better future.
Join us in two weeks as we continue this discussion.
—David M. Greenwald reporting