By Sean Raycraft
People never argue about issues on which they agree. One of the quirks I love about Davis is what we, the citizens argue about. At Tuesday’s city council meeting, the room was packed to have a discussion about Gandhi, and his legacy as an advocate for peace and non-violence. I was simultaneously very proud of the Davis community, and incredibly disappointed. Where else in this area will we find a community where a hundred or so community members will come together at a City Council meeting, for 5 hours on a Tuesday night, to have a discussion about the legacy of Gandhi, a life-sized bronze statue representing peace and non-violence, and its impact on the broader community? It was truly an amazing sight and experience.
Before I go any further, I want to state that I am not an expert on Gandhi, his life or the modern history of India. I am willing to surmise I know more than the average American, although admittedly that is not saying much given the rise of Trump and Trumpism in the American electorate. I must confess that I only learned about the statue on Tuesday afternoon, when a friend of mine asked if anyone could go to council and speak on behalf of the Phoenix Coalition during public comment. With those caveats in mind, I will do my best not to write about Gandhi the man, or the statue that will soon stand in central park. Instead, I am going to talk about the discussion that took place, and a broader trend of how we, as Davisites often fail to acknowledge the humanity of those who hold different views or come from different socio-economic backgrounds. Lastly, I am going to write about the importance of Davis values, what that means, and how we can do better going forward as a community.
Tuesday’s public comment period had some heartfelt, insightful and constructive commentary from many in the community. Unfortunately, I think most of the people who stood up at the podium missed the point. Mayor Robb Davis intended to foster an environment of reconciliation and mutual respect among those who disagree. The Mayor had mixed results, and, for the most part, he was able to keep the discourse courteous and respectful in terms of the tone of the comments, but many retreated to their pre-prepared talking points instead of genuinely considering the arguments of their opposition. For as long as I have been active in Davis politics, Davisites will gleefully attack the character of their opposition, rather than try and foster furtherance of understanding between disagreeing parties. I have experienced it in the Raise the Wage campaigns, the Measure A debate and the farm worker overtime issue.
Recently, there was quite a controversy regarding supposed classist and xenophobic comments made about the proposed hotel in south Davis. David Greenwald added a discussion of those comments to the agenda of a meeting of the HRC, in order to foster greater understanding in the community. Sadly, it instead turned into an hours-long public comment period with the majority of commenters disparaging Mr. Greenwald and the HRC over an article published on this website. I am not writing this to pass judgment on one side or the other of that controversy, rather I am going to point out the public at large missed the broader point. Public comment was filled with those who wanted to talk at, or talk past their opponents, rather than talking to them. I too have been guilty of this in my time as an activist. During the Raise the Wage campaign, I did not actively seek to foster understanding and harmony with the local business community. For their part, they went out of their way to call us communists, publicly question the integrity of myself and other members of the campaign and propagate hyperbolic arguments, not based in fact. If we aspire to be a truly inclusive community, mindful of racial and economic justice, where all citizens can participate, then our tone and commentary needs to be reflective of those values.
To that end, I really like what Councilmember Rochelle Swanson had to say about the matter. Rochelle and I often do not see eye to eye on many issues, but here I feel she really captured the feeling in the room. She spoke at length about doing things the Davis way. She said about the Davis way “It is about accommodating different people, it’s a community of different ideas and views.” She went on at length, and you can see the video here http://davis.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=472 She starts at approximately the 4:58 mark.
The statue is going to be erected in Central Park on October 2. I think it is important that this statue and, by extension, the life and symbolism of Gandhi be put into proper context. Towering historical figures like Gandhi, Constantine, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Columbus are complicated people. Too often, history books paint these figures as good, or bad. This often leads to historical narratives that fail to accurately capture the humanity and fallibility of these people. I am reminded of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, a book about how these false narratives in American history books lead to false perceptions about history in America today. Chapter one is about Columbus, and the narratives told in history books about his “heroic” exploration of the new world. Unfortunately, what is omitted is the story of genocide, the encomienda system, and the ritualistic rape, enslavement and torture perpetuated upon the native peoples of the Caribbean by Columbus and his men. Gandhi clearly was not Columbus, but he was human and thus had all the moral failings that people have. It is important, that we as Davisites pursue furtherance of human knowledge and understanding within our community. That means we must find a way to humanize Gandhi and not mythologize him in our public space. To mythologize Gandhi is to lessen the power of his movement. In 1930, Gandhi did not march to Dandi and make salt by himself. Millions and millions of people participated in peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience. I would like the statue to have an educational component, chronicling the life of Gandhi, warts and all. That would be the Davis way.
Sean Raycraft is a lifelong Davis resident and proud shop steward with UFCW 8