Tag Archives: Benicia Committee United for Racial Equity (CURE)

Feeling Better in Benicia

PERSPECTIVE ON RACISM IN BENICIA

By Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, July 19, 2022 (brief bio below)

Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, Benicia

As a 20-year African American resident, I’ve enjoyed the beauty, good schools and small town feel of Benicia, but there’s been challenging moments:

    1. White middle school students daily calling my son *igger at school.
    2. Being asked by two white women while walking down First St., “Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be in Oakland or Vallejo?”
    3. A white man referring to me as “Gal” while “telling” me to get him a shopping cart at the Solano Square Safeway. African Americans have a history since the days of slavery of white people (teens to adult) referring us as “Boy or Gal (girl)” when we’re well past the age of being a boy or a girl. This to “remind” us that we were/are considered as inferior to white people and to “keep us in our place.”
    4. Benicia Police being called to my home due to the music I was playing during the middle of the day. When the officers arrived, I asked them if the volume of the music was too loud, and whether I was making noise outside of the hours allowed by the Benicia Municipal Code, the officers replied “no” to both and left. The white neighbor later informed me that they’d contacted the police because they could hear the music while walking past my house, and it wasn’t the “type” of music (classic R&B) that was acceptable for the neighborhood.
    5. A NextDoor post directed anyone who saw “any young black men” walking through their neighborhood to please contact Benicia Police based on a recent theft/burglary. The posting happened around the same time that Ahmad Arbury, a black young man in Georgia, who was around the same age as my son and nephew, was apprehended and murdered by white neighborhood residents simply because he was jogging through their neighborhood. The post immediately made me fear that something similar might happen to my son, nephew or another African American young man minding their own business while walking in a primarily white Benicia neighborhood. Based on historical experience, most African American parents instruct (our) children, primarily sons, on exactly how to interact with the police to keep from being harmed or killed. That post was unconscionable. I took my concern to then Benicia Police Chief, Erik Upson, who thought the post was incredulous, inappropriate, and assured me that under no circumstance would he accept any of his officers responding to a call based solely on the race of a person walking through a neighborhood. I appreciated that.
    6. A former white Benicia Arts and Culture commissioner stopped a struggling Downtown First street business from exhibiting a proposed mural of historic African American Benicians and other historic African Americans by threatening to organize people in a boycott to shut the business down if they did. It didn’t matter that the project was in the process of seeking approval from that commission before being implemented.

I shake my head when citizens exclaim, “There’s no racism in Benicia!” Racism in Benicia? Prove it!” and my favorite, “Why are you trying to paint Benicia as racist? If you don’t like living here, MOVE”; And spew “whataboutisms”.

In June of 2020 I’d had enough and organized a large peaceful protest for racial justice and formed the group, Benicia Black Lives Matter (BBLM). I submitted a list of items to then City Manager, Lori Tinfow for implementation by the city to address racism and promote racial equity in Benicia. By August those items were added into a co-authored resolution that was submitted to the Benicia City Council and passed by majority vote.

Since then:

I’m proud to have been part of the origin of the historic annual celebration of Juneteenth in Benicia. Initial recognition of Juneteenth (the day that slavery ended in the United States) by City Hall consisted of a proclamation presentation and a flag raising ceremony, a step in the right direction.

Two of the items presented to Ms. Tinfow and passed by the city council emerged into the city’s Equity Manager position and the Committee for Unity and Racial Unity (CURE), the only municipal position and committee of its kind that exists in Solano County, if not in the whole bay area.

In my opinion, the Benicia City Council and staff took appropriate steps to ensure that the implementation and convening of CURE was fair and transparent. Two African American BBLM members were duly appointed to CURE as was requested in the resolution, and the committee was expanded per amendment which allowed a greater level of community member participation. The time it took to implement CURE and seat its members took a while, but the Equity and Diversity Manger assigned to carry out this effort has only a “part-time” position.

The Benicia Library improved its inventory of books by expanding information regarding the history and current issues impacting the lives of people of color. The library director obtained a grant and presented community meetings based on African American author, poet and playwright Claudia Rankine’s profound book,” Just Us” to promote education and discussion of racial micro-aggressions, unconscious/conscious racial bias, and to explore possible solutions. The library also hosted a live discussion with Ms. Rankine, and presented a dramatic play written by the author and powerfully performed by Benicia community actors.

I applaud the citizens, city staff, school district and community leaders of Benicia who are speaking up and working on actions to mitigate offensive and potentially dangerous activities such as the racist La Migra “game” that many Benicia students play.

More white members of the community acknowledge that implicit bias and racism DOES EXIST in Benicia and are taking action to do something about it.

There’s still more to do to address racism and inequity in Benicia; However, I notice the progress, and in my opinion, Benicia is better.


Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, MA, MPA, LMFT/APCC is a 20-year Benicia resident and proud mom; School, family and trauma psychotherapist; Benicia Black Lives Matter (BBLM) Co-founder; NAACP member and equity, social justice, diversity and inclusion advocate. Views are the author’s own.

It’s Better in Benicia – but, for whom?

By Amira Barger, May 25, 2022 (Brief bio below)

Benicia 1905 postcard. Wikipedia, Creative Commons Public Domain
Benicia CA, 1905

Even amongst the most progressive, when Black people make specific calls to action that will impact systemic oppression, we are met with symbolism over material change. We asked for equity. They gave us a flag for Juneteenth. That’s nice, and it doesn’t address the issues that impact Black people on a daily basis. Ask yourself – why might that be? Symbolic change checks the box, it doesn’t hurt to advance those things, and it perhaps even allows those who perpetuate inequity to feel some measure of comfort, as if they’ve done their good deed. But it’s performative. It’s appeasement. They hope that, if they give us some ceremonial gesture, we’ll feel better, and rest in the glow of their generosity. If they can pacify us, then they don’t have to address any real change. That’s much more difficult and requires a certain level of looking in the mirror that is uncomfortable. In fact, to avoid doing so, some places are simply making discomfort illegal. Understanding that, what then can be done? One direct route to addressing material change is local government. And the thing that moves the needle locally is civic engagement.

Benicia City Hall

In the not-too-distant past, the first thing folks did in the morning was open their local newspaper. In cities large and small, the citizens in a given place were far more informed on the comings and goings in the places they called home. The decline of local news outlets has had a direct impact on the levels of disinformation and disconnection within communities. Most of the focus politically is turned toward what happens on the national level, but the power of local politics is far more impactful in our day-to-day experience than it gets credit for. Local politics serve to do more than shape your property taxes and water bills. Consider the power held by the school board in your district. They hold the power to shape the minds of our children. The expansive power of locally elected officials – sheriff, district attorney, judge, city council – is too often wielded in relative anonymity. But a neglect of local politics will eventually result in neglect of the issues and people that matter most to you. Even, or perhaps especially, in communities filled with well-meaning, progressive citizens, that disconnect can provide a false sense of security. Too many times, this is where symbolic change can be most detrimental. For me, I am watching this struggle play out right in front of my eyes.

I am one of five Benicians appointed to serve on the city’s Commission United for Racial Equity (CURE). I said “yes” because advancing equity is not just what I do professionally, it is who I am. As a child of missionaries, I’ve learned to “live life in purpose”. In community, for community, by community – a principle by which I live and breathe. In June 2020, 19 days after the murder of George Floyd, my family and community marched together through Benicia from 9th Street park to our idyllic downtown. We joined others around the world, bringing attention to the movement for Black lives – and the often denied racism right here in Benicia.

First Street, Benicia CA

This bedroom community by the bay captured my heart 17 years ago when I met a boy from nearby Vallejo. I love the postcard-esque main street. I love the view from the pier as the sun sets over water and rolling hills, watching ships pass under the bridge, and pointing out sea lions to my daughter. For those unfamiliar with Benicia, it’s on purpose. Surrounded by the metropolis that is the Bay Area, Benicians pride themselves on maintaining a small town feel. I married that boy and we decided to raise our family here. For us, part of that commitment means working to make life better for residents that have been historically excluded. As we near the second remembrance of George Floyd’s Murder, and with Juneteenth, acknowledging the end of U.S. slavery, just around the corner, I’m struck by the lack of progress in the place I love to call home.

Waterfront and hills, Benicia CA

Benicia is a paradox. Located in one of the most culturally diverse areas in the world, the city has maintained a white majority. Once the State Capital of California, the city will be celebrated this May during [1]Historic Preservation month, a time to recognize the distinct heritage of historic places in the region. But parts of our city’s sordid past have long been ignored. [2]Benicia has a long history with [3]chattel slavery – an abhorrent stain for which no reparation has been considered. As a descendant of people who were enslaved, whose grandparents keep tools from the cotton field in the living room as a reminder to practice hope, the gravity of this history is not lost on me. Interestingly, Benicia was also once a stop on California’s Underground Railroad, aiding people who were enslaved on their way to freedom. The intertwining of racism and justice that is woven into the city’s fabric is just as present today. At the same June protest, where hundreds had marched and gathered in solidarity, a white man shouted racial obscenities as he pulled a gun on Black children. [4]The confederate flag occupies a window in a hotel on 1st Street. Benicia students annually play a racist game – [5]“La Migra”. It is a city that has never elected a Black person, whose council approved [6]license plate readers that disproportionately harm racialized persons, and whose largest budget item is for police. Benicia is a nice place to live, but nice is not the measure. To advance equity in a city that has long omitted its complicity – past and present – we must face the issue. James Baldwin said, [7]“not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced”.

 

This paradox is aptly displayed in our city’s implementation of [8]CURE. Established in August 2020, CURE was charged to: act as accountability partner to City Council; support an equity assessment (modeled after [9]Oakland’s equity report); advance anti-bias training; and to serve as a community sounding board. We are the only commission of the sort across 9 counties of the Bay Area. While many cities have equity managers or task forces, none have a committee integrated into the procedural process and bound by the [10]Brown Act to public access. Benicia even received inquiries from neighboring cities to ask how we did it and how they might replicate it – a testament to the precedent this has set and the impact we might have. Though CURE was approved in 2020, we first convened March 2022 – attestation of the systemic barriers of a city that would rather be entrenched in the denial of its failures than look itself in the mirror and face progress.

CURE was authored and made possible by the labor of my neighbor [11]Brandon Greene, esq, Racial & Economic Justice Director at the ACLU of Northern California, and a Black man. Despite this, public records show Benicia City Council’s concerted efforts to erase Brandon’s architecture of CURE and water down – or perhaps block – impact. He was unceremoniously informed that no seat on CURE would be made available to him. CURE was approved and implemented. Yet CURE it is a diminished version of what was envisioned and set into motion by community, for community. Civically engaged Benicians can attest that community engagement is treated as window dressing and often fruitless. City meetings reveal a council listening performatively to public comment only to advance decisions counter to concerns raised – a posture in conflict with expectations of persons in a position of public trust. Inclusive leaders recognize their way is not the only way – but not in Benicia. There are blind spots that too many decision makers in Benicia are not facing. We need leaders that will disrupt their own thinking and acknowledge their privilege.

Looking back on the history of the U.S. and Benicia specifically, people that look like Brandon and me were owned. Even after the abolishment of slavery, we were still considered [12]“beings of an inferior order.” This year marks the 157th anniversary of Juneteenth, but there is still something insidious to the ownership of our labor, thoughts, and ideas that harkens back to the abhorrent history this city participated in. In these instances of performative progress, historically marginalized people are expected to be grateful for any inch given but dare not ask for more. Thus, the paradox: a momentous step forward, to find ourselves fighting retreat. Erasure of Benicia voices, and abdication of accountability, either by omission or commission, for our complicated participation in racism will not serve any of us. Benicia can and must be more equitable. Walk down any street in our beautiful town and you are likely to find someone with a great big smile exclaiming “It’s Better in Benicia!” My question for fellow Benicians is: “Better for whom?”.


[1] http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=27130#:~:text=May%20is%20Preservation%20Month%20in,heritage%20of%20your%20local%20region.

[2] https://www.beniciamagazine.com/snapshot-of-a-lost-era-post-civil-war-benicia/

[3] https://beniciaheraldonline.com/jim-lessenger-on-benicias-confederate-flag-and-the-citys-place-in-history/

[4] https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Confederate-flag-in-Benicia-hotel-s-stained-6354525.php#:~:text=Uncomfortable%20symbol,flown%20by%20the%20Union%20army.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdHoEzvr5uU

[6] https://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/index.asp?SEC=FD73A951-078E-47F4-9A5B-5F9AFC0D003F&DE=A5F33963-D0DD-4554-AD23-5577643F10E9#:~:text=In%20May%202021%2C%20the%20Benicia,ALPRs)%20within%20the%20city%20limits.

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/1962/01/14/archives/as-much-truth-as-one-can-bear-to-speak-out-about-the-world-as-it-is.html

[8] https://legistarweb-production.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/attachment/pdf/672826/1._Resolution_-_Recognition_of_Benicia_Black_Lives_Matter_and_Consideration_of_Actions_to_Address_Unconscious_Bias.pdf

[9] https://www.oaklandca.gov/documents/equity-indicators-community-briefing-documents

[10] https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?division=2.&chapter=9.&part=1.&lawCode=GOV&title=5.

[11] https://www.aclunc.org/staff/brandon-greene

[12] https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/60/393/


Amira Barger, Benicia CA

Amira Barger is a Benicia resident & parent, an executive vice president of Communications at Edelman, and an adjunct professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Cal State East Bay. Views are the author’s own.

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ALERT! Benicia Black Lives Matter comments on tonight’s Council agenda

BBLM issues strong critique of the recommendations for nominees to the CURE subcommittee (Committee United for Racial Equity)

Email, BBLM Leadership, November 16, 2021

The Benicia City Council meeting tonight (Tues., Nov. 16, at 6 pm) requires your attention!  >> Please see BBLM Leadership’s statement regarding concerns with the CURE subcommittee nominees (click here to view).

Here is the agenda for the upcoming City Council meeting: https://docs.google.com/gview?url=https%3A%2F%2Fgranicus_production_attachments.s3.amazonaws.com%2Fbenicia%2Fb68400ce12284b474f83bf91e1f389c60.pdf&embedded=true

Note: We are making a public comment on agenda item 14.B, not a general public comment.

If you plan to make a spoken comment, raise your hand during the item 14 “Appointments” section. You can clarify that you wish to make a public comment on Item 14.B. If you plan to write in with a comment (to be submitted between 6 and 6:15 pm to be read aloud), you can reference Item 14.B in your subject line and in the body of your email. Please be aware that anything you say or write could be entered into the public record.

Some additional details:

    • Emailed written comments received between 2 and 6 pm today will be forwarded to the Council but not entered into public record or posted on the website—so this is probably a time window you should avoid.
    • Emailed written comments received AFTER 6 pm but BEFORE the agenda item’s public comments section is closed (aim for 6:15 as the tail end of your window), will be READ ALOUD at the meeting—this is preferred over the 2 to 6 pm window listed above because it’s more impactful.
      For dial-in instructions, please review the agenda.
    • For emailed comments, you can email Lisa Wolfe at lwolfe@ci.benicia.ca.us

Thank you!

BBLM