By Amira Barger, May 25, 2022 (Brief bio below)
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.
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.
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.
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 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. Benicia has a long history with 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. The confederate flag occupies a window in a hotel on 1st Street. Benicia students annually play a racist game – “La Migra”. It is a city that has never elected a Black person, whose council approved 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, “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 CURE. Established in August 2020, CURE was charged to: act as accountability partner to City Council; support an equity assessment (modeled after 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 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 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 “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?”.
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.