Category Archives: Black Lives Matter

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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Benicia Black Lives Matter – Reading to a child

Windows to a New World

Reading to a child. What could be a more magical way of learning for the child and a more gratifying experience to the reader? And what can be a more important way to introduce and connect children to things beyond their immediate world?

Benicia Black Lives Matter (BBLM) has been doing just that with pre-school level children in Benicia and Vallejo since January 2021 in our Preschool Reading Program. Using carefully screened and age appropriate literature, BBLM volunteers have been opening the minds and hearts of our preschoolers.

Once a month, volunteers go into different preschools to share a book and related activities carefully selected by the team to bring awareness of Black history, science, art, music, customs, culture, and daily lives, with the intent to plant seeds of humanity towards Black people as early as possible. And several of the preschools in this community embrace the opportunity to work with BBLM to bring the children a broader perspective and cultural understanding.

The books used are reviewed and offered by Roselind Johnson, the owner of Ethnic Notions, a gift and bookstore and art gallery located in Vallejo. Ms. Johnson is an expert in Black literature and the arts. At Ethnic Notions, she stocks a wealth of material on Black culture for people of all ages, including for a very young audience.

The books for the preschools are selected upon the seasonal influences within that month, much like the other books traditionally read to young children throughout the year, except that these books are chosen specifically to uplift and amplify historical and contemporary Black life. This helps young children of all races understand and accept that we are all different in some ways and the same in others. And a copy of the monthly book is donated to each participating school.

Some of the books that have been introduced include:

      • Rosa Parks
      • Nana Akua
      • If You Give Me Some Apples
      • MLK
      • Trombone Shorty
      • My First Kwanza
      • Catch a Kiss
      • Brown
      • Baby Botanist
        …and more.

All of the books are connected in some way to the Black community while demonstrating that we are all related. For example, Brown features the reality and acceptance of people of varying skin color, while Baby Botanist is the story of a young Black farmer. The ensuing and related activities and discussion focus on equity, and awareness. After reading Brown, the children decorated a globe with cut out human figures of a variety of shades. After reading Baby Botanist, the children planted green onions and talked about farming. Hand-outs included information on Black-owned farms in the Bay area.

Parisa Kelly, owner of Starlight Montessori, was one of the first to be on board with the Preschool Reading Program. Before the program started, Ms. Kelly had been trying to extend her library of books to include more diversity. When approached by BBLM, Ms. Kelly was happy to participate. “The reader is wonderful. She really reaches the children at their level. Some people find it difficult to speak about complex issues with 3-5 year olds without talking above their level or down to them. The messages are positive, and the activities are meaningful. They put a lot of thought into the preschool reading program, and I am grateful. Plus, BBLM has donated the books they have read to us and helped me to expand my library.”

Ms. Kelly has many anecdotal stories about the children’s responses to the stories. For example, after reading Brown, the children had a lively discussion about comparing the colors of flowers in a garden to the diversity of human skin color. Then they all put their hands together and compared the varying colors. “It was so joyful!”

Stories are mirrors. And the stories read by the BBLM volunteers help our young children better see themselves in relation to the world. The books are a window into a history and culture that may be different from their own. Using this simple way of teaching and connecting, we are helping our children to better navigate the world we live in, honor other cultures, make good social choices, and to become true global citizens.

The BBLM Reading Program is entering its third year and second summer and is going strong. We are reaching a broader community that includes both Benicia and Vallejo. We are not reading to only preschoolers, but older children as well. Literacy in Solano County is of utmost importance to BBLM, and our children’s reading program is just one of many ways BBLM serves our community. If you would like to learn more about BBLM, please visit our website at beniciablacklivesmatter.weebly.com.

Benicia mom Amira Barger: I’m a Black Bay Area parent. The Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings were disappointing — though not surprising

A Black Bay Area parent and community activist reflects on the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings

SFGate, by Amira Barger, March 30, 2022

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson becomes emotional during an impassioned speech by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 23, 2022. | Andrew Harnik/AP

I hope my daughter never has to endure the treatment Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been subjected to.

Being a Black woman and the mother of a young Black girl, I felt it was important for her to witness this historical moment. But instead of the positive experience it could have been, the scene that played out was sadly familiar. As we sat together watching the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, my nine-year-old wondered why Texas Sen. Cruz frequently interrupted Jackson.

“May I say a word I’m not supposed to?” she asked. “Isn’t he kind of being…a jerk, and why isn’t anyone doing anything?”

I explained a lesson from bell hooks: “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.” Black women have a common experience — we are often required to respond with restraint and calm in the face of misogynoir (misogyny directed towards Black women where both race and sex play a role), so as not to disrupt the dynamics of power. I witnessed this misogynoir with my daughter as Jackson smiled and paused — a response born of hard-earned wisdom. It was triggering to watch.

We have waited 233 years to be represented. The Supreme Court has had 115 judges — of these, there have been two Black men and five women — none of them Black. Interestingly, confirmation hearings have only existed since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson put forward Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish man nominated. Hearings were not previously required for the white Christian men who had historically held these seats. Many might suggest the treatment of Jackson is some sort of retribution for treatment received by the last two Supreme Court nominees — particularly Brett Kavanaugh. Several GOP senators alluded to as much. However, in presuming this, one chooses to conveniently forget the circumstances surrounding those hearings.

Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault. The consternation surrounding Amy Coney Barrett had less to do with the nominee than it did with whether, only weeks from the presidential election, confirmation proceedings should be happening at all. Senators blocked President Barack Obama from replacing Justice Antonin Scalia in the spring of 2016 — months before the election. During her hearing, Barrett repeatedly sidestepped questions, stating she shouldn’t give an opinion on matters she might have to rule on as a justice. Such answers have long-standing precedent, and did not seem to ruffle too many feathers among the GOP members of the committee. Contrast that with their treatment of Jackson, berated for not answering questions even as she was interrupted time and again. Still, she sat composed as she was met with conjecture and infighting amongst senators. Compare that with Kavanaugh, red-faced and shouting at the committee about how much he liked beer.

One might also be tempted to write off the treatment of Jackson as merely partisan politics as usual. However, you would only have to go back so far as the nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to note the marked differences in tone and tenor of those hearings compared to the Jackson hearings. A desire for the “most qualified candidate” has been the GOP rallying cry in response to President Joe Biden’s promise to nominate a Black woman. Of course, the quiet part of that seemingly reasonable request is the underlying assumption that no Black woman could possibly fit the bill as “most qualified.” As a federal appellate judge, a district court judge, a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an attorney in private practice, and as a public defender, Jackson has broad experience across the legal profession. A visual from the Washington Post paints a poignant picture of the totality of Jackson’s unparalleled qualifications in comparison to her would-be colleagues. Kagan, for example, had never been a judge at any level before her appointment to the Supreme Court, yet her nomination was met with a far greater degree of civility.

What Jackson endured is a result of inequitable procedure propped up by decades of empty diversity, equity and inclusion promises without accountability. True commitment to inclusion requires opportunity for any historically excluded or marginalized person to enter without constant monitoring of the system. Black women, who must overcome the bigotry of both race and gender, are most often the last to be allowed in the room. As it stands, there are no Black women in the U.S. Senate, nor are there any Black women serving as governor. Yes, Kamala Harris is the vice president. And Jackson’s confirmation would be a step. But these singular exceptions do not themselves break the ceiling too many of us encounter.

I consult in diversity, equity and inclusion, and my professional experience leads me to believe that the linguistic and mental contortion we saw Jackson masterfully navigate was not nearly as difficult as assumed. She is a trained contortionist, as are many Black women. We anticipate the questioning, racism, sexism, and blatant contempt. We know that, once in the room, the fight to prove ourselves only intensifies. We embody the age-old adage of exceptionalism: “twice as good, to get half as much”. This often manifests as an alphabet soup of degrees and certifications behind Black women’s names, mine included. The problem with exceptionalism is that it falsely espouses one will, having achieved the exceptional, be treated well. Sadly, these hearings have served to reinforce that, not only was Jackson’s humanity not sufficient to be treated well, but neither were her exceptional qualifications.

I want more than this for us. This being the vitriol, pain, and perseverance. This being hopes and dreams sandwiched between systemic barriers and misogynoir. This being agility and strength earned on a rigged playing field. I want more than what we have today. For me, for you, for my little Black girl, and all little Black girls to come. We are to be treated well because we are human. Full stop. Our success should be judged by more than proximity to an impossible and unnecessary white ideal. We are enough as we are. The preeminently qualified Jackson, with her own display of vulnerability and humanity, reminded us that being human is enough. I saw myself and my daughter in Jackson, as her daughter proudly looked on. I know many of us did. Because her story is our story.

With other supposed allies in the room, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker had to be the one to boldly disrupt the disgusting onslaught — to affirm, to encourage, to look her in the eyes and give a moment of reprieve. As Black women, we continue to navigate a world that so often demonstrates how little it values us. The sexism, racism, and discrimination are constant. Celebration of our perseverance only serves as a tacit reminder of the systemic inequity we face while offering little in the way of actual change. Do us a favor, if you will: 1. Lead from your chair to disrupt harm. Affirm, encourage, and look someone in their eyes and recognize their humanity. 2. Call your senator and demand confirmation of Judge Jackson.

A lesson I teach my nine-year-old is one we can all apply here: Leave people and places better than you find them. Also, don’t be a jerk.

Amira Barger is a Bay Area Black mom, an adjunct professor of marketing and communications and a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.

 

Benicia Black Lives Matter – CALL TO ACTION!

Do you believe Black lives matter? Then answer this call to action

By email, October 29, 2021

Benicia Black Lives Matter (BBLM) is a values-driven, grassroots, volunteer organization that is dedicated to affirming and improving Black lives in Benicia and beyond. Designing and monitoring accountability structures within local government and institutions—including law enforcement—is an essential part of achieving this mission.

Incidents demonstrating a sustained pattern of racial bias, excessive force, and misconduct within the Solano County Sheriff’s Office, along with Sheriff Tom Ferrara’s open unwillingness to observe accountability and transparency norms, are too numerous to recount here. These allegations of excessive, often racialized violence as well as documented support among his staff for anti-government and white supremacist ideologies, together with the sheriff’s refusal to discipline his staff for misconduct even when recommended by neutral investigatory bodies such Internal Affairs, should concern every Solano County citizen.

When it became clear that the sheriff was not meeting the requirements of his position, BBLM initiated a cross-organizational call to action spanning multiple municipalities, collecting volunteers and allies across many diverse groups and organizations. This coalition now requests help from this same community—your help—at the upcoming Board of Supervisors meeting, to voice our shared concerns and call for change.

This Tuesday, November 2, at 9 am, the Solano County Board of Supervisors will meet to consider utilizing Assembly Bill 1185 to create a community-based civilian oversight board for the sheriff’s office. Such a board would provide a communication channel between the Board of Supervisors and the sheriff’s office, allowing the supervisors to respond to non-criminal complaints from their constituents when the sheriff’s office is involved; create a process to file complaints independent of the sheriff’s office when public trust has eroded; give our community the reassurance that review processes are thorough and bad actors are held accountable for misconduct; strengthen the sheriff and his staff’s relationships with the community they are in service to; and improve trust in law enforcement in Solano County in general.

Anyone can attend the board meeting in person or via Zoom; the details to attend are available on the Solano County website (solanocounty.com). You may also submit written comments to clerk@solanocounty.com.

BBLM strongly encourages anyone who has ever considered themselves to be an ally, supporter, or accomplice in the march toward equity for all in this city, this county, and this country to take this opportunity to be heard. Solano citizens cannot have confidence in Sheriff Ferrara’s leadership and authority until there is an open, fair discussion about the value a community-based oversight board could create when confidence in Sheriff Ferrara and the sheriff’s office is at an all-time low. We all deserve more.

At the meeting, or in your email, ask supervisors to authorize county staff to move forward with research and evaluation of an oversight board, or to allow Solano voters to weigh in.

This is your chance to be heard, and to be a part of making change happen here in Solano County, in support of Black lives, and in support of the community and the spaces we share together. Please act.

https://www.vallejosun.com/pressure-grows-for-oversight-of-solano-county-sheriffs-office/

Benicia Black Lives Matter, BBLM
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