Category Archives: Racism

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.

Return to top

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.

 

Latest ‘Our Voices’ – First-hand Witness to Racial Profiling and Police Injustice


BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
…OUR VOICES…

From BeniciaBlackLivesMatter.com
[See also: About BBLM]

“As a young woman, I was a first-hand witness to racial profiling and police injustice. It irrevocably changed my perspective about law enforcement…”

November 8, 2021

74 year old white woman
Benicia resident for 6 years

I was born and raised in the Bay Area. When I was a young woman, it was an exciting time. It was a time of activism. Anti-war protests and the Civil and Women’s Rights movements were powerful and seemed to be changing the shape of the future as I watched with fascination and anticipation. The world was becoming a better place for the young and the historically disenfranchised. I was looking forward to a more equitable world, and I considered myself to be part of this change. I was optimistic, energetic, educated, and ready to roll up my sleeves.

In 1972, I was an art teacher at Lincoln High School, which is in a very integrated part of San Jose. The school saw their multi-ethnic student and family population as an opportunity to build a mutually respectful and open community, and racial problems were rare if present at all. That year, the YMCA leased an old three story mansion right behind my school and opened up a Youth Center. I was offered the directorship, and I enthusiastically accepted. It didn’t matter to me that I was working two full time jobs. I was in my early 20’s with lots of energy. It was meaningful work, and I was ready to take on the world.

The Teen Center was a fun place for kids to hang out after school. The old building had lots of passageways and interesting spaces to explore. We put a pool table in the old formal dining room. Kids and adults worked together to fix up the old place with donated paint, hammers and gardening tools. After school was out, the music came on, and the Center became a place of youthful activity. My job was wonderful. I walked around making sure things were flowing and that the staff and students were engaged in healthy activities. When adolescent tempers flared, I was on hand to redirect and facilitate a peaceful conclusion.

And then one afternoon, my ideals were shattered. It was around 4pm when a group of 8-10 of my teenage boys got into an argument on the front lawn that escalated quickly. By the time I got to the scene, it had turned into a fist fight. It was very public and very loud. The boys were all around 16 and 17 years old and were nearly adult sized. They were of mixed ethnicities, and, although I don’t remember the precipitating cause, it was not about race. Of that I am certain.

I had been ineffectively trying to de-escalate the energy for about 15 minutes when the police showed up. Apparently, a concerned neighbor had called upon hearing or witnessing the scene. The two police officers who pulled up were white. They didn’t ask any questions. They pushed me aside and ignored my protestations. They simply pulled their guns and ordered the Black kids – not the white kids – to back down. When that didn’t happen immediately, they threatened to shoot. The boys, still wrapped up in their argument, kept fighting even after the guns were drawn and they were being threatened. I don’t even think they noticed. Then a shot was fired, and one of my kids went down. He was one of the Black students. The fighting abruptly stopped.

I was in shock. I watched in disbelief as the officers took a report, primarily calling out the Black youths who were part of the fight. An ambulance was called, and my injured student was taken away. He died later that day.

This was a fight that I am certain I could have eventually stopped. It was a fist fight, one without weapons. This was the kind of fight that hormonally charged teenage boys typically engage in and then it’s over. No one was going to be seriously hurt. No property was being damaged. No outside parties were involved. No one’s life was in danger. Not until the police showed up.

This was the first time I witnessed abject racial targeting by law enforcement. Although it was and tragically is still a common experience, as white woman I had not been privy to the blatant imbalance of justice until that moment. All of the boys in the fight were equally involved. Less than half of them were of Color, and yet, it was Black ones who were in the sights of the officers’ guns. It was the Black boys who were blamed. And it was the Black kids who suffered the consequences. No charges were levied at these officers. The family of the boy who was killed suffered their pain quietly and without protest. I sat with the family and did an announcement and an article for the school, but no more came of it. The community mourned, and then it was over. I lost my enthusiasm for the job and moved on when my contract was up. Teen Center eventually closed and the building was razed.

Today, we recognize and challenge the prejudices of law enforcement, the injustices of the racial profiling, and the “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude of some of our law enforcement agents. I’m glad to see a movement towards better police training, integration of social services, more conscientious use of weapons, and oversight over law enforcement agencies, but we have a long way to go. My fifty year old memory of watching helplessly as a young man, for whom I was responsible, was killed just because he was involved in a teenage scuffle and his skin happened to be Black. It has left an indelible imprint upon my soul.


Previous ‘Our Voices’ stories here on the BenIndy at
Benicia Black Lives Matter – Our Voices
     or on the BBLM website at
beniciablacklivesmatter.weebly.com/ourvoices

Latest ‘Our Voices’ – Racism is real in Benicia


BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
…OUR VOICES…

From BeniciaBlackLivesMatter.com
[See also: About BBLM]

“I was horrified to witness such abject racism in my own city…”

July 13, 2021

Chris Kerz
70 year old white man
6 year Benicia resident

I consider myself a good person. I try to treat everyone with respect and compassion. I have friends of different cultures, different races, different socio-economic levels, and different age groups. I generally greet everyone in my path with the same friendliness and warmth. I know that racism exists everywhere, but I never expected to witness such viciousness in my own quiet community.

During the Covid months, like many people, I took at least one brisk walk every day to get my blood flowing and maintain some sense of normalcy. On this particular October 2020 day, I was walking through the Ninth Street Park from the north end around 3pm. As I approached the boat launch I saw a Black gentleman, possibly in his mid-40s, seemingly also out for a walk, heading in my direction. When he was about 20 feet from me and before I was able to greet him, I began to hear a low chanting of what sounded like the word “N****r” coming from the parking lot. I looked around. The parking lot had several cars in it, but from where I was, I couldn’t see any people in the cars. Then the chanting stopped.

At first I thought I was mistaken. That didn’t seem possible, particularly since I couldn’t see the source. We both circled around, going opposite directions, and neared the parking lot a second time. As we again approached each other, I heard it – the same chant, only louder. This time there was no mistaking the content or intent. The voices were men, and there was more than one. I met the eyes of the Black man and mouthed, “I’m sorry!” which, of course, he could not see through my mask. He sent me a furtive glance, but I couldn’t interpret what he was communicating either – Fear? Anger? Suspicion? I only know that I felt a terrible sense of anger and disappointment. And above all, I was shocked. The targeted man picked up his pace and headed towards the downtown area.

In the meantime, I doubled back through the parking lot one more time to see if I could identify the perpetrators. There were several people milling about and about a dozen cars in the lot, so it was hard to tell. A moment later, a vehicle with at least two people in it pulled out of a parking space and headed downtown. The driver exercised the appropriate caution and speed for exiting a parking lot, raising no particular suspicion other than his/her timing. Still, I thought it was likely they were the chanters. By the time they were clear of other cars, they were too far away for me to read the license plate, and even if I could, I knew that I had no evidence that the people in the car were involved in any way. My opportunity to identify anyone was lost.

And so I did the only thing I could. I retold the story of this horrifying event to my family and friends, not only as a witness, but in hopes that other Benicia residents acknowledge that racism does exist here and that we must be proactive in opposing it.

In hindsight, I would have liked to have been more of an active ally. I could have turned around and caught up with the man and asked if he needed any help and/or walked with him. I could have run through the parking lot looking for the sources of the ugliness and excoriated them, or at least obtained a description to call the police. I could have done a lot of things. I just hope for two things by making my story public: the man who was accosted will realize that he was not alone in his pain; and that the people of Benicia will wake up to the fact that these horrible injustices do indeed happen in our community and should NEVER be tolerated.


Previous ‘Our Voices’ stories here on the BenIndy at
Benicia Black Lives Matter – Our Voices
     or on the BBLM website at
beniciablacklivesmatter.weebly.com/ourvoices