I talk with a lot of people – men, women, People of Color, white people, community leaders, young and older – and I want to point out something that deeply concerns me.
Four of my friends, who happen to be Black and who live and/or work in Benicia, have shared some hurtful experiences directed at them by other Benicia residents. I offered to write an article about their experiences, even anonymously, so Benicia can learn to recognize and challenge acts of racism, yet my friends prefer to keep quiet about it, rather than expose the situations. Each of them is an educated and professional individual of a mature age. What they experienced was clearly unjust and downright racist. And yet, they don’t want to share their story because they are afraid the perpetrator of the comment or act may see themselves in my article and may be upset and/or because they are concerned about the ramification if they complain.
Let me give you two very real examples: one of these friends eventually moved their business from First Street to Vallejo because of the ongoing hostility of the customers and neighboring businesses; another was directly asked how they feel about being promoted because of the color of their skin rather than their experience.
Clearly these incidents are not just well meaning but ignorant comments or even microaggressions. This is blatant racism, and my friends have every right to express that.
In comparison, look at the comments on Next Door or Benicia Happenings. I see people complaining about the littlest things all the time. Someone is upset about a neighbor’s guest using the parking space in front of their house. Another is angry because their trash was picked up late and the can was knocked over when it was finally emptied. And my personal favorite – someone complained that it’s disrespectful for a dog walker to put a baggie of droppings into their trash can. Would they rather the dog walker disrespectfully left the droppings on their lawn? Really, people?!
Yes, these things are annoying, but let’s keep it in perspective. And when I look at the photos of the people complaining, they don’t appear to be of color. Why is it that white people feel they can gripe about relatively insignificant and not personally intended slights when People of Color don’t always feel safe exposing something very deeply and morally wrong?
Ever since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Black community on the whole has been admirably vocal and active about individual and collective experiences with racism. Their response to the obvious inequities in this country helped make some very hard-earned and very slow progress towards equity. But we’re not there yet, and it came at a very high cost. Many people lost their freedom, their health, their sanctity, and even their lives. Here we are sixty years later, and there are still injustices and inequalities, and yet, not all people feel safe speaking up. I get it. Who wants to be hated, harassed and alienated, particularly from within a small community? I wouldn’t like it, would you? But just because my friends don’t complain doesn’t make their experiences acceptable.
Here’s what I would love to see happen. First of all, for those of you who use public forums to air your frustrations, please think about your need to complain. Is it really something important that needs to be addressed, or is it something that can be easily resolved or quietly let go?
Secondly, everyone should feel safe and supported speaking up when they have been directly or even inadvertently targeted by an individual or community. A caring and inclusive community supports all of its residents and should help to right injustices. Finally, racism is ugly and unjust. It’s a blight on humanity, and it needs to stop. We are all humans. Let’s treat each other with respect.
[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian – On Wednesday, March 29, the Benicia Unified School District (BUSD) issued a district-wide warning that the annual occurrence of the racist, violent “game” Benicia High School students call “La Migra” is anticipated to occur this Friday, March 31. For more than 20 years, the La Migra “game” has inflicted deep emotional and often physical harm on Benicia’s vulnerable youth, especially our youth of color. La Migra also claims countless hours of our police department’s time, tying up emergency resources and costing Benicia thousands in overtime wages and related spending. Despite all of this, too many in Benicia consider La Migra a harmless tradition. Although the game occurs off campus and is no way organized or condoned by BUSD, the district is right to call for an immediate end to this event and to warn the community of the imminent danger. – N.C.]
Let’s Stop ‘La Migra,’ A Dangerous Game of Chase – March 31, 2023
Posted by Benicia Unified School District March 29, 2023
Dear Benicia Community,
We want to bring your awareness to an unsanctioned and dangerous activity that Benicia teens have participated in over the last twenty years, which is an underground, and unwelcomed event in our community. It is a chase-and-capture game referenced as “La Migra”. This activity happens in the Spring, usually on a Friday evening in late March or in April. We have information that suggests this game may take place on Friday, March 31, 2023.
While this activity is not in any way organized or condoned by the schools, Benicia Unified School District, or the City of Benicia, there is an urgent need to provide our community with information and ask for your partnership in putting an end to this event once and for all. We want to provide awareness about this event and see it stopped for two important reasons: the inappropriate, racist, and offensive nature of the game and the incredible safety concerns for our students and innocent bystanders.
“La Migra” is slang for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is the name used for this controversial game based on ICE agents deporting undocumented immigrants. The event involves older students chasing younger students through the city, trying to catch them, and then possibly transporting or holding the student against their will. The event begins at one location, typically a park in town, with the younger students attempting to get to a second designated location without being caught by an older student. A student that is captured is sometimes dropped off in an unknown location. There are reports of extremely unsafe situations in the course of this event, including unsafe driving, students dressed in all black with masks running through backyards and private property, speeding, physical contact causing injury, unsafe physical detainment, and students being left without the ability to contact someone to pick them up. It is important to stop this activity immediately to keep students from being injured or harmed.
In addition to the physical safety concerns, Benicia Unified School District strongly advocates for respect for all individuals, regardless of race, place of origin, sexual orientation, or disability. A game such as “La Migra” causes harm, both physical and emotional, to members of our community.
We urge every family to discuss this event, use this as an opportunity for education and understanding, and help us put an end to this game in our community. In a city that has been nominated as a Be Kind city, continuing “La Migra” is counter-productive to this goal.
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:
White middle school students daily calling my son *igger at school. .
Being asked by two white women while walking down First St., “Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be in Oakland or Vallejo?” .
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.” .
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. .
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. .
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.
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.
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.