As a team of people of color in the climate movement, the ClimatePlan team is cognizant of the way that race and ethnicity impacts our work. Oftentimes, during team meetings, we are discussing how to handle microaggressions, how it feels to be the only POC in the room. After the recent comment from some LA City Councilmembers, we felt obligated to say something, but exasperated that we had to. We settled on giving each team member space to share their personal experience about subtle and not so subtle ways our identities are challenged in the climate movement. We invite you to read this series with an open mind and open heart.
Controversy in LA
It came as no particular surprise for me to hear the controversial news and released audio recordings coming from the Los Angeles City Council. As a lifelong resident in what is supposedly “diverse and inclusive” California and as someone who engages with my local city politics, I took the situation as just an example of politicians accidentally getting caught “saying the quiet part out loud”. Across the state and country, City Councilmembers make decisions on a day to day basis that not only reinforce systems of violence and oppression, but that are blatantly racist.
That these particular Councilmembers in LA happened to get caught making the incendiary comments they did while discussing a redistricting process reeks of the same smell as both the steep history of race-based and often partisan voter suppression through gerrymandering, as well as the environmentally racist history of redlining certain districts or neighborhoods.
Controversy in Sacramento
While controversy and calls for resignation grew in LA, the City Council where I live in Sacramento faced our own controversy regarding racism. On October 11, 2022, the day after Indigenous People’s Day, I joined Sacramento City Council member Katie Valenzuela along with indigenous representatives of the Wilton Rancheria, and Sacramento Community Police Review Commissioner Keyan Bliss in a press conference preceding the evening’s council meeting. In both the press conference and council meeting, CM Valenzuela called for a censure of her colleague City Councilmember Jeff Harris, and mandatory cultural competency programs for all council offices and staff.
CM Valenzuela cited a pattern* of racially insensitive behavior by CM Harris. In particular are CM Harris’ comments on the Indigenous People’s Day Resolution that was approved during the October 11, 2022 council meeting, saying that he would only support the resolution by Valenzuela, an indigenous woman, if she would commit to him that neither she nor the Wilton Rancheria or tribal groups would get any financial benefit out of it. In addition to CM Harris’s comments leaning into racist tropes about indigenous people, he also had called for the removal of Keyan Bliss, who is CM Valenzuela’s appointee to and Vice Chair of the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission, from his position. Bliss, a Black man, had used his right to free speech during public comment at an earlier council meeting on the topic of police militarization to speak out against racist behavior that he too had experienced from CM Harris.
What Can Be Done About Racist Policy and Governance?
Fortunately in this case in Sacramento, I was proud to join a community mobilization in response to both of these controversial agenda items which spoke out en masse against CM Harris’ actions during public comment at the evening’s council meeting; this mobilization even included CM Harris’ own appointee to the Community Police Review Commission. Following public comment, CM Harris retracted his agenda item to seek to remove Commissioner Bliss as he found no support from any of the other CMs or the public. Further, the Indigenous People’s Day resolution passed the council unanimously. The evening felt like a rare instance in which the people showing up in community to protect one another actually achieved wins at City Hall.
As is happening in parallel in LA at the level of the national spotlight, members of the community are acting on their justified frustration with the unacceptable conduct of their CMs to hold them accountable. Ordinary people getting organized, bringing their voices to City Hall, and speaking truth to power has already brought about substantive change in the resignation of CM Nury Martinez. As of this writing, two more CMs involved in the LA scandal have yet to listen to the community’s calls for resignation. Meanwhile, there are those who are already criticizing the tactics of community members disrupting council meetings, instead citing a call for decorum and the established systems and methods in place to process concern.
In response, I simply offer: the concept of decorum and the established systems and rules of engagement are written by the existing - in this case blatantly racist - power structure, and are often used by those in power as tools to pacify, defang, and exhaust the energy of communities driving for change. If there is not a genuine, good faith method established for people to voice their concerns and create the dialogue that is needed, they will create their own. As the adage goes, direct action gets the goods.
In 2023, ClimatePlan will also be working with our network members to create principles for an anti-racist climate movement. Please stay tuned.
*CM Harris is an outgoing CM (redistricted out of his seat) who has recently become known in Sacramento for supporting regressive policy positions that disproportionately impact poor and low income BIPOC. In 2021, as the City of Sacramento first adopted a resolution to recognize Indigenous People’s Day he was the sole councilmember who sought an explanation for the need for the holiday, defending Columbus Day instead. Since then, on April 12, 2022 he refused when prompted to read a Land Acknowledgement statement adopted by the Sacramento City Council as standard practice to be read at the start of each council meeting along with the pledge of allegiance, he instead deferred to only reading the latter.