People of color discuss this year’s protests, and how that movement affects Sierra communities
Special to the Sierra Sun
Monika Johnson isn’t a community organizer.
The Incline Village resident and artist isn’t a member of a North Lake Tahoe Black Lives Matter chapter. One doesn’t exist.
But she said a gut feeling led her to protest, and take action in a community that’s largely white.
“Some of it is a gut feeling that it belongs here, it needs to be here — Incline Village, specifically,” Johnson said. “It feels like the white privilege capital.”
Johnson said racism — whether it comes from institutions or individuals — targets communities of color. The issue must be addressed at its source.
“If these protests or conversations were only happening by Black people in Black neighborhoods, well then, what’s the point?” Johnson said. “Why should they be the ones to fix a problem that they didn’t create?”
Josimar Ga’lang, of Nevada City, said they shouldn’t.
“Racism is not a Black, brown or indigenous person problem,” said Ga’lang. “Racism is a white person problem.”
The design consultant said that problem isn’t going away any time soon, regardless of the 2020 election results.
“I’m just not that optimistic that anything is going to change systemically,” Ga’lang said of Joseph Biden’s presidential win last month, which is still contested by President Donald Trump. “It’s been incredible that people have held signs here — there’s still people holding signs.”
Ga’lang said he fears the progressive grassroots movements started during Trump’s presidency may lose momentum when Biden takes office.
“Trump fueled and flamed and encouraged people to be organized,” Ga’lang said. “I’m really pessimistic that Biden is going to heal anything in terms of systematic oppression, health care and affordable housing.”
Johnson said North Lake Tahoe may have more in common with southern Georgia than one would think.
“The whole thing with Ahmaud Arbery — that could happen here,” Johnson said, referring to a 26 year old authorities say was shot and killed while jogging in February. “God forbid a multimillion dollar house was robbed and the next day have a Black man out for a jog and people think they are doing a citizen’s arrest.”
The death of Arbery, and other Black people this year, led to community conversations across the country. Truckee was no exception.
A virtual town hall over the summer was called to address a leaked internal email in which Truckee Police Chief Robert Leftwich said “George Floyd was not innocent but did not deserve to die,” and compared the unarmed Black man’s death under the knee of a New York City police officer to the death of Black police Officer David Underwood in Oakland during a recent protest, a man he called “completely innocent.”
Within days after the town hall, Leftwich announced his retirement. A few weeks later, Truckee Town Manager Jeff Loux also announced his retirement.
THE RACE ISSUE
The conversation about race here has attracted national attention.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz cited the tensions between human rights groups and pro-police groups in Nevada City in early August during a hearing partially entitled “Protecting Speech by Stopping Anarchist Violence.” The Wall Street Journal published an article in October about partisan rallies at polling places, including the Eric Rood Administrative Center.
Nevada County Public Defender Keri Klein said racism is infused in American culture, psychology and the economy, and requires much more than legislative amendments.
“I think that the issue we’re talking about goes deeper than the legal system,” Klein said. “It goes back to slave patrols, prison work forces, red lining and all of that stuff.”
Red lining is a process used to make various services, like loans and insurance, inaccessible to specific areas.
Racial minorities are “hugely” overstated in the criminal court system, Klein explained, usually because of poverty.
“If you think about our court system, 80% of people across the nation qualify for public defenders,” Klein said. “Eighty percent of the population are not indigent, but 80% of the people brought into court are.”
Klein acknowledged that space alone can keep people out of trouble — if they can afford it.
“I live on 15 acres,” Klein said. “If I scream at my kid because she’s gotten on my very last nerve, no one will call the police because I live in a single-family residence.”
Klein said the police ought to be called regardless of an abuser’s income, but the inherently intimate nature of apartment living limits privacy and legal leeway.
LOCAL LEGAL ANALYSES
Breonna Taylor’s neighbors were made aware of this intimacy when stray bullets entered their home. A since discharged officer was indicted on charges of reckless endangerment for those shots.
Taylor was an unarmed black woman sleeping in an apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, when she was fatally shot in March.
“The drywall got more justice than her,” Incline Village’s Johnson said. “(The officer) was prosecuted for the bullets that missed.”
As a defense attorney for 30 years, Stephen Munkelt said he believes officers get away with misconduct because of a “confirmation bias problem.”
“Officers walk into it with the assumption that their buddies must have done OK,” Munkelt added, “with a predefined conclusion, as opposed to how an investigation is supposed to proceed.”
Klein concurred, adding that police officers face negative consequences if they fail to reinforce their peers’ infallibility, regardless of reality.
Klein said she hates the phrase “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” but the “bad people” in other occupations are more likely to be held accountable by their peers.
“There are some bad people who are lawyers and dentists,” Klein said. “The issue is more that when you see your colleague do something bad as a lawyer, you report it and there’s not push back. It’s not the same for police officers.”
PATRIOTISM AND CRITICISM
Nevada City resident Daryl Grigsby, a descendant of slaves, said he is invested ancestrally and presently in this country. Accountability is a basic principle of how society works.
“It’s not putting an undue demand on anybody,” said the former public works director for San Luis Obispo.
Grigsby said holding police accountable does not necessarily imply a lack of trust between law enforcement and the community.
“Look at what we do with teachers when, oh, my God, test scores are down,” Grigsby said. “Everybody else has a measure of accountability, except for the people we give a gun to protect public safety.”
Grigsby said communities honor the Pledge of Allegiance with the equitable and appropriate distribution of justice.
“Justice is a farce commodity. If you apply it to everybody, then some people lose,” Grigsby said. “If there’s an injustice that happens that reduces someone’s life quality, that’s something we should care about regardless of what race we are.”
If communities fail, self-analysis and improvement are essential, Grigsby said, adding that patriotism can be confused with passivity or an uncritical look at the country.
“We all recite ‘with liberty and justice for all,’” Grigsby said. “Then, when there’s no justice, people act like its patriotic to tolerate that.”
Grigsby said he regrets how any explanation by an individual or group of their dehumanizing experiences is considered unpatriotic. According to him, the Black Lives Matter movement is not about hating police officers.
“That’s a fallacy,” Grigsby said. “It’s saying you should be able to make legitimate criticisms of law enforcement without being tagged as someone who doesn’t trust law enforcement.”
Auna Magaña, of the Coalition for Racial Justice, said although the region is largely white, it is not all white, and the quality of life of the albeit few Black, indigenous and people of color ought to matter to everyone.
Magaña said it is not only important, but essential that rural regions like Nevada County discuss the phenomena — institutionalized racism — that has taken the lives of so many Americans.
Magaña said local demonstrations she has helped organize are community-oriented and meant to be constructive.
The vigil held in honor of Breonna Taylor and other Black lives on Sept. 28 was the first act since coming back from the violence in Nevada City on Aug. 9.
“In order for our country to hear us we need to make noise everywhere,” Magaña said. “The fact that so many rural communities are speaking out indicates that for a lot of people around the country this is the last straw.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun.
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