The quaint allure of Benicia has led many of us to believe that we are outside of the crosshairs of racism and inequality. In our friendly little town, how could the sickness of white supremacy infiltrate our streets and homes? The sinister nature of racism exists everywhere: less often in loud proclamations of racial superiority, more often in “colorblindness” and unconscious bias. These covert and overt functions of racism have reared their head in Benicia. When we fail to acknowledge their presence, we consequently fail to accept the responsibility of challenging racism. In order to confront these demons, we must first acknowledge their presence. As James Baldwin once famously said, “Nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The gut-wrenching video of George Floyd’s death summoned enormous crowds around the world. From La Place de laConcorde in Paris to the streets of Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement has become a massive force of change.Despite its global omnipresence, many have failed to recognize that racism exists in our town. While many Benicians are willfully sleeping, there are many who have woken up. The ascent of color consciousness has been evidenced by the organization of two downtown protests.
Voices were heard at the First Street gazebo on June 13th. Speakers, ranging in age and race, spoke of the discriminatory treatment they have received and witnessed. Many speakers shared their experiences with microaggressions, Euro-centric curriculum, and racial profiling in our community. One of the protest’s organizers, Nimat Shakoor-Grantham, shared her reality as a black woman in a predominantly white town. She stood in the Gazebo and addressed the crowd about the anger some Benicians directed at her activism (“We don’t need this in our town!”). To communicate the necessity of this protest and the realness of systemic racism, she shared a recent experience: On a local networking site, a man posted that his laptop had been stolen. He explained that he was able to find it being resold by the three men who stole it. He met them in person and called the police. When the officers did not take the action he thought appropriate, he made a post to warn locals about the incident. He wrote, “So if you see 2 or 3 young black men/boys walking around your neighborhood please call the Benicia Police immediately.” Shakoor-Grantham reported this post to the website’s administrators, who promptly disabled her account. While many may write this incident off as another online mishap, it speaks to a larger phenomenon of racially fueledvigilantism and racial profiling.
But what will Benicia do? All five Council members were present at the June 13th protest: Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, Vice Mayor Christina Strawbridge, Council Members Steve
Young, Lionel Largespada and Tom Campbell. Four of the Council members spoke, pledging action and expressing support and hope. Additionally, the Benicia Police Department is addressing the need for a response. Chief Erik Upson has spent five years establishing a culture of respect and tolerance. While efforts have been made, he openly admits that the department is not perfect. To find out what BPD is doing to move the organization forward, please visit the City of Benicia website.
Members of the public who wish to speak directly to Upson and other officers in a small group setting, a meeting can be organized by emailing BPDlistens@ci.benicia.ca.us.
With firm support from city officials and a diverse coalition of residents, progress toward racial justice and police reform is possible in our little town.