Last Wednesday, I joined a thousand people in San Luis Obispo's Mission Plaza to honor domestic terrorism victim Heather Heyer. Heather was killed by a white supremacist while she was protesting neo-Nazis marching in her town of Charlottesville, Virginia.
At the gathering, SLO County residents mourned Heather and amplified her final social media message: "If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention."
Courtney Haile of Race Matters SLO asked white people to speak out, saying, "not being a Nazi is not enough." She asked the crowd to stay vigilant even after the visceral response from the images in Charlottesville fade. "They've taken off their hoods, and we are counting on you to not put on your blinders."
Stephen Vines of the SLO Chapter of the NAACP reminded the crowd that covert racism is as damaging as hate-based violence. When people are silent in the face of disproportionate school funding, over-incarceration of people of color, unequal access to health care, gerrymandering, and lack of representation in government, he explained, we are complicit in perpetuating racism.
Rabbi Janice Mehring of Congregation Ohr Tzafon in Atascadero admitted that watching videos of emboldened, armed anti-Semites made hope difficult for her. She suggested that, rather than recalling the horrifying images, we remember the pictures of brave clergy members who laced arms and sang songs.
The evening ended with Buddhist monks chanting in low, solemn tones. No white supremacists showed up. The uniformed SLO police officers were professional and accommodating. Peace radiated.
Nonetheless, I came home rattled. A familiar refrain haunted me: You're wasting your time with these vigils and protests. Get out of this liberal echo chamber and do something that matters.
And then I remembered how my law professors taught "black letter law"—the legal standards used by most states—and, for extra credit, "the California exception." Black letter law defines well-established national norms. The California exception predicts future black letter law. As a student in the conservative Midwest, I always found it fascinating how California voters bravely modeled how we could improve as a country.
In a sense, that is our duty: developing new frames through which we view ourselves and the world. We cannot be satisfied with the absence of gun-toting neo-Nazis on Mission Plaza. We must keep innovating; anything less and the country loses its beacon.
Can we, as Californians, hack racism? Perhaps the first step is for white people, including me, to accept the fact that our past ignorance and complacency have resulted in real-life violence. Leaders like Haile and Vines are in a far better position to show us how to improve our communities, if we would only listen and act on their advice.
On the other side of the equation, Californians might need to admit that some white angst is well-founded. At the very least, we are in this mess together.
Today, large corporations and wealthy individuals see workers as disposable. Compared to 50 years ago, we have become the human equivalent to paper plates. The financial and power elite have manipulated our campaign financing and voter districting laws so that our economic and political power is dwindling. But we still have our voices and our votes.
We must stay active here in SLO County as well. With every measure—old or new—we should ask ourselves who benefits. Is it us, the workers, or a powerful company or wealthy campaign donor? For example, the recently approved groundwater basin management tax benefits the few at the expense of many. We are fools to allow such blatant consolidation of power and money on our watch.
After the vigil, I wondered which SLO County supervisors had attended, so I emailed all five of them. Supervisors Lynn Compton and Debbie Arnold did not respond.
Supervisor John Peschong returned my email with a phone call. He said that he would have attended the vigil but that he had been out of town. He condemned the racism in Charlottesville and said that fascism and Nazism have no place in our society. When I asked him for solutions, he suggested empathy and getting to know our neighbors.
Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson attended the vigil. Both publicly denounced the bigoted violence in Charlottesville and the hate-based ideologies of white supremacists. Hill wrote, "let us find solidarity in the moral clarity that eluded the president, and let us not be distracted by the sophistry about history and heritage. This country has always and only made social progress when we've firmly rejected bigotry and have embraced honesty and inclusiveness."
I agree with Peschong and Hill: Let's embrace empathy, honesty, and inclusiveness. As part of a new plan, we should quantify white-inflicted damage in our communities and act to reverse it by electing more people of color. Let's also include help for the disenfranchised from every nook and corner. In the context of today's skewed economic infrastructure that subjugates most of us for the benefit of a tiny elite, we must stop fighting over the crumbs. We need to remember that we are the California exception. Let's show the country the future. Δ
Kristine Hagen is a member of the SLO County Democratic Party and the SLO County Progressives Democratic Club. She is a lawyer and lives in San Luis Obispo. Send comments through the editor at.