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Monday, November 13, 2006

Davis’ Commitment to Civil Rights Suffers

Rahim Reed said it all on Thursday--Davis thinks it is a progressive town but it is not. People have buried their heads in the sands as incidents of racism, racial profiling and other episodes have occurred on repeated occasions.

While these incidents have occurred, the residents of Davis are largely in denial about them. The average person does not know what minorities face on an everyday basis.

During the course of the past year, person after person has come forward documenting cases of differential treatment of minorities as opposed to whites. African American students came out in masse several times to complain about racial profiling incidents where students have been repeatedly pulled over by the police for no apparent reason. The collective response from the majority of Davis has been to back the police and deny any allegations of wrongdoing. The majority on Council aided and abetted this mindset, turning the community against those making the allegations and turning the Human Relations Commission into a scapegoat for stirring up discontent.

In the meantime, on one of the few occasions when the local chapter of the ACLU spoke out last spring, they were roundly criticized with a series of columns from local columnist Bob Dunning, who, aided by legal advice from the very agencies under fire in the Buzayan case, argued repeatedly that there was no wrongdoing in that case. Who gave him the legal advice? Lawyers for the Davis Police Officer’s Association and Lawyers from the District Attorney’s office—both of whom are being sued by the Buzayan family. That case is currently in federal court and moving towards depositions. And yet people used Dunning’s arguments as reason to dismiss the allegations and exonerate the officer involved.

The degree and heat of the criticism caught local leaders of the ACLU off-guard and they have largely been muted to the other problems. The latest siege on civil rights is occurring right now, quietly, almost unreported in the mainstream press. In October, the HRC met for the first time under new membership. One of their first tasks is to evaluate the 1986 Anti-Discrimination ordinance, after it was brought to the attention of Councilmember Stephen Souza, that the authorizing resolution of the HRC passed earlier, was out of compliance with language in the Anti-Discrimination Ordinance.

At issue is a paragraph that specifically authorizes the HRC to mediate and investigate cases of alleged discrimination.

Section 7A-15(C):
"Any person who believes he or she has been discriminated against in violation of the provisions of this ordinance may file a request to have the Human Relations Commission investigate and mediate his or her complaint. The Commission may adopt rules of procedure to accommodate the needs of such investigation mediation. A complaint to the Commission shall not be a prerequisite to filing a civil action under this section, and the findings and conclusions of the commission issued in response to such proceedings shall not be admissible in a civil action."
During the past year, the community complained that the HRC had gotten away from its mission. They saw the language in the charter that the mission was that of “promoting tolerance” in the community. However, what they did not know was that the HRC was specifically authorized to do exactly as they had been doing—investigate cases of alleged discrimination. The City Council was unaware of this charge either. The revelation came as a shock to Souza in the October meeting.

Unfortunately as is often the case, the only way to make change is to rock the boat. Martin Luther King, Jr is a hero to most Americans but he rocked the boat. Rosa Parks rocked the boat when she refused to give her seat up on a bus. You cannot make changes in society without rocking the boat. No one wants their boat rocked. No one wants their comfortable illusions shattered. But sometimes it is necessary. The HRC learned the hard way that sometimes when you rock the boat, you toss yourself into the rough waters.

Unfortunately it appears that the new HRC has learned this lesson all too well. The preferred solution by the Council seems to be to do away with this section of the ordinance and weaken the protections to the landmark Anti-Discrimination ordinance. And the new HRC appears ready to let them do exactly that. Once again civil rights in Davis are under fire. Very little has been said about this danger. However, it appears that the Davis commitment to civil rights remains quite weak.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting