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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Commentary: Whither Human Relations Commission

Somebody asked me last week if I was planning to go to Thursday night's Human Relations Commission meeting. I went to the first two--and it was a good thing that I did because at the second meeting, Guy Fischer showed up and told the story of his son's harassment. I have not been to one since and this was no exception. I looked at the agenda and there were two items about events, one item about the Thong Hy Huynh Awards, and one event on a Forum that they were deciding what topic to have it on. Those were their actions items which told me what I needed to know--they were taking no action.

I do not blame this on the membership per se, because they are doing exactly what the City Council had in mind when they disbanded the former Human Relations Commission back in June (where my wife had served as chair). Unfortunately, I have only a limited amount of time these days and I have to choose my meetings very carefully.

The anti-discrimination ordinance grants the human relations commission with the power to be an investigative body rather than an educational body.

Section 7A-15(C) of the Davis Anti-Discrimination Ordinance:
"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."
At one point the HRC was going to review this code to see if it needs revisions. I do not know what came of that.

On the other hand, there is a strong role to play even if the HRC is to be merely an educational rather than an investigative body.

This point came up in another discussion based on comments on the Sacramento Bee website in comment section following an article on the Fischer case. (See my commentary from earlier this week on those comments).

If one reads the comments there, there is a string of anti-gay comments. The school board has implemented a series of strong rules that impose a zero-tolerance policy against harassment. But it seems obvious that what is happening at the school level reflects a deeper seated societal bias against gay people--even in portions of progressive communities such as Davis.

A number of the protesters last week against Freddie Oakley were from Davis. People are entitled to believe that homosexuality is immoral or that the lifestyle is wrong. However there is a line between an expression of political and religious preferences and an expression that is simply hate speech--some of the protesters crossed that line and some of the commenters on the Sacramento Bee drove it into a gully of hate.

The school board can change the rules at the district level but what are they going to do about society? In past years, this is where the Human Relations Commission would have a strong role--helping to educate the community and bringing awareness to this problem. In fact, this is where this human relations commission could still have a role because they are after all now an educational body. But the Human Relations Commission found out about the Fischer harassment case in November (at the same time as myself) and other than the chair of the commission going to the School Board meeting, to my knowledge they have not done a thing.

The City Council wants no eggs broken by the HRC after what happened last year. But the history of social change and the movement for social justice call for eggs to be broken and milk to be spilled in order to change the trajectory of society and the mores of citizens.

Fredrick Douglass writing in 1857 recognized this as well anyone:
"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."
The heroes of the Civil Rights struggle did so by creating turmoil against established authority.

For a body to be effective in producing social change, they must upset the current order.

The bottom here is that there remains a strong place in our city and in our governance for a body that can both educate the public and raise a ruckus to further the cause of social justice. The city council last year severed our government from such a body. While they were concerned about divisiveness in the community--how do you teach people that it is wrong to discriminate and hate gay people without causing divisiveness? How does one stop discrimination without drawing the ire of those perceived to be discriminating? How does one teach tolerance without going after those who are intolerant? How does one teach love without going after those who hate? Even the strongest teacher's of passive disobedience and non-violent resistance recognize that in order for you to turn someone from hate with love, it inevitably requires confrontation and confrontation means that one must spill some milk.

It will take this city a long time to recognize what they lost when the City Council disbanded the Human Relations Commission. At some point they may realize that maybe we gave up too much...

---Doug Paul Davis reporting