Manhattan Beach elected and public safety officials, community organizers and residents will gather on Zoom Thursday evening, June 9, for a community forum-cum-City Council meeting discussing police policies and practices, implicit bias against Black people and other minority groups, and other issues that have taken center stage in recent months as a national conversation about systemic racism continues.
Organizers of and participants in the community forum have said they hope the conversation won’t cause division, when its purpose is unity.
But plans for the gathering itself have been fraught.
Initially, organizers wanted to host an open community forum, with city councilmembers taking notes. During a council meeting last week, however, the panel opted for an official special meeting — complete with the traditional rules of decorum and statutory processes — with some officials saying that set up would provide a better opportunity for the public to share their thoughts.
Others, though, said this week that putting the forum within the confines of an official, albeit virtual, council meeting will minimize dialogue and the voices of those who have sought change in the wake of George Floyd, a Black man, dying on Memorial Day when a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for several minutes.
“It appears,” former Councilmember Mitch Ward wrote in a Saturday, July 4, email to forum participants, “there is an attempt to mute or squeeze out unwanted messengers.”
The forum’s genesis
The idea for the forum came from several conversations between Councilmember Hildy Stern and Police Chief Derrick Abell since Floyd’s killing, Stern said.
It was to “provide the chief an opportunity to talk about his experiences and perspectives,” Stern said during last week’s meeting, “and his goals with community partners in Manhattan Beach.”
In fact, he directly asked Dalia Feliciano, who organized the June 2 peace protest from Manhattan Beach to Hermosa Beach, to be a panelist. She agreed.
Before the protest, Feliciano said by phone Monday, July 6, she and fellow organizer and panelist Jemal Williams met with Abell and a couple of his officers. After they told Abell about some of their experiences with racism in Manhattan Beach, Feliciano said, he asked them if they’d be willing to talk about the issues on a panel to community stakeholders who can actually do something about it.
“This is a very uncomfortable conversation for everybody,” Abell acknowledged last week.
Others, however, said it was better to “take action” at a City Council meeting instead of during a forum.
“There’s greater value in it being a council meeting,” Councilmember Steve Napolitano said during last week’s meeting. “So that people know we’re really talking about it and (are) not just in the audience.
“Having council seen as active or in the lead of this,” he added, “is important.”
That is what the council ultimately opted to do. Much of Thursday’s meeting will still feel like a community forum: A moderator and nine panelists — including the police chief, and representatives from the chamber of commerce, the school district, homeless and mental health services, and faith communities — will discuss various public safety policies and practices.
But after that, the gathering will act much more like a traditional council meeting. Anyone from the public will be allowed to speak, but each person will have a two-to-three minute limit, during which the council cannot speak or respond. Others cannot ask questions of those speakers or engage in conversation.
The meeting has a set agenda, as required by state law.
That, for some, is a problem.
Councilmember Nancy Hersman said it was the council’s place to listen and learn in this situation. After that, she said, its members can take what they’ve heard back to a council meeting to discuss policy.
“We get caught up when it’s a council meeting,” Hersman said last week. “Because those have to have certain things (done) in certain order.”
It holds coucilmembers back, because they can’t respond to public comments, Hersman added.
The purpose of the forum, she said, is to listen and learn from people, then put items on the agenda that address issues the public wants to see the council dig deeper into.
Concern about negative tone
Last week’s council meeting, though, highlighted the disagreements Manhattan Beach residents have over the current movement against what many call entrenched, systemic racism.
During last week’s public comment period, some people said the Black Lives Matter organization is divisive and having supporters of the movement involved would set a negative tone for the conversation; others countered that a meeting discussing what the Manhattan Beach Police Department will do to address police brutality shouldn’t be seen as divisive.
Hadley, for her part, said she was concerned that a forum would make the conversation one-sided.
“When I hear (a) forum (of) non-elected people sitting and talking, I hear a lecture,” Hadley said during the meeting. “The way you let the community speak is you have a dedicated council meeting.
“I feel like the dice are already loaded — to say we have a problem,” she added. “We need the community to say if we do have a problem.”
But that’s what Feliciano, who graduated from Mira Costa High School in 2018, said she plans to do.
Her goal is to call attention to the bigger issue, Feliciano said, that everybody’s individual experiences culminate into something much larger.
“Especially considering I’m young and a lot of my experiences (with racism) happened in school,” Feliciano said.
People often dismiss the issues, Feliciano said, by arguing that “kids are just mean” while not understanding the deeper implications of their actions and words.
For change to happen, she added, the conversation cannot start and end with a single virtual meeting. It has to be a continuation of efforts for as long as Black and other people of color live in the city.
Hadley, though, said the city shouldn’t appear biased. That could happen implicitly, she said, if the council welcomes the voices of those who are or have been active in the Black Lives Matter movement. That was her primary issue with the initial forum.
“Black Lives Matter (being) on this is a non-starter for me,” Hadley said. “I think the shape of the table matters.”
Former mayor declines to participate
Ward, a former mayor and the only Black person elected to the Manhattan Beach City Council, was initially slated for the panel, but decided last week to no longer participate.
Comments by Hadley and others, Ward said, made him unclear on what the forum is supposed to be about and what his role was in it.
“I believe the city’s planned forum, highly admirable,” Ward said in his email to his fellow panelists, “personally feels like an attempt to check a must-do item off a list that the city feels is necessary at this point.
“Press reports I’ve read indicate that BLM participants are a ‘non starter’ for some here in town,” he added. “This is a wrong approach if one is truly interested in listening to what is occurring right here in our city.”
Ward also said no one “should be further fanning the flames of division with what appears to be misguided biases.”
But Hadley, during last week’s council meeting, said having a forum was too narrow.
“Why would we preference having a few people on the panel,” Hadley asked, “when everyone should have a bite at the apple? It isn’t a conversation if people are talking at our community.”
To Ward, though, encompassing all voices is what the forum was intended to do, he said. City leaders should hear from and focus on how they can make all Manhattan Beach residents’ lives better, he wrote in his email, including the 0.8% of the population here who are Black.
“I’m trying to figure out why are we censoring people — I don’t want to be a part of censoring people,” he wrote. “I don’t think government should censor you, they have to listen.”
Rather than hear from community leaders, Ward said, he wants to hear more from people who are impacted by implicit bias.
“It’s about what other people quite often share with me,” he said by phone. “Like the young, Black man and entrepreneur here in town that texted and called me the other day about the many, many times he, his wife and two small children have been stopped by the police.”
These are the microaggressions, Ward said, that all community members need to hear.
“Let’s let the City Council and all of us hear those type incidents,” he added, “and while listening, we ponder how to address these issues with policies.”
While Ward would rather wait to be a part of a more comprehensive discussion, Feliciano, a South Bay resident, said she wants to take this chance sooner rather than later.
“This is an opportunity for us to speak our truth and ask important questions about policy,” she said, “and calling attention to the fact that there is a general attitude of what I would call complacent racism.”
She defined complacent racism as people who say they are not racist because of certain “non-racist” actions they’ve taken, but then “fully believe” Black people protesting means looting.
“A lot of people in Manhattan Beach really don’t think that systemic racism exists,” Feliciano said. “They see instances of racism as one-off, individual, unfortunate circumstances” and not the true depth of the issue because they’ve never been confronted with it.”
If you watch
When: 6-9 p.m. Thursday, July 9