Photo from Facebook
Salem activists were successful in mobilizing people to attend last night's Salem City Council meeting and in pressing for the resignation of City Councilperson Benjamin for racist posts he shared and, some say, for a history of bad behavior on Council and outside of Council meetings. A majority of City Council members and the Mayor supported the motion to censure Benjamin and to accept his resignation and spoke publicly to that point. The Council meeting was moved to the Public Library's auditorium to accommodate the large crowd and we filled it. Only Councilperson Nanke struggled openly on Council with the Benjamin issue, taking a line similar to that of the one "out" Trump supporter present, a "homeschool mother" and the Salem Leadership Foundation's Sam Skillern, all of whom spoke from the floor.
We are fortunate to have so many strong local leaders from people-of-color organizations and many of those leaders spoke last night. I was particularly moved by hearing Reggie Hendrix (NAACP), Levi Herrera (Mano a Mano), Mish'al Almuntafki (Muslim community) and Kai Blevins (Salem Social Justice Collective). The speakers spoke to the Benjamin posts and the need to oppose them, but many also spoke to the need to make our town an accepting place and a sanctuary city and to the issue of the alleged cyber-bullying by a Salem cop and a Marion County law enforcement officer and bigotry present in our community. This set an agenda for our future: there will be a March election, there is a need to press on protecting immigrant communities and there is a need to continue to fight racism, sexism, transphobia, Islamophobia and all of the other forms of bigotry and oppression present in our community. Local people, organized and ready, can take this on and win.
Brian Hines gave a compelling account of Benjamin's past bad behavior and took a step that no one else did by fingering the real estate interests and Chamber of Commerce interests who elect and exercise undue influence over many of our City Councilpersons. Intended or not, Hines' remarks showed the actual and material basis for expressions of racism on City Council. He gets major credit for getting the word out early on Benjamin. Many other local speakers pointed to next steps, challenged Councilperson Nanke and spoke about their experiences in our community. Most of their interventions were helpful and on-point. Without their points, the fact that a City Councilperson made a racist move and didn't get called on it by other City Councilpeople would have stood by itself as just another bad incident.
KATU predictably got the story wrong after doing a bit to break the story last week. Their film coverage was excellent, giving Andrea Miller of CAUSA the attention she and her organization deserve, but they turned the evening into an argument for making Salem a sanctuary city and seemed to say that the Mayor opposes this. The politics ran deep and well last night and we will see a renewed sanctuary push. The new mayor will have to respond to us. But last night ran deeper than what KATU understood. Laurie Dougherty nailed it by bringing together santuary, racial justice, climate justice, organizing in the community and standing up and standing together against injustice.
I think that among our biggest problems are taking on the attitudes which say "it's over and let's move on," or making racism a religious or mystical issue, or not being clear about what racism and privilege are and amount to. We also have the problem that no Salem womens' organization has yet stepped up to take on the cyber-bullying fight. We have the problem of lots of people turning out to watch a controversy unfold but not joining an organization. Sometimes marginal issues and tangents detract from taking action---like the woman last night who pushed for a fee waiver for a public menorah and the constitutionalist who wanted to make an issue of why he has to have a drivers' license. We have the problem of Sam Skillern and his Salem Leadership Foundation, which acts to change the subject and demobilize people; his organization is a front for banks and churches allied with one another and behind a conservative agenda.
Do people believe that we turned a corner last night? An African-American woman with 40 years in our community told me last night that she didn't think so. Other leaders in local people-of-color organizations were more positive, but everyone is looking forward to the next rounds. A number of community organizing meetings are being held and actions are being planned. Perhaps our most remarkable win last night was building a large turnout, manifesting unity between local groups, taking direction from these groups and expressing a shared determination to keep fighting under their direction.