San Luis Obispo mayor seeks growth through discomfort

July 28, 2020

Protest Organizer Tianna Arata, Mayor Heidi Harmon, Cal Poly quarterback Jalen Hamler, and an unidentified man

Opinion by San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon

As I write this, civil rights legend and long-time U.S. Congressman John Lewis is being laid to rest. It seems fitting to honor the man who called us to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble” in a moment when we as a community are grappling with what good trouble looks like and who gets to decide.

There is a lot to love about San Luis Obispo and all of the different people that make this a place to call home. And we are a lot like every other place in America where racism has been built into our systems and ways of thinking for hundreds of years. But unlike many other cities, the relative absence of diversity here has allowed issues concerning race to be largely obscured. It has allowed for some to believe and assert that there is no racism here in San Luis Obispo—an assertion that seems worlds apart from the perspective shared by protesters and others about the experience of people of color in our community.

This juxtaposition has created the conditions for a loud and uncomfortable cry to make the unseen powerfully visible for all to see, whether we want to or not. The cry is calling us to build a common vision for “one people, one family, one house”—the “house of America” that John Lewis envisioned even while at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. It is going to challenge our identity as individuals and as a community. And it is this difficult work that will propel and transform us to be a place that truly welcomes and supports all who visit, work, play, worship, and live in San Luis Obispo.

To the activists:

We hear you. We are listening.

Many have supported and will continue to support your call for racial justice. Even though, as a mother and a mayor, I share the concern for your safety and the safety of other community members, and I echo the sentiments of the SLO Tribune Editorial Board that, “marching on the freeway is inherently dangerous,” my concern and curiosity about the reasons why you are willing to risk to get your message out are far more deeply rooted.

Yes, going on the freeway is dangerous, and it creates danger for others, and this needs to be taken seriously. But it’s important to recognize that it’s also dangerous to be Black in America. You are calling us to justice in ways that are going to be loud and unpredictable. Let your righteous rage be the transformational path for justice, as it has been for so many before you. So many who we now revere were treated as suspect in their time. This has always been an essential aspect of change-making.

Recognize that, despite our best efforts, the dismantling of 400 years of injustice will take time. The City of SLO has committed to concrete policies and programs so as to be part of this change. And there is so much more to do; it will take time.

Let’s have compassion for those who have put their hearts and souls into their small businesses and are struggling to keep them afloat. Let’s recognize the humanity that lies within people of every profession, even for those who work in systems that you may disagree with. Let us not see those with different perspectives as the adversary, but rather invite them to be future allies for a better San Luis Obispo.

To those concerned about the protests:

Let us ask ourselves: why are our neighbors willing to risk their lives to be heard?

I hope we all recognize that we can be uncomfortable, or even can disagree with styles of protest, and still be deeply committed to creating a better world for our children. Keep in mind that the media throughout the United States has portrayed these protestors, these change agents, in negative terms, often drawing upon negative stereotypes. Let us move beyond simplistic generalizations and listen.

Let us remember that across our nation, and right here at home, it is largely young people, our children, who share our desire for a just and equitable America. This is the largest movement in history, and we are a part of it. Let us not see those with different perspectives as the enemy, but rather invite them to be future allies for a better San Luis Obispo.

With so much uncertainty, so many pressures, and such intense feelings coming from so many, listening is more important than ever. Let’s continue to work together as a community to speak the truth, to seek justice, and commit to building connections with one another and strengthening our relationships and understanding through dialogue.

If you find yourself in a situation that feels unfamiliar and unnerving, here’s your first best step: listen.

If we listen, we will find that we gain understanding, insight, and most importantly, true connection to our fellow human beings.

This will be uncomfortable at times because many of us have had vastly different experiences from each other. Yet, it is in this discomfort of sitting with this diversity where our collective growth can and will happen. Many of these conversations will occur between white people, some will happen in public, some will happen at the dinner table. Let’s not turn away from this but instead ask ourselves the tough questions, ones that expand our ability to extend grace to others.

After last Tuesday’s protest, the main call has been not for justice but for punishment: punishment for the protest organizers, for police, for the county sheriff.

Let’s be more interested in transformation than punishment. Transformation for the organizers, the police, the sheriff, for all of us.

What can we become?

What can policing become?

What can the young leaders of this movement become if we offer redemption instead of incarceration?

What can the Sheriff become if we offer true understanding instead of consternation?

What can San Luis Obispo become?

This is the hard part. This is the difficult work of transformational justice. It’s more complicated than protests and takes more strength than arresting people.

What might happen if instead of dehumanizing each other we saw each other as the fully alive, flawed, and beautiful human beings that we all are?

What if we shared each other’s stories?

What if we deeply listened?

What if we created a space for people in positions of traditional power to listen to our different experiences of race and racism in this community to deeply understand that we do have racism here on the Central Coast?

What if building relationships is the best way to eradicate the racial divide?

What if?

Racial injustice and protests have made us all feel vulnerable: whether you were scared on the freeway trying to be heard, stuck on that freeway with your family inside of a car and unsure of what to do, or intending to enjoy a nice meal, while sitting outside on a random evening you were confronted with 400 years of pain and injustice instead. This is the opening, a crack in the shell of the happiest place in North America. This is where the light gets in.

Let’s let the light in San Luis Obispo.

This is the good trouble that John Lewis was talking about. Good trouble is still trouble. It isn’t passive participation, it’s action. Loving action, but action just the same.

San Luis Obispo has long been a policy and implementation leader for small-town America in the areas of public health, transportation, natural resource conservation, and climate action. I believe we can be leaders in social justice too.

If we are to truly honor John Lewis’s legacy, we must reckon with what we are willing to put on the line for that justice. We must meet across differences, have uncomfortable conversations, and build meaningful connections with people who aren’t all the same to move us towards a better world for everyone.

I am willing to do what it takes to create a community and a politics of belonging—and I hope you are too.

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This is the USA, everyone has a right to Freedom of Religion, Freedom of the Press and Free Speech, but no one is obligated to listen.

That’s a fundamental flaw in the Constitution, the framers didn’t put in any mechanisms by which lawmakers MUST listen, except voting.

And even that is questionable, since we keep electing the same people who do nothing to make the kind of change many want to see.

Therein lies the problem. People who speak up about subjects like this find that not everyone shares their beliefs or is even willing to listen to a word they say.

That leads to frustration, which leads to anger, which leads to hate and that inevitably leads to violence. And once you arrive at violence, no one is going to listen while their city burns.

These people need to realize that protesting never accomplishes anything. Rioting and looting don’t gain supporters, they horrify the fence-sitters on an issue and inflame the divide between people.

Nothing has ever been changed in this country that didn’t first go through the ballot box. Voting’s the single most important Right that U.S. citizens have.

To the protesters, I’d say, we’ve heard you, many of us agree with you and now it’s time to stop these destructive demonstrations.

Time to go home, register to vote and on Nov. 3, vote dammit!

Better yet, put your name on a ballot and stand for election. Create change from the inside. It’s the American way.

It’s dangerous to be black in America you say. But you forget that by far the most violence to the black community is conducted by others in the black community.

You are a horrible mayor. You need to step down. You are letting 300 people take over your town that you have a responsibility to defend and make safe.

Your down town is a filthy mess of bums and storefronts for lease.

The thing that makes me laugh is all the Cal poly football players here on a full ride that are screaming about injustice in the system. I paid for my college and I am not wealthy. You get free school because you can run and catch a ball. Btw. I checked some of your majors. Have fun getting a job with an ethnic studies degree. You will have nothing coming out of school but it will be the systems fault and not your bad choices I guess. Try something more marketable

Easily the worst op-ed in the history of communication. Case in point:

“What if we created a space for people in positions of traditional power to listen to our different experiences of race and racism in this community to deeply understand that we do have racism here on the Central Coast?”

Whose experiences? “Our” is not a group. I’m a white male who inherited money and property. Am I part of “Our”? I think not.

Absolutely nothing will change if we all simply sit around and share our feelings. Absurd.

As for racism on the CC, yes, plenty. I’ve witnessed it for 62 years, from the time I was 11 and my grandfather dressed down one of his Mexican workers in front of me, calling him names I will not repeat. When I read the anti-immigrant sentiment on this site as well as from the White House, I fear nothing has changed.

The “systemic racism” we are continually plagued with can only be addressed through “systemic changes.” A universal minimum wage of at least $20 an hour is a start. Universal healthcare, through “Medicare for All” or some other system is also a move forward. In order to achieve this goal we must raise the marginal tax rate to at least 70%, as it was before the Reagan administration. Why in the world do we allow characters such as Jeff Bezos to be worth $182 billion.

And, no, this does not mean that you’ll pay $7 for every $10 you make. It simply means that the top earners will see that tax rate after a certain amount of earnings, usually about a million dollars. In other words, if you make a million dollars, anything after that will be taxed at 70%—hell, under Eisenhower, that rate was over 90%. It always strikes me as ironic that Donald Trump’s mantra is “Make America Great Again” by which, I guess he means the 1950’s when America was indeed prosperous and the TOP TAX RATE WAS 94%.

And, by the way, why is this mayor contributing an op-ed to a website which so obviously holds her in contempt?

The answer to your last line is easy. She’s a delusional narcissist.

I find it odd that someone expressing a reasonable, honest perspective as you have would accumulate a negative in front of a number. Given the limited and tiny sampling coming here to learn about other perspectives , the act of putting down a voice reflects the insular world many of us have occupied for a long time. I look at budgets . Too many are done in secret . Our federal government, whom I once worked for, is skilled at consuming huge volumes of taxpayer money without accomplishing anything . It costs more to administer a food stamp program than just giving all recipients a universal income. Shifting priorities of existing funds wouldn’t even require raising taxes. A good start would be closing all level-4 labs used for biological weapons research. Our planet is already poisoned beyond repair. We don’t need to accelerate it further.

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble,”-John Lewis

I dont think he meant breaking windows, traumatizing 4 year olds! HE also said:

“To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country: I see you, and I hear you,” he wrote. “I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive. History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.

NON violent PEACEFUL Protest! NOT Destructive! Ms. Harmon, stop pretending you are all for John Lewis! You are giving permission to these kids to be destructive and violent! Thus negating recognition of the cause in a positive way. Your own actions instigate division & violence when you undermine your own police publicly. How is that good leadership? As Major, you have an obligation to these protesting kids, to give Good Mature Advice. Putting Fire to their anger, disregarding the safety and peace of citizens simply because they are not Black is unacceptable! Labeling everyone white as Racist is not only a lie, it isolates the masses from really listening! If I call you names and accuse you for something you personally did not do, would you come and listen or try to be of same mind?? Your actions are counter productive! And I am sure John Lewis would have something to say about taking over freeways and smashing in windows!

Seems like the only racist/fascist organization now a-days or those BLM folks. Kneel or be labeled a racist…..

So many words to say so little.

Me thinks she doth protest too much!

Unfortunately, when you disregard the safety of those you are trying to advocate for your cause, they tend to disregard You!

I can’t hear you when you are breaking windows over little boys, detaining laboring mothers, putting people on the freeway in danger. I resent Ms. Harmon implicating I am racist, because I am White! I detest racism. I don’t accept people being treated badly because of the amount of melanin they may have. I resent racist remarks weather from whites against blacks, or blacks against whites. That being said. Do you really think its appropriate for the SLO Mayor to take sides against the police? Is that her place to literally disregard the safety of innocent citizens, then lecture anyone about the BLM cause? I am appalled. She is NO John Lewis!

What I’m concerned about is unchecked growth in this city and county. The San Luis Ranch is a disaster that’s only going to attract more rich out of towners and bring more people and traffic into our beautiful home. If you stop development or at a minimum stop developing on open space you have my support but if you let developers continue to ruin our paradise I’m not supporting you.

But Don how to expect the city to feed it’s out of control desire for more money to keep the trough filled and for their need for their ever increasing salaries and benefits without the money from the big developers. Cutting things is certainly not an option.

She wants us all to “listen”? So let’s calmly sit down and watch the CCN clip of Arata rhapsodically leading the chant “Take it to the streets and F___ the police!” I’ve heard enough…