Stuck between Mayor Heidi Harmon and Sheriff Ian Parkinson

July 25, 2020

James Papp


When I first registered to vote in 1982, I considered myself a Rockefeller Republican. Yesterday on the Congalton Show, I was asked if I was a Marxist. I’m either wise enough or naïve enough enough to still think of local politics as nonpartisan, and though for many decades a registered Democrat, I generally think of myself as a pragmatist, because I prefer, over posturing, getting things done.

My variation on Machiavelli’s, “It is better to be feared than loved” is, “Someone who can move efficiently through business in a public forum is both feared and loved.” All of which gives me a visceral distrust of both the tough-guy rhetoric of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson and kumbayapolitik of San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon.

White Obispans often tell me there’s never been any racism here. Black, Hispanic and Asian Obispans invariably tell me the opposite. My own research finds a complex history of overt and covert racism continuing for centuries, from Chumash enslavement in the eighteenth century to race-restricted deeds in the twentieth. That doesn’t vanish with the flick of a switch, and indeed my distrust of Marxism is based on its notion that you can easily predict the evolution of history.

Besides Central Coast colorblindness, American exceptionalism is another myth that’s had a lot of debate lately, and the verdict is in: we’ve been exceptionally bad at dealing with COVID-19. Can we fix COVID? Can we fix racism? Can we fix our accelerating inequality that the pandemic has exacerbated? Or is American ingenuity also a myth?

America has survived the worst of times before. I respect Heidi Harmon (though don’t necessarily agree with her) when she takes a position, but I take issue with her Sunday, July 19 Tribune editorial on how we need to all get along.  America’s core ideals didn’t win out through what Harmon calls “transformational collaboration” (unless the war between North and South was a “transformational collaboration”). They didn’t hold on through what she calls “embracing a politics of belonging” (because some people used to belong to others). We have got as far as we are in America through brutal honesty and conflict. Our survival as a nation is due to bare-knuckle American democracy, from the Boston Tea Party (or Boston Tea Riot, as the SLO PD would disapprovingly say) on down.

The Civil War and Civil Rights Movement were the worst of times for our Harmon-idealized “social solidarity” but the best of times for our moral progress as a nation. White politeness kept Jim Crow in place for a century.

I’m glad—more than half a century after the Civil Rights Act passed—that Black Lives Matters protesters are being downright uncivil. Twenty-three-year-old John Lewis thought that act was a half measure without voting rights; he impolitely said so as the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. On his recent death at 80, minority voting rights are still being eroded. The Voting Rights Act remains in limbo. Rodney King famously asked in 1992, “Can we all get along?” For three decades we did—sort of—but George Floyd showed at what terrible a price.

Even in our darkest hours we can see the dawn, but not if we’re wearing rose-colored glasses: the glasses that Sheriff Parkinson wears when viewing race and the ones Mayor Harmon wears when viewing politics.

The smart ones seem to be the kids who are marching, and not just because they’re all wearing masks to protect each other and anyone they encounter. They know what they’re marching for, and it’s not gestures of sympathy but actual change.

A caller on Congalton said the goodwill that Black Lives Matters protesters had created in San Luis Obispo that succeeded in “moving people from the right to the center” is now being lost. In reply I asked the question: “Are people protesting because they want you on their side or because they want you to think and down the road have other people on their side? Look at the Civil Rights protests and how long those took to have an effect, and we’re still not there. The kids that I’ve seen on these protests have been every color, and they’re very passionate, and they’re very committed to doing something now. They don’t want to wait for twenty, thirty, forty years. And maybe some of us are not prepared to go along with them all that distance, but I think they don’t care.”

I write this from my office in one of the last surviving Chumash adobes of tilhini, San Luis Obispo’s predecessor community. The Chumash dwindled through what contemporary observers called enslavement, till—“emancipated” by the Mexican revolution, then conquered by the Yankees—they were almost wiped out by a cholera pandemic in 1852. Whites took over this building and the rest of the town.

Later this summer, a length of the Chumash-built aqueduct that ran behind the adobes and was rescued during construction of the Hotel San Luis Obispo will go on display under glass. To hear them talk, the hotel staff are almost as proud of it as the yak tityu tityu yak tilhini tribe, but to save that piece of history, the yak tityu tityu had to not “embrace a nuanced interpretation of what the right thing to do might be” (more Harmon). No, they stuck to their guns, and both sides won, with a just solution. That’s what arguments are for.

I think of my four-times-great-grandfather, Nebenonaquet, aka Big Shilling, a chief of the Mnjikaning Chippewas, writing politely in 1830 to the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada for money his tribe was owed. “If you can accommodate us we should be glad of some in small change such as three, two, & one dollar.” In 2012, after a three-decade legal battle that the tribe initiated, Canada settled their land claims for 300 million dollars. Aptly, one of my Shilling cousins was on the tribal council at the time.

I think of the recent Supreme Court decision that most of eastern Oklahoma remains the Muscogee Nation Reservation and of Justice Gorsuch’s stirring opinion: “To hold otherwise would be to elevate the most brazen and longstanding injustices over the law, both rewarding wrong and failing those in the right.”

When it is uncovered, come see tilhini Aqueduct on the Palm-Monterey Alley. Remember an eight-year-old Northern Chumash girl, Rosario Cooper, who survived the cholera pandemic and 64 years later recorded her people’s language with the anthropologist John Harrington, a language that today is a source of her tribe’s identity and pride. Be moved by what makes America often a terrible but sometimes a wonderful place.

We shall overcome some day, racism and COVID and the racism of COVID that has hit minorities especially hard in sickness, death and economic impact. But there will be good old American courage and conflict every step of the way. And if Parkinson goes through with his bully-boy boasts to put down peaceful protest, I, for one, won’t be singing “Kumbaya.”

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Sorry James you have now lost my support. No check in the mail!

We get it Dr. Papp. You pour through old local newspapers so that you can then stitch together a verbose narrative meant to impress us The problem is that it doesn’t impress us. What it does do is underscore the fact that you’re a carpetbagger in the truest sense. It also makes you appear pompous.

Both are two of the very last qualities SLO needs in a politician, at this difficult time in history.

Rather than hide behind words, tell us who you are, and what you stand for. Give us your CV as well, and how it would related to being on the council.

Given that you’re a ultra-liberal, tell us exactly how you would be any sort of upgrade to the existing city council? A council which has done such a poor job, both now, and before the crisis?

Finally, ask yourself the truly difficult question. Would your election to the SLO City Council actually be good for the city, or would it actually be good only for Dr. Papp?

Parkinson has not, nor will ever, put down a “peaceful protest”. You need to check your definitions professor.

James: Off-topic but are you related to the late-great Fred Papp of MBHS?

Mr. Papp, I really enjoyed this piece. Well thought out and presented. The historical perspective was much appreciated as well, along with personal touch of your Indigenous connection, to which I directly relate. If we do not learn and confront the truth of our past, which certainly was not actually taught to us in school, we are unable to properly address the disfunction that has evolved in this country. I applaud you for learning and sharing our true past. By avoiding this knowledge, by allowing any group to continue to be affected by these past mistakes, we hold back our whole culture and damage our collective future.

I am saddened by the fact that so many people are in such dense denial, reacting with intense hostility to even the well thought out and balanced plea for unity and healing you have presented. Obviously many feel threatened by anything that sounds less comforting to them than the hostile talking points with which they protect themselves from the day to day reality of others whose lives are directly affected by their actions, a fact they would rather not admit. One only has to look at the crisis of climate change and our mixed reactions to this imminent existential threat to see how compellingly comforting denial can be.

As you pointed out, the goal is to help people to think, so that “down the road” they might better understand and help to improve our cultural problems. Many of the harder cases never open up, but some will, with time. The problem of relations within diversity is a global one and humans have a quite bit of growing up yet to do.

“But there will be good old American courage and conflict every step of the way.”

“Courage and conflict.” Do you mean rhetorical conflict in the form of civil discourse on the issues of race, discrimination and income inequities or physical conflict, which can be either peaceful protests or violent conflict, or both?

When looking back at the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s we see that non-violent action endorsed by Dr. Martin Luther King was the strategy that worked in changing people’s hearts and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 (Ended Segregation), 1965 (Guaranteed Voting Rights), and 1968 (Indian Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act), by a predominantly White congress and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a southerner.

The violent route to social change that was advocated by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rapp Brown led to a little known and seldom referred to section of the 1968 Civil Rights Act; Title X: Anti Riot Act, which made it a felony to travel across state lines with the intent to incite a riot.

The violent protestors made their mark in the 1960’s by giving cause to the Congress to add this controversial section to an otherwise outstanding piece of legislation.

It is worth noting that when President Johnson signed the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, Dr. King was at the President’s side to witness it.

Stokely Carmichael and H. Rapp Brown were not.

The lesson here is to hate an unjust system, but not the people working in it. It is the people working in the system whose help you need in effectively changing it and therefore you must show them the system is unfair and needs reform.

How likely is it that if Dr. King had labeled the U.S. Congress as a bunch of out of touch, racist old White men, any civil rights legislation would have been passed at all?

Remember that tremendous advancements have already been made in our country thanks to Dr. King, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin and many others.

The justice system is staffed by people of all races and ethnicities, at all levels of government. The laws and policies may have racial bias, but that doesn’t mean the people carrying them out are racists and calling them such will cause them to tune out your message, when you really need them to listen.

Gordon, I dont know if you’ve kept up with history, but in terms of politicians in the US, founded by white slave owning men, it is primarily white males now and then, quoting NPR, did you know those men are sexist too; AOC was just harrassed by white Male colleagues, which is extremely common. Minorities are just that in politics, minorities.


I’m not following you.

As for the founding fathers, yes some were slave owners and some, like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, were not. Is your point that the whole nation was tainted from the start and therefore incapable of making positive change? Should we just throw in the towel and ask mother England if we can come back?

As far as rude and boorish behavior by men, the list of revered political icons from both political parties who engaged in it is long and includes the names of both of the current presidential candidates.

Regarding Representative Cortez; she doesn’t strike me as the shy retiring type, in need of a man to protect her.

In 2020 there are 127 women serving in the House of Representatives, making up roughly 23.7%.

In 1980 there were just 17 or roughly 3.2%

Progress has been made and will continue to be made in spite of clods like Ted Yoho.

The House of Representatives, led by Nancy Pelosi, has the ability to investigate and censure a member for misconduct. Perhaps Rep. Cortez and her colleagues should turn up the heat on Speaker Pelosi to investigate the matter.

AOC is badass. Just sayin’