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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Kind of all over the map with this one, not to mention all over the historic timeline. How far back should we go to find things to feel guilty about? Seems it always stops at the early 1600s. You know, when Africans were enslaved… “A new study suggests that a million or more European Christians were enslaved by Muslims in North Africa between 1530 and 1780 – a far greater number than had ever been estimated before.” (–research-suggests-white-slavery-was-much-more-common-than-previously-believed/ ). Does this count? Should modern Muslims feel bad about it? Neither side of my family was in the US until after 1865, should I get a pass from feeling bad about slavery?

How should Asian-Americans feel about having the highest test scores but being bypassed for entry into Harvard by other minorities? Until skin color is completely disregarded in all things we will have problems.

If he gets elected to the City Council, there will be lonnnnnnnnnnnng Council meetings. But anybody would be better than Aaron Gomez.

You don’t agree with Mr. Papp’s views, so you go the ad hominem route? Weak.

Ad hominem is synonymous with admitting defeat – surrender.

Anyone would be better than the current council. Aaron Gomez is a follower not a leader and always has been.

Well, interesting, just interesting. BEST LINE–> “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”)”. But…. done voting for “anybody but____”. That created the current SLO City mess.

Perhaps you can run for council.

Thanks for sharing some background . So much historical preservation in the southwest is relegated to salvage archeology . Just imagine what has and could yet be found on military bases taking up the best real estate in California , polluting it generously for the next group to pay clean-up costs . The BLM movement is also tied to other legitimate concerns and issues. The protestors just don’t quite grasp it yet . But they could start by boycotting FB & Twitter in particular . Twitter has profited from Trump’s hate speech and caustic rhetoric . Allowing it to continue unrestrained has directly resulted in violence . But the most insulting act for me is Trump selling weapons to the family that sponsored the 9-11 hijackers, even as they dismember dissidents they are willing to kidnap on our soil . This should never be normalized. Lastly, reform of law enforcement must start at the top . The FBI creates terrorists they later catch as a tool of maintaining budgets through perverse public relations . That agency must be purged of the current top 20 positions and rebuilt .

I notice that you just can’t have an honest disagreement with some people. If a protest is not peaceful then you should expect law enforcement to act. Just because you have a right to protest you do not have a right to trespass, block highways, smash car windows. If Parkinson has to act to uphold his duties then he has to act. I wonder who is doing the bullying when police shows are canceled, people are losing their jobs, professors are being force to retire or resign, people are resigning from the NY Times because of rude behavior from their peers.The jab at Parkinson is really uncalled for. The moderator said to stick to ideas and not attack people, why does that not apply to Papp and especially that other guy Dell Franklin?

Your right. Bad is now good and MUST be accepted or your a racist. Good is now evil, and anyone who promotes good morals, values, integrity, character honesty or truth has to be intolerant, bigoted and must be attacked and mocked.

Be patient though, good ALWAYS wins in the end,

I find your piece to be interesting in a few ways. It appears you laying your platform or political foundation for a possible run for SLO City council or the mayor position. Your center-to-left position looks to posturing for voter’s of the same center-to-left ideology. For the life of me I wonder why the majority of people, including yourself look at people through the lenses of a persons color or ethnicity. When you identify “Obispans” as White, Black, Hispanic, or Asian you immediately divide and place people into a certain group or class. Try looking at them as a fellow human being who do not deserve the disrespect of the way you identified them. They are your fellow American citizen’s that make up the community you live in. I’ll say again, and continue to truthfully remind the masses that there is only one race, the human race. Try looking through that lens instead going forward.

There is a rich Native American history all across this nation especially in our central coast area. We should always respect it and honor it. I feel that we do. I respect your historical knowledge and the passion you have for all your sage wisdom in these areas. We all need that person in each of our communities; and again I think we do which enriches our communities.

I agree we will as a nation come through all of this. We’re all in this together rather you agree or not. As for Covid-19, it doesn’t care what the ethnicity or wealth of any human being is. It will make its home in you if given the opportunity. The key is each of us taking precautions, responsibility and accountability as individuals for our own health and safety. If that’s being racist then God help us because there is no hope. To take it one step further, you would have to believe Covid-19 was made that way by China to take out certain ethnicity’s. Is that a possibility? I don’t think so.

Interesting, I agree with both your perspective and Mr. Papp’s.

“I’ll say again, and continue to truthfully remind the masses that there is only one race, the human race.”

Ah, yes, the usual libertarian mantra. We are all equal and, as such, are treated equally. Any lack in progress by an individual is simply that individual’s fault. Society cannot be blamed because the individual cannot succeed. Obviously those who do succeed are the favored ones and their success is a reminder of their hard work and determination and has nothing to do with nasty things such as white privilege or inheritance, be it through wealth, education or social status. In the libertarian mind, there is no such thing. After all, each one of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, grows up in the same world.

Your attitude is typical of that particularly American form of Calvinism and social Darwinism. It is simply a lie.

“As for Covid-19, it doesn’t care what the ethnicity or wealth of any human being is.”

Bullshit.The CDC has noted that there are five key contributing factors to being at risk of contracting COVID-19 and they all have to do with wealth and ethnicity.

Please let me enlighten you. I am not a libertarian, and I’m about as far as you can get from being a Calvinist or the lies of Darwinism. Your soooooo wrong with your lack of insight.

I come from a family of immigrants and two ethnic groups who were severely mistreated and used as servants to the wealthy as this nation developed. The biggest ethnic lynching at one time in the U.S. took place against one of these ethnic groups, Nobody in our four generation family as ever used that for an excuse for anything. As a matter of fact, the exact opposite has taken place.

All of my grandparents started and had small businesses in this county. Several of my siblings have had, or still have successful businesses. All of them had to have personal sacrifices, determination, drive, and a dream of a better life through yes, hard work, character, integrity and hope in what this country offers to each of us. We should never blame other’s for our own failures in life. Look no farther than yourself and the decision’s you made.

As for your Covid-19 statement related to wealth and ethnicity, I should have been infected with it and already passed if in fact what you and the CDC said is true. It doesn’t add up brother.

You’re so wrong with what you try to identify me as. Not even worth a comment.

Actually, I would like to reply with a scientific point of view to your last remark. Far more of the poor have died from this disease than those of greater financial means. Also, From what I have understood from recent genetic engineering, it would be possible to tailor a disease to the point that it not only targeted a specific race, but a specific individual. I imagine that would be a rather pricy ad inexpedient way to eliminate an individual, hence it is not common. But if you are talking about race, that is another matter entirely.

Since viruses mutate over time, it might later become a more general threat. Really not something anyone should be contemplating as a “weapon”. But small[pox blankets were used as a biological weapon by our government on Indigenous people here already and nuclear weapons are a very, very bad idea, yet a massive amount of our financial resources have been devoted to creating more than we could ever use.

If you want to proclaim that there is no discrimination, remember that you can only speak from personal experience. I make no assumptions here, but am guessing that you are white. Mr. Papp is speaking to what he has been told by people of races other than white. That does not make him the one placing people in “categories” by race, They are expressing their actual experiences. It is a form of denial to attempt to invalidate Mr. Papp for sharing his knowledge of history and sharing expressions of the experiences of people of color that one does not want to hear.

Yes, we are in reality only one “race”. but until we behave that way globally, people of various ethnicities and colors will continue to be marginalized, abused, persecuted and killed. Humans. have quite a bit of growing up yet to do.

I never claimed there was no discrimination. We have it across the board with all ethnicity’s. They are all guilty of it. Period. Not that it actually matters, but no I am not considered white by todays standards of judging a persons skin color.

Excellent piece, Mr. Papp.


I read this whole article. Now that I’m done, I wish I hadn’t. I’d make a comment but the message seems to be lost in the rambling.

Oh well.

Well said, I couldn’t agree with you more.