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Standing for black lives 

June 9 was a day of mourning in this country. The family and loved ones of George Floyd laid their beloved son, brother, father, and friend to rest. I have asked that all of the flags in the city be flown at half-staff to honor his life. A life that was ended too soon at the hands of a racist police officer.

I have been listening to all of your voices and I hear you. This statement was written in collaboration with local young black leadership and in particular with Xavier Moore and Jalen Hamler, both Cal Poly students; and with Tianna Arata, recent Cuesta graduate and future Sacramento State University student. Together, we are implementing the demands of justice. I had the honor of walking with these leaders in a peaceful protest, and their leadership is something to be commended and celebrated. I want to acknowledge and affirm how tragic, unacceptable, and heartbreaking the recent killings of black folks at the hands of the police are. These murders are but a few of the centuries-long history of racism and violence against people of color in this country. What is happening today is a direct result of our country's racist beginning, a wound we have never committed to healing—and we must make that commitment to healing now through action, policy, dialogue, and collaboration.

Over recent days, thousands of people within our community have boldly and peacefully stood in solidarity to protest the racial injustice that has plagued our nation and our world. I stand with you. I hear you and I want to take this opportunity to positively impact social change—a change that prioritizes black voices, provides equity in leadership, and creates a world where parents don't live in fear when their black children leave the house and a San Luis Obispo that does not leave anyone out.

We have heard over and over again from people of color that they do not feel welcome here, and it is time to step up and be willing to do the difficult and necessary work of changing that. It is up to us to do the work to educate ourselves in order to create a community that is welcoming, equitable, and kind. A budget is an expression of values, and I want the city's budget to express the value of standing with people of color. I am glad to say that at this week's City Council meeting we set aside $160,000 to go toward policy and efforts to better serve communities of color and create more equity in San Luis Obispo. This effort will center people of color who will lead and advise us on the meaningful steps we can take as a city on anti-racism work. We will immediately put this funding toward concrete steps we can take as a city on anti-racism work. With meaningful efforts, we can create a city in which tear gas, foam bullets, and pepper balls will never be used when people are peacefully demonstrating. I am open, interested, and ready to listen to your suggestions as to the best way to implement and use this funding.

The incident on June 1 in which local law enforcement deployed tear gas is greatly disturbing, and I have heard from many of you that you are deeply upset as well. To be clear, I was not involved in any way in that decision. Our role on City Council is one of policy and not of operations. In my role as mayor, I do not have a position of command or control over multi-jurisdictional law enforcement. I am, however, responsible for taking on the call, and demanding that we do better. We can do better, and I am committed to learning from this incident in order to gain clarity on what policies we need to pursue to ensure that we don't have an incident like that ever again in our city. I am calling for the police department to conduct a critical incident review that includes the statements of protesters on what happened so that all of us can understand exactly what led up to this situation so we can learn, make changes, and do better. I have signed on to former President Barack Obama's pledge to de-escalate police violence.

In addition, I have shared the community's questions with Police Chief Deanna Cantrell to seek clarity and assess what the critical next steps need to be.

At our next City Council meeting, I will present a proclamation to these young leaders in honor of Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. I call on the people of San Luis Obispo to join me in celebrating Juneteenth by sharing some of the community's tremendous wealth to provide scholarship funding to Cal Poly so that more first-generation students have a chance at a good education and a chance at being part of the fabric of this community. My conversation with student leaders who are also scholar-athletes informed this particular request. They feel, as do many other black and brown students, that there is an assumption that black students at Cal Poly are there because of athletics. They want to increase the number of black and brown students at Cal Poly to make lasting change to university culture with respect to racial justice. One way to increase the presence of students of color is to help low-income and first-generation students with scholarships. These scholarships would significantly decrease the cost of attendance, a barrier for many. And I call on the media to commit to unbiased reporting and to take responsibility for the crucial role that media often plays in stoking the flames of fear and distrust.

Racism is a social system with multiple dimensions. Racism causes persistent racial discrimination in housing, education, employment, and criminal justice. Racism is a significant social determinant of health as we have seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and violence against people of color. It is crucial that we name this in order to fully and meaningfully address this crisis. This is why at our next City Council meeting I will be asking that the city assert that racism is a public health emergency affecting our entire society. And I am calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to do the same.

As an activist, I appreciate the impact that activism can have on policy and the work it takes to be in the streets. Your activism has made a difference. I implore you as we move into tomorrow and the weeks and years to come, to continue to listen, ask questions, and do the important work that is before us. Do not look away. We are a caring and compassionate community of privilege, and we are called to use that privilege to create a more fair and just world for all. We need to come together to all stand in support of peaceful and radical action against systemic racism. I stand in grief and support and believe that we must come together to end the discrimination and violence of black and marginalized communities everywhere.

A world exists in which we no longer have to protest injustice because injustice no longer exists. A world where riot gear goes rusty and policing becomes obsolete. A world where black men run and black women sleep in their homes in safety. A world where George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are still alive, walking hand in hand with Xavier Moore, Jalen Hamler, and Tianna Arata. Let us create that world together.

Standing with you for black lives. Δ

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon wrote this week's Rhetoric & Reason column. Send responses for publication to letters@newtimesslo.com.

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