The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly voted Monday to create a Systemic Racism Review Committee. Once formed, the committee will review city legislation for potential instances of racism.
The committee’s creation can ultimately be drawn back to the death of George Floyd, the Black man who died in late May while in Minneapolis police custody. Following Floyd’s death protests across the nation began calling for anti-racist measures to be adopted, including a protest in early June which brought out hundreds of protestors to downtown Juneau.
Before the vote, Assembly members listened to more than a half-hour of public testimony, none of which opposed the committee and all strongly supported its creation.
First Alaskans Institute President and CEO Liz Medicine Crow testified that the creation of such a committee was, “really exciting and absolutely essential.”
“Systemic racism works invisibly for most. Because you don’t see it, you may not even be aware of it. Because of our unconscious biases, the things that we are not made aware to see, we cannot see. But I can tell you this, we live it. We experience it every day,” she said.
She lauded the Assembly for taking the uncomfortable step of creating the committee.
“It takes a lot to face and confront racism in our society,” she said. “It’s hard for us to be uncomfortable, it’s hard for us to grapple with these things that are causing us to fail as a society.”
Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson called in to support the committee as well.
“Tlingit and Haida makes up little over 20% of the community, and that’s just Tlingit and Haida, that’s not other people of color or other races,” Peterson said. “This would do a really good job in helping us feel like when we are represented that the best faith is put forward.”
The committee would be largely unprecedented for an Alaskan municipality, but many cities and organizations nationwide have created boards or committees dedicated to combating racism. On Aug. 7, the City of San Antonio, Texas introduced a resolution that would declare racism a public health crisis, in June the American Psychiatric Association formed a Presidential Task Force to Address Structural Racism Throughout Psychiatry and in 2017 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
The State of Alaska and several municipalities including Juneau already have special bodies meant to address equality and human rights issues, and the Assembly previously discussed refining those committees before creating a new one. But Assemblymember Rob Edwardson, who’s Haida and introduced the ordinance said he wanted this committee to be a new project, specifically one that looks forward and not backward.
“If this committee starts looking back at ordinances that passed already, the natural reaction is for people to defend their votes,” he said. “Instead of providing food for thought for tomorrow, we’d get mud fights worrying about yesterday.”
But an audit of past legislation was something several members expressed interest in. Assembly member Wade Bryson who chairs the city’s Human Rights Committee said testimony had recently been given in that body suggesting a review of legislation passed within the last few years.
The Assembly passed an amended version of the ordinance creating the committee in a near-unanimous vote, with only Assembly member Loren Jones voting against. Jones, who declined to comment for this article, said during the meeting he agreed with its goals but didn’t believe this committee was an effective way to reach them.
“I struggled with this ordinance since Mr. Edwardson introduced it,” Jones said at the meeting. “I’ve tried to search how to support this ordinance and have just not been able to come to that position.”
Jones said he had been involved in political movements since the 1960s, and in that time systemic racism had been repeatedly discussed. Universities had developed courses studying the issue and as an employee of state government, he had been through a number of training sessions on the issue of racism.
“It seems like every time a new issue comes up, more training gets done. I guess in some eyes I am a failure of that training because I haven’t learned from it,” he said. “A lot of the testimony tonight was about things I don’t read in this ordinance, there’s a lot of expectation out there that’s just not going to come to fruition.”
Jones provided an amendment which would have instead created a task force made up of the same kind of experts Edwardson proposed for the committee to work with the Assembly for 18 months to “understand what future Assemblies need to do and how to analyze information that’s brought forward for ordinances,” he said.
That amendment narrowly failed in a 5-4 vote, with Assembly members Jones, Bryson, Hale and Gladziszewski voting in favor. Mayor Beth Weldon and Assembly members Carole Triem, Alicia Hughes-Skandijs, Greg Smith and Edwardson voted against.
Other members said they struggled with what could be a large work burden, not for themselves but for city staff. City Manager Rorie Watt wrote in his report of the ordinance depending on how the charge is implemented, the committee could lead to substantial changes in Assembly ordinance and resolution workflow and omitted the usual recommendation of whether the Assembly should adopt the ordinance.
But at the meeting Monday, Edwardson said he believed the work of the committee wouldn’t be as substantial as other Assembly members may assume. In a Tuesday interview with the Empire, Edwardson said he believed the committee’s work would be less than that of the planning commission.
“Could be,” Watt said, but that all depends on how the committee’s work will be carried out, something which will be a work in progress itself.
But, he said, “there’s a decent chance that a committee of citizens needs a lot of assistance and guidance to understand how city government works and is probably going to ask lots of questions.”
Edwardson repeated his claim the Systemic Racism Review Committee would be similar to any of the city and borough’s other special committees.
“The committee will serve as an advisory board to the Assembly,” Edwardson said, “They’re not going to be pouring through ordinances looking at all of the different dynamics. Something I think the public should keep in mind is that it’s just an advisory committee and it’s going to advise the Assembly on some things.”
The committee itself isn’t likely to form for some time. Ordinances have a 30-day effective date at which point the city will put out advertisements for the committee. No money has been allocated for the committee yet, but the Assembly Monday also introduced an ordinance allocating $50,000 to the manager’s office to help with the creation of the committee.
“I just appreciate the Assembly passing it,” Edwardson said. “I think they have some questions and concerns, and I think they showed a lot of goodwill in passing it.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.