(A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Lacey Davis who was interviewed for the article. Her name is spelled “Lacey” not Lacy. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Empire regrets the error.)
The City and Borough of Juneau is considering establishing a Racism Review Committee to be tasked with examining future city legislation for instances of systemic racism.
City leaders are responding to calls from the community to establish oversight committees for various city departments, including schools and police in addition to the Assembly.
The death of George Floyd, who died while in police custody after an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes, sparked protests across the globe, and many of those protesters have made demands of governments and corporations to reexamine their policies for ways they might reinforce racism. Many of those demands are being listened to.
After several monuments to controversial figures were torn down by protesters, many cities began voluntarily removing monuments and made pledges to combat systemic racism. Many large companies, too, changed logos and issued statements committing to combating racism.
Hundreds of Juneauites took to the streets June 7, to protest police violence and racism, making calls for Juneau to adopt several reform measures to combat racism in city institutions. Many of those demands are not insignificant, calling for oversight authorities for police, school and city operations.
The CBJ Assembly responded and has already taken some action, including holding listening sessions with the community and the Juneau Police Department. At an Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting Monday, Assembly member Rob Edwardson introduced an ordinance that would create a seven-person Racism Review Committee made of experts experienced in identifying unlawful discrimination to review new city ordinances.
“The death of George Floyd, that triggered nationwide awareness, demonstrations, consciousness for minorities,” Edwardson said Friday in an interview. “It raised the consciousness of people who don’t normally suffer discrimination. If you study systemic racism, it needs to be talked about, and that’s the intent of this.”
Several members of the community gave testimony at Monday’s meeting, urging the Assembly to create the committee, saying a review committee could help identify instances of discrimination within city policies that may have been overlooked.
Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson gave testimony in support of the committee which he called, “groundbreaking.”
“I truly believe this committee is the first step in the right direction towards building a community of inclusivity and respect,” Peterson told the Assembly. “Our diversity is our strength and this is a way to let our neighbors know honor and respect them.”
There was no opposition to the goals of the ordinance at Monday’s meeting, but members of the Assembly and the public raised concerns about the power such a committee would have over city policy.
“I do believe people of color should get all the benefits of the city government we all get I do,” said Alex Fritz, who called in from the Mendenhall Valley. I have concerns about the wording of the ordinance, what I’m concerned about is the committee becoming a political arm or a manipulative force within the CBJ because of the nature of it being ideologically rooted.”
According to the ordinance, the committee would review all ordinances introduced by the city but before public hearing to advise on, “whether the ordinance likely includes a systemic racism policy.” The committee would also present analysis and conclusions to the Assembly, and make recommendations to the Assembly.
Fritz said he was concerned the committee may be able to “strong-arm” Assembly members into voting a certain way for fear of appearing to support a racist policy. He didn’t want to see the committee become, “an outside force that are going to manipulate you politically.”
But the scope of this committee would be no greater than any other committee the city has, Edwardson said. The city has committees with experts in their particular fields to advise the city, he said, and gave the Docks and Harbors Committee as an example. And while discussions about discrimination certainly arise in Assembly discussions, Edwardson, who is Haida, said having an established committee would ensure those conversations happen consistently.
Those conversations are needed, Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale told the Empire Friday, but she wasn’t sure the Assembly was the right place to do that.
“I think it’s absolutely critical for us as a community to use this opportunity to really look deeply, it’s not that someone is specifically to blame, I agree with (Edwardson) that this is a time that we can peel back layers and really understand as a society what it is that keeps keeping people down,” Hale said. “I don’t know this is the right way to involve the members of the community. (The) conversation would be happening through the lens of the Assembly, and the Assembly is a bad place to have a conversation, it’s not designed for a conversation.”
Hale said she didn’t know what the best place for those conversations was, but said she was committed to addressing the issue.
But nothing is stopping those conversations from happening alongside the creation of a committee, said Joe Nelson, Board Chair of the Sealaska Corporation in an interview with the Empire, but the committee was a place that minority voices could have a place at the decision-making table.
Cities might not need such review boards if the makeup of their institutions, “mirror the population they’re serving,” Nelson said, “if the diversity of the community was represented in our inner circles and our elected bodies.”
Nelson said he didn’t read the ordinance as tasking the committee with driving community conversations about race, but to provide expert advice to the city on a critical issue. Past institutions, like the city’s Human Rights Committee, had provided an educational element, he said, but hadn’t been able to affect much change.
“It just hasn’t been getting that part of the job done,” he said.
The proposed committee would give minority voices representation at the decision-making level and allow for sophisticated input, Nelson said. There are certainly issues in creating a new committee, he said, but those can be resolved. Nelson spoke to the Empire Friday during a break from a meeting of the Sealaska Board of Directors, and though it wasn’t on the agenda, the ordinance came up at that morning’s meeting.
“The idea of perfection often gets in the way of progress. The protection argument often gets used to derail progress,” he said. “We’re working on good trusting relationships, and an advisory board is an advisory board. We’re here to support the effort and we’re happy to hear the support, and to the degree that difficult conversations are needed, we’re here to participate in the most healthy way we can.”
Edwardson said he received a lot of feedback from the community mostly in support of the ordinance, and he was working with the city attorney to incorporate citizens’ concerns into an amended ordinance.
The need for discussion, often difficult discussion, was mentioned repeatedly at Monday’s meeting and in interviews for this article. No one has yet been able to articulate exactly what those discussions might look like, but there’s at least agreement that talking about talking about racism is a start.
“The fact that that conversation is even being had is enough to make me really happy,” said Lacey Davis Thursday in an interview with the Empire.
Davis, who is Black, gave testimony about her experiences with racism in Juneau during a June 17, listening session with JPD. She also posted a video to her Facebook page describing her personal experiences with both subtle and overt forms of racism. Thursday she told the Empire she had made the video out of a feeling of despair, but she’s seen a response in the community that’s made her cautiously optimistic.
“The fact that that conversation is even being had is enough to make me really happy, I think the city and all of Juneau, I think they’re doing a good job of listening and doing what they can right now, it’s given me a sense of optimism,” she said. “Now because of the response, the actions the city has done and people in my personal life, I’ve never felt more grateful.”
Hopefully, the discussion will lead to more action, she said, and make people who’ve experienced discrimination feel more comfortable talking about their experiences.
“I do feel like listening is a responsive action. There is active listening and there is active discussion, and through that listening and through that discussion, these conversations and this listening will lead to positive change,” she said. “I feel like even these discussions in and of themselves — we’ve never even really had this discussion. It means a lot to me to see that these discussions are being had.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.