Wednesday, March 29, 2017

High Drama in Screenland: Culver City Becomes a Sanctuary City!

I had known for a while that the Culver City Council would be debating whether or not to become a Sanctuary City on Monday, March 27. I had read the meeting notes of the previous meeting when the matter had been discussed and noticed the meeting had ended after midnight. I didn’t know if I could face a five-hour meeting on a Monday night, but I had to acknowledge many of my neighbors were facing much harder things. This was an important issue, and I needed to show my support. I had never attended a city council meeting before, but I have to say that the meeting was way more exciting and enlightening than a night of TV.

I had been following announcements on Indivisible Culver City’s facebook page, and there were rumors than many Pro-Trump protesters from other parts of Southern California would be coming to the meeting to disrupt it. One rumor said that a busload would be coming! In the end, it turned out to be about ten people, all of whom wore Trump hats and shirts and most of whom were outspoken (a few appeared to be long-suffering spouses, who signed up to comment and then ceded their time to their obsessive spouse).  Meanwhile many more supporters of the motion showed up, and representatives of Indivisible Culver City handed out talking points for anyone who might wish to fill out a comment card to address the council, and they also handed out “thumbs up / thumb down” and “Sanctuary NOW!” signs that we could hold up during the meeting.

The meeting began at 7:00 PM with some general announcements. The mayor spoke about the success of the Ciclavia event held in Culver City that previous weekend. This is a quarterly event where certain streets in LA are closed to cars and bikes rule for the day. Over 100,000 people attended this event! I have to say that as I was out that Sunday on our electric trike, I loved the vibe and seeing all the smiling faces. I was struck by the diversity of the crowd in terms of ethnicities and ages.  It was a wonderful community event and tons of fun.

The Council opened the floor for comments on non-agenda items. Four of the Trump fans had filled out comment cards to speak and all four got reprimanded for mentioning the Sanctuary City resolution, which was to be discussed later in the evening. They didn't understand why they were being reprimanded and cried out that their free speech was being violated. One rambled on about how videoconferencing should be available for these meetings, because she drove a long way from the Valley. Another spoke in praise of Trump with nothing specific to Culver City. They didn’t identify themselves as Culver City residents. Other Trump supporters stood on the perimeter of the room, filming and livestreaming the meeting. They walked around and filmed everyone and tried to have an intimidating presence.  

After comments and voting happened on a few other agenda items, we got to the Sanctuary City issue. The clerk informed the council that more than 70 people had filled out comment cards! The mayor said it was typical to be able to count attendance on one hand at these meetings, but this time there were at least 150 people in the room and possibly more people in an overflow room that I didn’t see. We started hearing comments around 8:30 PM, and each person was allowed to speak for up to two minutes.

There were about ten Trump fans who spoke in opposition and at least 50 people who spoke in favor of the measure. The opposition comments centered on fear of undocumented immigrants raping and murdering Americans. “America First!” was the oft-repeated chant. One protester wore a T-shirt with the photo of someone who had been killed by an undocumented drunk driver. I guess we should have all worn T-shirts with photos of people killed by US citizens driving drunk. In response to those who lamented about the separation of families due to deportation, they spoke of the ultimate separation of families due to murder.

The Council had several options they were considering - and all were symbolic gestures ranging from Option One just stating “Culver City is a Sanctuary City” with no elaboration to Option Four which had a detailed list of what it means as defined by the ACLU and the Culver City Action Network (CCAN).  There was amazing diversity displayed by the Culver City residents who spoke up, and I found myself thinking back to the diversity I had seen the day before at Ciclavia.

A twelve-year-old boy said “I was born a Democrat,” and he couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want the city to be a welcoming place.  Several high school students spoke. The Herreras, a Mexican-American family, put together a powerpoint presentation and four family members took turns using their allotted two minutes to go through the presentation. They spoke about their sadness at having to go to Mexico to visit their grandfather because he had been deported (see slide below). Teenage son Dante broke down in tears while testifying, saying he was so disturbed by the Trump supporters in the room and their hateful rhetoric and that he had never encountered it in this city before. His mother approached to comfort him, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation when he finished talking about his family’s struggles.

I’m sure the looming presence of the outspoken handful of Trump fans was disturbing and eye-opening for many in the room as we do live in a blue bubble in LA. As far as I could tell, only two of the ten Trump supporters lived within twenty miles of Culver City.  Meanwhile almost all the other speakers identified themselves as residents and many were parents of children in the Culver City school system. It’s also worth noting that Culver City High School was recently named the fourth most diverse high school in the nation.

Former mayor Gary Silbiger spoke about his experience as an immigration lawyer. Two law professors from UCLA spoke, and one revealed that the threat by Trump and Sessions to remove federal funds from Sanctuary Cities would most likely be contestable in court. Many residents spoke about their own family immigration history and fears for neighbors. We heard from teachers who said they didn’t care if the kids in their class had papers or not. We heard from social workers, veterans, business people, and ministers. Almost everyone voiced support for Option Four.

At 10:00 PM, we took a break. Right before that, the Council asked that several Trump fans be removed from the room. They had been warned about interjecting comments while others were speaking, but had kept doing it. There were officers in the room all night to keep the peace. As they were being escorted out, one of the more aggressive Trump fans revealed he had a taser on him but it wasn’t used. For some unknown reason, they let these guys back in the room after the break. A Muslim resident spoke and as soon as he mentioned he was Muslim, the taser guy yelled out “Jihad!”  At that point, Vice Mayor Cooper asked the officer to remove him, and he was not allowed back in - thankfully!

As we approached midnight, many people had left but about 50 people remained. Some names were called for people who had signed up to speak but hadn’t been able to stick around. Finally, the comments were done, and the Council took some time to ask questions and debate. The Police Chief and City Attorney were present to answer questions. The Council reworded aspects of Option Four, and then Meghan Sahli-Wells made a motion to approve the reworded Option Four. Vice Mayor Cooper made a motion for Option One, feeling that the detailed language was unnecessary as our Police were currently abiding by these guidelines and would continue to do so, but his motion was voted down. Mayor Clarke objected to the provision in Option Four to provide $20,000 of city funds for immigration legal defense, and the others accepted his position and this provision was stricken from the record. It had become clear the residents wanted the strongly worded option, and the motion for Option Four passed by a margin of 3-1, with Vice Mayor Cooper dissenting (and Goran Eriksson absent). At 12:40 AM, Culver City became a Sanctuary City!

It was a night of high drama and mood swings. At times, I felt so angry and wanted to engage the Trump fans but I refrained as I knew it would be as fruitless as their presence at the meeting had proved with regard to the outcome. At other times, I felt moved to tears by people’s stories and by the activism of the kids. Overall, I came away feeling very inspired to be a part of “Democracy in Action,” happy that the city is reflecting the values of its residents, and thankful to the City Council for their great patience in sitting through the long comment period and their thoughtful and courageous decision.  Special kudos to Meghan Sahli-Wells who was working on her birthday and proved very thoughtful in breaking down the language of the motion and coming up with language everyone could support. I’m Culver City proud!

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