Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 (Updated Dec. 12, 2019)
Boulder city councilwoman Mirabai Nagle and her peers faced heavy criticism from a passionate crowd Tuesday night in the wake of Nagle’s remarks on racial issues at the previous meeting — and her colleagues’ collective silence after.
Nagle’s comments came during the selection process for mayor and mayor pro tem. Sam Weaver and Bob Yates were the only candidates who had nominated themselves ahead of time, per city process. Some members of the public voiced their desires that one of the two leadership positions be held by a non-white or non-male council member, though no one ultimately stepped forward.
Following public comment and a brief discussion among council, including a procedural check-in and new councilwoman Junie Joseph asking if anyone else would be interested, Nagle launched into a speech condemning the requests:
“I personally am happy to move forward with the nominations. I think that Sam is excellently suited. You know, this might not be popular, but we’re sitting here talking about white males. I’m guessing you two have pretty different backgrounds in terms of your race; I’m pretty sure you were born in different states; I’m pretty sure you have different income levels; I’m pretty sure you have different values, I’m pretty sure you went to, attended different schools and studied different things. I’m a white female, but I’m also Jewish. You guys have pigmentation that you can’t help, genders that you can’t help, but you’re being lumped into the white male. I mean, every single race on this planet has in some way been (pause) has had something horrible happen to them at some point in our history. So for us to be lumping you into white males is, I’m sorry, I’ve had it. It’s obnoxious. You have completely different backgrounds. So I’d be honored to see you both, to come from both different political backgrounds, I think that you’ll both represent us very well. I think you both have a lot of brains, and I like that you actually think through a lot of the things that are in front of us. I would be thrilled to move forward with this process.”
Weaver and Yates were elected by unanimous peer vote. New council members do not typically serve in the roles. Nagle and Mary Young were the only other incumbents and neither were interested.
“I have no problem with Sam and Bob as mayor and mayor pro-tem,” said Shawn Rodda, a Boulder resident and mother of two children of color. “I think it’s perfectly appropriate given their experience, and frankly nobody else raised their hand. But you didn’t say that, did you?
“You didn’t say, ‘Nobody else wants it, let’s move on.’ Instead you went on a rant denying white privilege, denying the racism that people of color in our community are experiencing every day. You are so privileged that you probably have no idea what it’s like to be asked for a receipt when you leave a grocery store. You are so privileged you have no idea what it’s like to have your neighbors call the police because your black child makes them feel uncomfortable. You’re so privileged you probably don’t even feel uncomfortable at a football game when your schoolmates are shouting, ‘We’re rich, we’re white, we’re the Fairview Knights.‘” — a reference to an incident that reportedly took place earlier this year — “You’re so privileged that you have the privilege of not even looking us in the eye when we’re talking to you. You can sit up there and ignore everything that we’re saying.”
Nagle did indeed remain silent throughout most of the meeting, which is not uncommon for her. She declined to comment when contacted by Daily Camera reporter Sam Lounsberry during the meeting via text: “I said all I had to say in the op-ed,” she wrote.
Rodda and other speakers requested that Nagle apologize and that other members of council be more direct in their responses to Nagle’s words. Many focused on why Nagle’s comments were problematic and indicative of racist beliefs, though none accused her explicitly of being a racist.
“Nagle is white, privileged and in denial that she enables and perpetuates racism and privilege,” said Anna Segur. “As a private citizen, it’s up to council member Nagle if she wants to be insular and uneducated, but she chose to be an elected official, and as such she must adhere to a higher standard.
“In her comments and subsequent attempts at justification, member Nagle was inarticulate, disrespectful, uneducated and thoughtless. Not only did she deny the concept of white privilege, but she said that the entire discussion was not even worth having. Such rhetoric is often found in white nationalist outlets to curtail affirmative action with claims of reverse racism and seek to negate the issue of police brutality against people of color with statements that all lives matter.”
SarahDawn Haynes, who briefly considered a run for city council before opting out, gifted Nagle a copy of “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and invited the councilwoman to join a discussion group about the book.
“We can hang out,” Haynes said. “We can go to Trident. We can read, we can talk in a safe place and really learn. The conversation is never going to end in our lifetime. So I just hope we can engage and do what we can with what we got with where we’re at.”
A handful of people spoke in support of Nagle — both council and community members. Suzanne De Lucia thanked Nagle for her “wisdom and attempt to bring reason to the situation.”
As a female engineer for 30 years, “I could regale you with stories of discrimination and unfair treatment I’ve experienced along the way,” De Lucia said. “The point I’m trying to make is, I know what an old white boys club is when I see it. I don’t think it’s going on here. I know I’m white. I think we’re all privileged to be here in oh so many ways. I have not seen the racism in councilwoman Nagle that others are expressing. I’m mind boggled by what happened at the first council meeting, and I also feel abuse was given to council member Yates and Weaver. … I’m horrified.”
Others steered clear of commenting directly on Nagle’s actions, but condemned criticism of her. We should “educate one another about the racism in this community, ” Emily Wingeier, but “speak in a way that is acceptable to everybody rather than get mad and start fights.”
Wingeier was joined in her calls for civility by Kathleen Hancock, leader of neighborhood group Think Boulder, which opposes dense housing at the former Boulder Community Hospital site along Broadway:
“My comments tonight are about the importance of civil discourse in the very active democracy of Boulder. I’d actually hoped that the previous comments would be civil ones so I wouldn’t have to say this, but that’s not been the case, so…
I hope that we can continue to engage in a more civil manner. I’ve learned a great deal from city staff, residents and council members in the year that I’ve been active in local politics. However, I found myself and the group I lead under sometimes vicious attack. The name-calling especially on Twitter surprised and saddened and sometimes angered me. While those kinds of divisive attacks are routine in national politics, I thought Boulder was better than that. … Boulder does suffer from racist attitudes. There is no question; every city in this country does. We have to work together to solve those. What is council’s role? First I ask all of you to set a good example by showing respect for a wide range of views. … Second, set the example of being forgiving of mistakes.”
Hancock, De Lucia, Wingeier and others were echoed from the dais by councilman Mark Wallach:
“I think it is a very serious allegation when you accuse somebody of racism. I think you need to know what’s in their head, you need to know what’s in their heart. And based on my experience, I do not believe even for a minute that my colleague is a racist. In Boulder, we rightfully emphasize the values of diversity and inclusivity and equity. But those not the only values of importance in this community. I think some of our other Boulder values are respect, kindness and grace. And unfortunately, there were too many comments this evening that seemed not to have any of those values. Instead we got comments that largely consisted of rage and anger. But anger does not persuade and outrage does not teach. And neither of those emotions are going to light the path to a better future for this town.”
“That’s racism!” a member of the audience shouted out, breaking into Wallach’s speech.
“I don’t think so,” Wallach responded before continuing. “This should have been a teaching moment of dialogue with respect to one of the most crucial issues of our time. Instead it was far less than that and devolved into abuse of council members. And I think we ought to be doing better. Let me leave you with a final thought. John 8:7, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone.'”
Criticism of anger or other emotions considered to be “negative” is common in discussions of race and other divisive topics. It is referred to as tone policing: According to Dictionary.com, which added the entry in early 2019, it is “a conversational tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful or otherwise emotionally charged manner.”
Rachel Friend defended Nagle’s critics, pointing out that acknowledging white privilege and calling someone a racist are “not necessarily the same thing.”
“We need to work pretty hard on not being defensive when we hear the community asking for help and they’ve been suffering. There were words stated from this dais that caused harm, and words are hurtful. I think we need to do a better job of being open and learning and committing to change and appreciating community members who speak out, because it’s not easy. I also appreciate my colleague who showed up to take in the feedback.”
As for “the requests we’ve had for solidarity, that is a form of oppression in my opinion. We can’t have people in positions of power protecting other people in positions of power. We can be respectful and show civility, but that is a tool of oppression so I think we need to be very guarded about closing ranks.”
Wallach was interrupted in his delivering of the Bible verse with audible groans from the crowd, who at least twice during the meeting broke into applause and cheers in response to critics of Nagle and were reprimanded by Mayor Weaver. Clapping and audible support of or opposition to statements are not allowed in council chambers, though attendees are given a pass on rare, less divisive occasions; rebukes of the audience from the mayor happen frequently during heated discussions.
For the most part, speakers delivered their remarks in a calm and measured manner. Two male members of the public did use raised voices, and two members of the audience occasionally held up signs reading, “OK Boomer” when Weaver or supporters of Nagle were speaking.
OK Boomer is a phrase cultivated by teens and the internet culture as a response to criticisms of younger generations by older ones and to dismiss views seen as narrow-minded or judgmental on critical issues such as climate change — or racial equity. As defined by Dictionary.com, OK Boomer “is a viral internet slang phrase used, often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally.” It has become a wildly popular and divisive meme, with mainstream media outlets such as the New York Times (linked above) publishing explainer pieces, rebuttals and op-eds.
No other council member but Wallach gave a statement of support for Nagle. Many flirted with criticizing her while simultaneously offering a defense.
Mary Young recounted her own education on racial issues, including discovering the racist nature of many of Boulder’s policies. She highlighted the city planning efforts of Frederick Olmsted Jr. — venerated by many but known to be racist — which prevented people of color from buying homes here.
My journey has been “self-guided,” Young said. “It takes time and intention. We just need to move forward and be kind to each other and understand that not all of us have spent the time it takes to begin to understand how complex this is and how enormously taxing it will be to dismantle it. Calling somebody a racist is a failing to understand that we all are.”
Aaron Brockett, who was the only council member to address Nagle’s statements at the time she made them, said white people have a responsibility to do that work.
“It’s very important to do the work that we can to understand our history and not just call out things that are actively racist, but to be actively anti-racist ourselves. There are few things more difficult to talk about than issues of race in our society but it’s important we have the courage to confront them.”
Joseph explained why she had been hesitant to respond to Nagle’s comments before, despite requests from community members.
“I’m the only black woman in the room. I was very afraid to… not afraid, but cautious. To my colleague, I didn’t want to come across as rude. … People have messaged me and asked, ‘Why are you silent?’ As a black woman, just being in this room is part of my advocacy. I hope residents who look to me… it’s going to take me some time to grow into this role. Give me time to grow. But I understand the community frustration. While it is understandable to be angry, the real conduit of justice is our system that marginalizes people every day. … Even if one council member isn’t willing to work on social justice, we can still make progress. Even if two council members are not willing, we can still make progress.”
The conversation was continued later in the evening, during a discussion over a resolution “committing the city of Boulder to racial equity in city relationships, programs, services and policies.” The resolution will commit Boulder to, among other things:
- “Requiring bias and micro aggression training for all city staff, city council members, boards and commissions”
- “Systematically and deliberately applying a racial equity lens in its decision making henceforth”
- “Develop a plan for delivering city services in a manner that promotes racial equity”
- “The need to examine seemingly neutral policies and practices to determine whether they are contributing to racial inequity and, where needed, change or eliminate the policy or practice as the city has a long history of decision and policy making that has resulted in classist and racist outcomes.”
Several changes were made to the draft resolution in the week following its release, including expanding the list of examples historic racist incidents and policies in Boulder and making reference to Boulder’s first (and only) black mayor, Penfield Tate, who was subjected to a recall vote after proposing protections for gay residents be added to the city’s Human Rights Ordinance.
Council decided to schedule a public hearing before voting to adopt the resolution. December 17 was selected as the tentative date; a discussion on building code updates may be moved to accommodate it.
Adoption of the resolution was moved up from late January following public outcry over Nagle’s comments. The city took a similar path in 2018, moving up a discussion on its equity efforts after the Daily Camera published a three-part series on racism in Boulder, including a look at the quick, unexplained exit of the city’s first — and only — diversity officer.
Boulder has been working with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity since that departure. GARE offered training to city council and staff, but it’s unclear who took part. Councilwoman Friend requested that the training be mandatory for city council or, if it is not, that it be made publicly known who participated. It appears from the resolution text that training will not be optional.
Nagle was the only member of the previous council to not attend a special listening session on racism, held on a Monday night. (She has routinely missed other special meetings as well, citing work or other obligations.) Of the current council, only Nagle and Wallach did not attend the listening session or March for Police Oversight.
Friend also acknowledged how much more difficult the conversation could become, particularly where issues of race butt up against housing policy. Boulder’s vast swaths of single-family zoning are, as Young noted, rooted in racist motivations; Minneapolis earlier this year did away with such zoning largely due to equity concerns.
The resolution does address this conflict: “Council acknowledges community values will bump up against each other and hard work will be needed to ensure meaningful decisions are made,” it reads.
Signing this resolution, “will mean that racial equity outcomes, in my opinion, will beat out preserving the status quo on a whole lot of issues, on a whole host of issues,” Friend said. “It can’t just be lip service.”
“I know from experience that we have heavy resistance in the city to change, and we have a lot of desire to preserve the character of Boulder from yesteryear. I’m not saying that neighborhood character or the desire for having Boulder be the same Boulder that it was the year you got here is racist, but it does produce racial inequities. So when we start looking at things through this lens, we are probably going to come to different outcomes. So this means if we’re taking these words and this resolution seriously, it’s a big ask of the community and council and a huge commitment. I’m in favor of it because until we do the hard work and make real changes, race will continue to be a life and death matter. … (But) I want people to know what we’re committing to and what I believe we should commit to.”
City council meeting 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17 1777 Broadway
Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that councilman Wallach said he did NOT believe councilwoman Nagle was racist (the word ‘not’ was missing in a previous version), to add an explanation of the phrase ‘OK Boomer,’ and to reflect changes made to the resolution following the release of the first draft.
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle
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