Santa Cruz is not immune to hate — let’s build our own table of cooperation

John Brown Childs (left) and Nader Oweis participated in a community discussions at Sonoma State University.
John Brown Childs (left) and Nader Oweis participated in a community discussions at Sonoma State University.
(Via John Brown Childs)

John Brown Childs — a UC Santa Cruz distinguished professor emeritus of sociology and veteran of the civil rights movement — has spent a lifetime thinking about resolving conflict. Earlier this month, while sitting outside a cafe in Santa Cruz County, he was the victim of hate speech, making that work both more immediate and more personal. Nader Oweis, former UCSC chief of police and now chief of police at Sonoma State University, also worries about increasing intolerance and polarization. As our country has become more divided socially and politically and more affected by gun violence, the two advocate for more ways of bringing people of different constituencies “to the table” to solve racism, inequity and violence.

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Communities around the nation continue to reel from widespread violence, hatred, and callousness about life. This year alone, the U.S. has suffered 25 mass killings (in which four or more people died).

In recent years, we have seen violence against synagogues, churches, mosques and Sikh temples. We’ve seen violence against Black people shopping for food in Buffalo, violence against Latinx families enjoying themselves at an El Paso mall, violence against Asian people at a beauty salon in Atlanta, violence against schoolchildren. We’ve experienced violence against women, LGBTQ+ people, violence in schools, in communities and among youth on the streets.

All of this is infused with a callous disregard for human life, such as the violence against fourth graders in Uvalde, Texas, one year ago.

Amid such trauma, the search for well-being, equal treatment, and public safety is now more demanding and necessary than ever. Our nation is struggling to develop ways of reducing violence, including that at the hands of law enforcement. We are also looking for ways to reduce attacks on law enforcement, who must rush into dangerous situations to help.

Santa Cruz is not immune to the rising epidemic of callousness about human suffering and hatred.

I (John) — at 80 years old and a veteran of the civil rights movement — was the target on May 8 of a racist verbal assault in Santa Cruz County, while I sat outside a cafe enjoying a coffee. I handled the incident verbally and stopped its continuation. But, as the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, “behind every statistic is a victim” who suffers some hurt.

In an insightful Lookout opinion article, UC Santa Cruz student Bodie Shargel warns that we must not be “disorganized and atomized” in the face of hateful actions, such as the April 20 birthday party for Hitler a group of UCSC students held or the antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ flier a Jewish UCSC student recently found on their car in Santa Cruz.

We agree.

In response, we, the community, must engage in coordinated compassionate activity that can bring a wide range of voices to the table to offer support and solutions. We cannot wait for institutions to do so, any more than we in the civil rights movement could wait for state institutions to end legal segregation. Instead, we built our own table through grassroots organizing and cooperation with a wide range of supportive organizations and faith communities.

From that table, we broke the supposedly permanent structure of legal totalitarian segregation.

Today, for example, the “Grandfathers for Peace” (Abuelos Para Paz) and Barrios Unidos in Watsonville and Santa Cruz have built such a table to help with youth violence. So those who want to support peace on the streets and in the neighborhoods now have a place to which they can go.

An institution can join a “table.” But we don’t have to wait for institutions to create one. We gather and organize and open the discussion ourselves, creating the “table.” This is a much stronger position from which to work effectively.

The need for such table building in our area is clear.

We see division and lack of concern around a disturbingly long list of problems. This includes: affordable housing, food insecurity, police reform, incarceration and attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community. Specifically, we see the dire situation of flooded farmworkers in Pajaro, the struggles of schoolchildren emerging from COVID school shutdowns and the anguish in families losing children to youth-on-youth violence.

Too often, those living in parts of our society unaffected by this daily trauma shrug it off or pretend it is not happening here.

We would like to offer a suggestion of how to build a table for positive organization and cooperation among diverse people to effectively deal with these many-faceted eruptions of hatred, violence, and disregard for human life.

In September 2021, Nader and Sonoma State University Vice President William Gregory Sawyer initiated the “Conversations with Black and Brown in Blue” speakers series as a mechanism for the community and law enforcement leaders to discuss violence prevention, accountability and reform and to propose solutions. Several key themes emerged, and continue to emerge for other communities to emulate.

During the event, former FBI special agent Daryl Thornton introduced an idea that resonated among all the discussions: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

His point was: The only way all voices will get heard is if everyone comes together to talk.

Each speaker, in their own way, also encouraged broadening the conversation to allow for those members of diverse communities and to women, who have not historically been allowed at the table, to join by “adding a leaf” — extending the size of the table, allowing for those who might want to bring their own chair, as well as saving a seat next to them so as to connect with and make others feel comfortable.

Moreover, once at the table, speakers encouraged participants to think of it as a “clean slate table,” without judgment, where every person had valued input.

Allowing for diverse viewpoints often requires being open to what John calls “transcommunality,” where mutual respect and the willingness to engage in “constructive disputing” allows individuals to work together through both agreement and disagreement.

If one is given the opportunity to share what they know, a broader, deeper, better way of living in peace, with justice, can be created. Each participant knows something. No one person knows everything.

In fact, when we cooperate across social barriers, create mutual understanding with respect, we become a community that doesn’t just solve problems, but one that stops problems from happening in the first place.

UCSC Professor Emeritus John Brown Childs.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As such, we must do more to bring an ever wider range of voices to the table through compassionate and constructive ways of being human together. Anyone who wants to share their stories, and what they have learned from various experiences, some of which might be painful and hard to talk about, is welcomed to do so.

There are many important specific ways to address community safety and security. But the much-needed, overall positive cultural transformation for the well-being of all, that reflects the multifaceted dilemmas diverse people face in highly varied settings — from universities to faith institutions and advocacy groups, from the unhoused to farmworkers to K-12 students and teachers — can take place only within the framework of “coming to the table,” inclusive of people from all walks of life, working constructively, respectfully and honestly together.

John Brown Childs is a distinguished UCSC emeritus professor of sociology. In May 2022, he received the Constantine Panunzio Distinguished Emeriti Award, which recognizes exceptional legacies of research, teaching and service. Only 49 other people across the UC system have received the award. He is a pioneer in community-engaged scholarship for social justice whose work draws upon the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. and peacemaking practices of the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois Confederacy. As a college student, he led a student group to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He and his wife, Del, have lived in Santa Cruz since 1987.

Nader Oweis is the chief of police at Sonoma State University. He served as UCSC chief of police from August 2011 to December 2020. Before that, he was a lieutenant with the UC Davis Police for 17 years.

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