Two prominent features of civic engagement in the pandemic era -- spirited public comment sessions at virtual meetings and rallies for social justice -- converged around the Danville Town Council's last regular meeting.
A crowd of approximately 70 at its peak gathered outside the council's meeting on La Gonda Way on May 17 to call for additional action from local officials in the wake of high-profile political and racial tensions in Danville, specifically recent demonstrators who'd held up signs proclaiming "White Lives Matter" and support for a neo-Nazi propaganda film at a local intersection the prior weekend.
Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich issued a statement decrying the actions days later.
"As most reasonable people do, I share the visceral reactions of many in our community to hate speech groups and hate in general," Arnerich said in a statement on May 16.
Arnerich said that despite the demonstration being outside town limits, he and other officials were made aware of the May 14 demonstration at Blackhawk and Camino Tassajara roads the same afternoon of the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., in which all 10 victims were Black.
"Our Town stands united against racism in any form and any acts that direct harm or hatred toward people based upon race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability," Arnerich said.
"Free speech is very painful and hurtful at times," Arnerich continued. "We do not have to listen or give them any credibility. The horrific mass shooting that took place this past weekend in Buffalo, New York, demonstrates the incredible division that exists in our Country."
Arnerich acknowledged the timing of the local incident, and said the racist ideology motivating the Buffalo shooter was driven by "a far right conspiracy theory that baselessly posits that the white population in western countries is being reduced or replaced by immigrants in a deliberate plot."
However, organizers and demonstrators outside that week's council meeting called for Arnerich to take a firmer stance, and more tangible actions, aimed at addressing racism in the predominantly white, wealthy suburb that has become the target of national scrutiny in the high-profile conviction of former sheriff's deputy Andrew Hall for the shooting death of Laudemer Arboleda, a mentally ill Filipino man in 2018. Hall, after initially being returned to duty, would fatally shoot a Black man who also had a history of mental health troubles, Tyrell Wilson, in March 2021.
While town officials have been visibly affected by the incident and the calls for change from a number of community members that have ensued, demonstrators continued to call for action and a tangible shift in a local atmosphere that they claim has long allowed racism and police brutality to proliferate unchecked.
"We have been asking you for over a year to make a clear and decisive statement against racism in our town, especially following two police shootings in which two BIPOC men who were living with mental illness lost their lives," said Veronica Benjamin, co-founder of Conscious Contra Costa, in the night's first public comment.
"I personally feel that you have not taken all the steps and all the actions that you could to send a clear message to all residents the type of town we live in," Benjamin continued. "I feel like we try to maintain a veneer of inclusivity while we also maintain a status quo that tells many Black and brown people that they don't really belong here, that they're other, and that if they behave the right way, they might stay in Danville as guests."
Benjamin also said she was disappointed in Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston, who is in the midst of campaigning for office in the June 7 primary election amid a challenge from Benjamin Therriault, for allegedly "dragging his feet" in an investigation into Wilson's death.
"When the sheriff had told you all that this investigation would happen in January, I don't understand why there's not more outcry from you and criticism of the sheriff for the five-month delay," Benjamin said.
Jennifer Leong, whose brother Arboleda was killed in the shooting that led to Hall's assault conviction and six-year sentence, emphasized Benjamin's longtime persistence in calling for additional actions and stronger statements from town officials. She also highlighted months-long efforts she, Benjamin and other Conscious Contra Costa members had made in calling for permanent memorials in town for her brother and Wilson.
"This is not about politics; this is about two human beings who lost their lives in Danville," Leong said. "We're not asking for a big huge banner or a statue, just maybe a little plaque that will honor my brother's name, and so my mother can maybe go and maybe put flowers on there and say her prayer and grieve, so we can start to heal."
Leong also pointed to her family's AAPI heritage and Arboleda's mental health troubles amid resolutions recognizing May as both Mental Health Awareness Month and AAPI Heritage Month.
"I know Danville has the means; I know they have the heart," Leong said.
Sarah Stroin, another organizer of Conscious Contra Costa, emphasized the context that the white supremacist demonstration Arnerich was responding to in Danville, and the ways in which displays such as these were particularly upsetting locally.
"We're just really shaken up by the presence of the neo-Nazis in our town," Stroin said. "We just wanted to make a really strong statement of community support for antiracist ideals in our town, and we want you, our town council, to know how important it is that we make a really, really strong statement of our opposition to white supremacy in all its forms."
Stroin also echoed calls for permanent memorials for Wilson and Arboleda to be installed in town.
"We need a statement of anti-racism on our town website, not just this kind of mealy mouthed inclusivity message," Stroin said.
While the future of permanent memorials for Arboleda and Wilson wasn't discussed by town officials that night, they did comply with a request from several commenters that they post Arnerich's statement on Facebook that evening, although not on Twitter. A commenter on the Facebook post said "someone give that woke mayor his lipstick and heels," and called him "Mrs. Mayor."
In the council meeting, Arnerich emphasized that despite calls from commenters for a stronger and more public statement, he had been the one personally inundated with hate mail from those who felt targeted by his statement.
In addition to the May 14 incident near Blackhawk, the high-profile police shootings, and Hall's conviction, Danville was the site of two recent incidents of antisemitic vandalism in February and April. The Danville Police Department and town officials decried those incidents as well, with the first spurring a "Rally Against Hate" on Feb. 26.