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Addressing Systemic Racism in Santa Monica

By Maria Loya

Our country has reached a point of reckoning as it relates to racism, and Mahatma Gandhi’s celebrated quote, “We must be the change we want to see in the world,” couldn’t be more relevant today.

George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands of Minneapolis police was the flashpoint that inspired activism not seen since the days of the Civil Rights Movement.

It has spurred a national conversation about systemic racism, inherent bias and unequal treatment of people of color and led many companies, cultural institutions and local governments to re-examine their own commitments to equality and fairness.

In contrast, we have the Santa Monica City Council, which continues to spend millions of undisclosed public funds fighting minority voting rights and threatening the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) statewide.

After joining a list of Pico Neighborhood Latino and Black candidates who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in Santa Monica, I started to reflect on the problem with our election system.

Like many who ran before me, I had won the majority of the precincts in the racially segregated Pico Neighborhood, even beating top vote getter Bobby Shriver and was still not able to win a seat on the City Council dais.

Once I learned that in 1946 and again in 1992 City leaders had refused to support district-based elections, denying an opportunity for people of color in the Pico Neighborhood from attaining a seat on the City Council, I was convinced that the at-large election system needed to change.

In December of 2015 I submitted a complaint to the City of Santa Monica challenging its at-large election system, and my complaint was ignored by those in power at City Hall. This led to a long legal battle taking us all the way to the California Supreme Court that recently granted us a review of our case.

I am confident that justice will prevail in this case but it troubles me that our City Council known for being “liberal” and “progressive” would invest so much of our tax dollars to protect their power and privilege and by doing so protect the legacy of deliberate exclusion inherent in the at-large election system.

In a time of advancing racial justice, the so called “liberal” establishment and its allies lack self awareness of their paternalistic and arrogant attitude by continuing to oppose demands for fair and inclusive elections.

They offer disingenuous critiques of district elections but fail to acknowledge and assess the historic and present harm emanating from the current system. They act as if they know what is best for people of color who have had to endure the effects of systemic racism including poverty, violence, inequality in education, marginalization, social neglect and environmental dumping.

Moreover, the City’s PR machine has moved into high gear to publicly defend an unlawful and unjust election system to protect their power and privilege. A distraction was created by City staff to avoid any public pressure around the amount of public dollars being spent to fight the CVRA.

Soon after the ruling of the Superior Court the narrative pushed by the City of Santa Monica attempted to shift blame for the growing cost of the trial to our legal team. Absurd accusations of greed began to circulate to vilify Kevin Skenkman when, in fact, it has been the City Council’s greed for power that has driven the mounting cost.

Some Councilmembers have openly stated that they would vote to appeal the case just to ensure that Shenkman and his legal team are not compensated for all their countless hours of pro bono work in defending the voting rights of minorities in Santa Monica.

It screams of hypocrisy to have those City Council members blame plaintiffs' attorneys when it was the City Council that ignored our initial complaint and has continually refused to settle the case.

This past November, the Santa Monica establishment experienced a political shake up not seen since 1979, when tenants mounted a revolt at the polls. This time, residents voted out pro-development incumbents in favor of a more responsive and resident-focused government.

This election was significant, not because it was the first time three people of color were elected from the Pico Neighborhood but because Santa Monica voters rebelled against the status quo and rejected 3 of the 4 incumbents, all of whom defended the at-large election system.

The blow to the establishment comes two years after 72 percent of Santa Monica voters approved term limits for City Councilmembers. It’s clear now that residents want change in their City government.

We cannot remain dependent on the perfect storm of extraordinary circumstances or the tokenism of the establishment to attain representation on our City Council. We prefer to have the stability and access to our elected representatives that district elections provide.

We prefer to have a duly elected representative every election cycle, guaranteed! We prefer a system that provides every neighborhood a representative and an election system that decreases the power of developer money and elevates the voice of residents of color.

We reject an election system that is rooted in racism and demand one from the Voting Rights Act of the Civil Rights Movement that has increased in minority representation across the state and country.

That is what is meant by those of us now who are calling for systemic change to remedy years of exclusion and marginalization. My hope is that the new City Council will reverse course and stand with us on the right side of history.

Maria Loya is a plaintiff in the voting rights lawsuit against the City

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