After getting criticized for not taking a stand against racism, Gilbert Town Council discussed converting a defunct commission that once was tasked with addressing diversity concerns into one that enables two-way conversation between staff and residents about a variety of local issues.
The proposed Community Relations Commission was presented at last week’s Council meeting.
“I think this is an avenue for our community to come and talk about issues that may be happening here or around the world,” Vice Mayor Jung Koprowski said.
She said the commission could also “support community events, neighborhood services and also weigh in on any public engagement on various projects from multiple departments.”
Councilman Bill Spence, who pushed to put the item on the agenda, noted said there’s been talk in the community about reviving the Human Relations Commission, which was disbanded several years ago.
Spence felt the new commission could provide a forum for people seeking clarification on a broader range of issues such as the town’s new ambulance service, domestic violence and even garbage service.
He said many times the town is already taking actions that the public is demanding be taken but is unaware of it and the commission would be a way to get the information out.
Spence added that the commission would offer the town an opportunity to solve problems before people bring them up at council meetings.
Councilwoman Kathy Tilque said she was not involved with the Human Relations Commission, which was formed in 2001 in response to the Devil Dogs, a white supremacist youth gang.
“I felt it lacked direction it needed to make it successful,” she said.
She recommended staff research groups that have success in bringing diverse groups together for meaningful dialogue and she suggested the commission be a solution-based panel.
“We want everybody in our community to feel safe, feel listened to and how important they are to us,” Tilque said. “It’s not going to solve all the issues that are out there in one fell swoop.”
Mayor Scott Anderson said the Council’s consensus was for staff to move forward with forming the commission and looking at its scope of work.
The Human Relations Commission was eventually dissolved in January 2017 because it didn’t have a specific direction and there wasn’t a community demand for it, according to Councilman Jared Taylor, who felt the it should be resurrected.
He said Council must provide clear direction for it and that the commission either could be short term with a specific mission and then disbanded or it could become more permanent like the Planning Commission.
Council members’ discussion took place after they were lambasted by a handful of residents who have been participating in weekly protests a quarter of a mile away at Gilbert and Warner roads.
Since the summer, people who support police have been facing off with Black Live Matters supporters on opposite sides of Warner every Thursday. The protests were peaceful until Aug. 20, when the two sides violently clashed leading to three arrests.
Aysiana Clark said when she asked the Council weeks ago to issue a statement against white supremacy, she was told the town could not because it was deemed “too political.”
“Keep in mind I am only asking you to say you are anti-racist,” Clark said. “I never asked for you to sign a contract or to do an internal investigation. You literally could have just said you’re anti-racist.
“But you did not and here I am again three weeks later and I have yet to hear a statement about the white supremacists on Gilbert soil because whether or not you like it, that is the manifestation of racism today. And because I understand you guys need a lot of handholding with this, I am emailing you all a list of books to educate yourself because I’m done doing it for free.”
Miranda Rae Sausen said her neighbors, who are people of color, don’t feel safe in a town that claims to be one of the nation’s safest communities.
“White supremacists are able to threaten my life and others online because we believe that no matter a person’s religion or ethnicity, they should never have to worry about being shot in their own hometown,” she said.
“The silence this town continues to have on all the threats that is happening on Facebook and other social media platforms is so outrageously disturbing and has no place in Gilbert or anywhere else in the world.”
She also criticized the police for sending its SWAT team to the protests, which have been largely peaceful.
“It is a waste of allocated funding and resources that could have been put forth towards more pressing issues like mental-health professionals that can help all the people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she continued. “For this reason, I want a plan of action for this racism and for this to be a priority for the Town Council to ensure the safety of the members of our community.”
Kalixta Villasaez said the pro-police group has been spewing hate, waving the Confederate flag and giving Nazi salutes.
“Racism, more specifically white supremacy has plagued Gilbert for a long time,” she said. “Racists have made Gilbert their safe place.”
She said the town’s “Listening Space,” events where officials listened to the public for feedback on racism and police reform were “ineffective.”
“You continue to enable and turn a blind eye and it needs to be stopped,” she said.
Jennifer Harrison, sporting an AZ Patriots tank top, said the BLM supporters apparently believe only they have the First Amendment right of free speech and call others who don’t hold their same beliefs “white supremacists and Nazis.”
“What we have here is the cancel culture,” Harrison said. “What we have is emotional children who clearly do not understand that the First Amendment is a right afforded to everybody, not just left-wing anarchists who hate the police and make everything a racist.
“These are children who were never taught in life that there will be things they’re going to see and hear that may upset them or hurt their feelings.”
Harrison said the counter-protestors need to deal with their emotions.
“This is the same group out there verbally attacking this city’s police department, protesting America, hating themselves for being white,” she said. “That’s their First Amendment right to do so but they can’t go and cry to the City Council when they are met with oppositions from groups that actually like, love and support the police and love their country.
“So, perhaps this is why there is an age requirement to be elected into politics. We have young, emotional, uneducated children who cannot handle an opposing view or be challenged in their position in any way. Just because we don’t’ support their BLM Marxist bull crap doesn’t make us white supremacists.”
Marysa Leyva said she resented Harrison’s characterization.
“I am an adult and a healthcare worker,” Leyva told Council.
“We are offended by your stance of anti-racism as being a political idea,” she said. “We don’t believe that is the case. We are members of this community. We are your neighbors but because of the complicity of this Council, this has become a safe haven for white supremacist hate groups and violence.”
She said there were minors who were assaulted on Aug. 20 by the opposing group.
“We’ve been stalked, followed, screamed at and had our lives threatened,” Leyva said. “We’re no longer safe in our own neighborhoods, in our homes. We want a comprehensive plan of action for how this Council intends to address these atrocities. But at this moment in time the absolute least you all can do is make a statement condemning racism and white nationalist hate groups right now.”
Koprowski said the Council was prohibited from responding because the issue was not on the agenda.
When Leyva insisted on a statement, Mayor Scottt Anderson explained it was against state law for the Council to address her comments.
Leyva then asked if the Council would make a statement after the meeting was over.
“We’ll take it under advisement,” Anderson responded.