Oxnard: “We Can’t Breathe” Forum Held on June 13 in Response to George Floyd Incident

By George Miller

Jordan Ward and Tamar Lee were motivated by the Minneapolis police officers’ George Floyd killing to hold an event on June 13, 2020 to explore the state of police killings and race relations, entitled “We Can’t Breathe- The Talk”. Pastor Lance Ralston, other Pastors and Elders of Calvary Chapel Oxnard hosted the event. As Moderator, Ward described the event as “expression” and a “dialogue.”

It wasn’t just about the Floyd incident and not only covered both alleged and proven police brutality, but “institutional racism” as well. Read on if you’re not sure what they mean. Ward started out by asking all in attendance to observe eight seconds of silence for George Floyd.

Although all 100 seats  (number limited by “social distancing”) in the cavernous church sanctuary were sold out, only about 60 people plus a few more in the panel, organizers & sponsors showed up, to the irritation of  co-organizer Dexter Nunnery.

It was a sign of the times that the event invitation warned that “This is NOT a protest- no looting, no vandalism, no speaking out of turn, no megaphones or signs.” But, that wasn’t a problem, as all attendees were polite, very attentive and pretty much tuned into the objectives, although some speakers had different approaches to getting there.

The panel consisted of: Dexter Nunnery of Hip Hop Help; Oxnard Police Chief Scott Whitney; Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen; and Counselor Ross Fontes, who were each allowed 15 minutes to speak. Moderator Jordan Ward refrained from speaking and also allowed eight “community members” to speak out for up to five minutes each and posed a few questions from Instagram followers as well.

L-R: Moderator Jordan Ward; panelists Hip Hop Help President Dexter Nunnery, Oxnard City Manger Alex Nguyen, Oxnard Police Chief Scott Whitney, Counselor Ross Fonte3s

A real dialogue might have had more differing opinions, but this was still valuable for what came out.

Event Video

Event Program:

Dexter Nunnery led off the proceedings. His work at Hip Hop Help is focused on teaching hip hop culture, including dance, emceeing and arts and helping individuals in need.  His words: “Hip-Hop Help uses donations primarily from Hip-Hop artist (but is not limited to just artist, anyone can donate.) We take those donations and give back to communities by helping individuals who have applied through our website www.hiphophelp.org for some type of financial assistance in the following areas: Food, Gas, Utilities, Mortgage/Rent, Transportation, Clothing, Shelter, Lost a love one. We also have a follow-up process available for recipients.” He said he studied at Oxnard College (AA) and has a BS in psychology- CSUCI. Nunnery said he just couldn’t permit things like the Floyd killing to be the normal anymore and wants to make the world safer for his kids and their kids. His objectives are to make the community aware and  hold police accountable, so youth don’t have to grow up with this as “normal.”

He declared that racism and police brutality have been going on for decades. He cited examples while in Camarillo and from his work there as a basketball coach, where he had been called  a “n*gger” by two guys on the boulevard in a truck, that an opposing player taunted his team: “how could you be working for a black man?” He broke down in tears recalling that. All this, he said, in a quiet suburban community with a church on nearly every corner. He couldn’t figure out what the churches were teaching them. He didn’t delve into what percentage of people were racist and whether those were church members. He was proud that his team won the championship in spite of that, when he felt that “the entire city came there to see his team lose.”

It is Nunnery’s view that racism has a “generational setup,” that it is passed down through families, to kids who will eventually become lawyers, police officers, even presidents.

He claimed that Trump at a 2017 rally labeled Kapernick’s actions as disrespecting the flag, changing the “narrative ” in taking away emphasis from his protest. He accused White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders Huckabee  of making light that Trump wanted police to be tougher in making arrests, which he said confirms Trump said that. Nunnery claims that NY Police Commissioner O’Neil said only reasonable and necessary force should be used. It is unclear why he thought Trump was recommending other than that. He stated, in a seemingly disapproving manner, that on 6-12-20 Trump said to respect police, who are taking care of us, protecting us, if allowed to do their jobs and that we’ll always have a bad apple- not too many of them. Nunnery said that it is common belief that the police have to protect  us, but he correctly stated that the Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

Nunnery stated that we need to make sure that CA SB1421, which compels law enforcement to make officers’ records/misconduct available, is actually enforced. Chief Whitney later stated that police had been prevented from doing this, but says with SB1421, they are “happy” to do it.

 

Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen spoke next, starting out by describing his family immigrating here from Viet Nam and settling in Virginia, after being in multiple refugee camps. He said back then, Virginia was “The South”, that it taught him he was “inferior,” he was the victim of discrimination, except when, he joked, someone needed help with math.

He mentioned 2017 in Charlottesville, without elaborating. He is frustrated that “the national media want to continue to look away.” For those who ask “why looting,” “why protesting”, he said that’s not the problem, things like the “murder” of George Floyd matter, words matter, versus “nice ways to look away” from what’s happening. It’s just wrong. “How many books, how many poems, how many songs, have to be written” (about such things)? He’s very unhappy about politics, symbols. He referred to the recent Democratic photo op gesture as “now you want to take a knee and put on an African cloth” (and Trump’s bible photo op)> But I will not “take a knee and pander, he vowed. 

He conceded that “as a nation we have made tremendous progress and this makes the nation unique in the world.” Not many City Managers in this state and country look like me,” he declared (Nguyen is of Asian Heritage).

But as a counterpoint, he said that the murder of Floyd merely made people uncomfortable, where such things used to be amusement. I think he even mentioned they ate popcorn and he displayed a slide of people looking amused or contemptuous. Nguyen mused that “my high school teacher would probably have a heart attack seeing me as a city manager.”

He went even further, showing a slide (below) of about 100 names indicating they were the names of blacks unjustly killed. It was in the shape of an iceberg, with George Floyd’s name at the top to suggest that he was, well, just the tip of the iceberg.

He said that blacks have been at the forefront to change things, for “hundreds of years,” but it has to be part of a broader effort. He promised to make that effort in Oxnard and to hold the police dept accountable. He says that his valuable 20 years of experience in Oakland, including seven years in the City Attorney’s office and time as Assistant City Manger in Riverside, including overseeing the police review board, will help.  He cited the awful example of the Oakland PD “Riders” group which tortured and arrested young blacks and was finally outed by a white cop. This led to a consent decree and federal oversight of the department for a decade, which he said had disappointing results.

Nguyen added that he is grateful for the Oxnard Police Dept., has “absolute confidence in Chief Whitney and Assistant Chiefs Benitez and Sonstegard to continue to do the right thing and will improve the department.”

He opined that places like Minneapolis, LA and Oakland should actually look at the Oxnard concept for guidance. But he continued by saying don’t only look at police, but look at banks who won’t give loans, people who won’t rent, people blocked from educational opportunities, neighborhoods “redlined,” etc.

His final warning was “do not let people look away.”

 

Special guest Quentin Floyd made a brief cameo appearance, claiming to have just discovered that he is a cousin of George Floyd, has had conversations with his relatives on why George Floyd died and will be a voice for change and unity in Oxnard. He said he’s a former police officer.

 

Oxnard Police Chief Scott Whitney 

Whitney’s stance was that the department has already made major progress and is continually improving, under him as Chief, before that under (black) Chief Jerri Williams, who made a big move up to head the Phoenix, AZ PD. and even prior to that. Old timer Latino and black acquaintances have told me there were big problems with OPD in the past.

Whitney led off by declaring that the police dept can NEVER be divided against the community. There can NEVER be us vs. them dynamics. He and associates have no tolerance for the killers of Floyd, nor does “the entire nation.” He said that things you have been seeing on TV do not represent the Oxnard Police Dept. (Oxnard has also been a model of peaceful protests as well- no one hurt, no riots, looting, burnings.)

Whitney, a very white Oxnard homeboy born and bred here, sheepishly admitted that he was largely clueless about institutional racism until he was 40, but has come up to speed since then and said it took a year for it to really sink in. He has spent his entire career on the force and has very strong community support. He said he stands against systemic racism, against police brutality. Based on the reception I have seen him get at meetings/speeches, many in the community agree with him.

In response to people who said nothing is done about bad cops, Whitney declared that 18 have been fired or resigned under threat of termination, in recent years.

He is a big believer in police community involvement and “non-confrontational” contacts with the public, especially at risk and vulnerable people, who may not trust the police. He said invite them to the police station, because it’s good to come there as a guest instead of on the receiving end of law enforcement activity. The police also have events at the police stations, car showings, Halloween events and more.

The Chief said that the department’s emphasis should be on public safety first and foremost as opposed to just law enforcement. He even ventured that priorities may de-emphasize certain offenses  in favor of that, “not necessarily enforcing every single law,” specifically mentioning homeless and fireworks, which have a huge amount of complaints from residents. He lamented that there is “no safety net” for many frequent offenders, many who are homeless and/or mentally ill. He disclosed that there are 85 very high frequency offenders who take up a large amount of police time without real resolution of the problems. Some other speakers said more social service emphasis should be directed at such people and we didn’t hear Whitney disagreeing.

Whitney discussed things to help improve officers’ responses, such as force option training, to simulate stressful situations which might require the use of force, to let personnel learn how to react appropriately and test their abilities.

He greatly lamented the death of Alfonso Limon, Jr., who he did not call out by name, who ran into the crossfire between rival gangs and the police dept. and was killed by police. It was ruled accidental by an independent investigator, but the city paid the family $6.7MM, agreed to make certain changes and commemorates the event annually, by agreement.

He remarked that on the police mission to keep families safe, whites tend not to question that, but “darker” people question that, that he/OPD are doing their best to close that gap and seek partners to help. He stated that when police know the community and the community knows them, overreaction is less likely. He added that one of the problems in Ferguson was the stark racial disparity between the police and residents- people who look like you make cooperation more likely.

 

Whitney said they have changed some policies about how police do law enforcement in the schools and when to send kids to juvenile detention. Both have been softened considerably. He said school misbehavior will not be criminalized (but it does depend on what misconduct, he said), which has far from universal support.

Whitney pointed out that there are hundreds of firearms incidents and literally thousands of firearms-related situations in Oxnard annually and that the vast majority are resolved peacefully. He also said there are very few excessive police force complaints.

He noted the recent protests over police brutality, said they had been peaceful, that the police kept a low profile, even when hundreds of (nonviolent) protesters were screaming “PIGS! and more #$%*! outside the police station. He said protesters didn’t see many police officers but “we’re gonna protect them.”

He said that the addition of audio and video body cameras is good for police and the public alike.

He doesn’t favor defunding the police and thinks they are needed, but will work with whatever funding is provided and “be the best we can” with it. Whitney said that based on his interaction with neighborhoods, most want police there even more, not less. He said that if they were afraid, they would want less, not more.

Whitney went way over his allotted time (not unusual for him), but had a lot to say. But he became repetitious. The moderator let him go on, because, he said afterward, Whitney had things to say. But people sitting around me were becoming visibly impatient, uncomfortable and some were not buying his message, I gathered from some of the snide comments. Some of this came out later from the community speakers, which I will cover later in this article. This is not an opinion article, but I can say factually that he has been walking the talk. Consider that he was also a lightning rod for all resentment against the police- and he was there.

Contact Chief Whitney: [email protected]

 

Counselor Ross Fontes.

Mr Fontes who said he worked at Oxnard College, studied at Ventura College then went to UCSB. He remarked that he played football with Chief Whitney in high school, that Whitney had won a scholarship to Stanford, but then broke his leg.

He remembers a frightening incident in the 70’s when he lived in Compton as a “latchkey” kid, with parents not always around.  He came home to find his entire block was taped off by the police, who were rooting around in his yard and home with impunity, allegedly because his older brother was suspected of selling guns. When he dared to question them, asking a black officer if he had a warrant, the officer grabbed him by the neck and said he had no right to ask that (untrue). The brother ended up as a USC footballer, he said. His father described the kids as “little vampires,” who “slept all day, and went out at night, deciding to move them up to Oxnard, which was quieter and safer.

So, Fontes ended up going to UCSB and initially worked at the Youth Authority. He was shocked at how many people he knew were in there (“It was like a freakin’ family reunion”) and ultimately decided it wasn’t his line of work and left after two years. A brother of a friend was released and killed two weeks later. Friends were coming in droves because of the crack epidemic. He said he saw “race gangs,” racism and systemic oppression there first hand. Fontes believed many were “railroaded” in there via plea bargaining because they lacked the resources to defend themselves.

So he fled to CSUN to get his masters, worked at UCSB, then Oxnard College, teaching personal development, then as a counselor. There is prejudice in kids who will be police, doctors, lawyers and will influence our institutions, he declared, using the same narrative as some other speakers of the day. “Brown is definitely gonna be the new black around here”, he exclaimed.

Fontes claimed that 60% of the city budget is for police, that we ask a lot of them, that they are putting their hands on a dam ready to crack. He said we need more social services, not police officers trained for social services, but true social services people- “MSW’s”. Drugs and mental issues are a preponderance of problems for the police to deal with. They want to make the police even bigger. “The kid who called you a n*gger is now a police officer.” “We need officers with degrees” (Oxnard has quite a few of those, with more working on them) with knowledge of ethnic studies and anti-blackism. .

He cited an example of being at the Robinson’s/May mall with his friend Don. A “mall sheriff” was looking him over hard, then sped over to him in the parking lot, demanding they put their hands on the car. Don did it quickly, but Fontes hesitated, asking why. The officer got aggressive with him and “drew down” on him. Fontes took out his Youth Authority badge and immediately the conversation changed. Don later said “you could have gotten us killed.”

He said things are now almost at the same point as the 50’s or 60’s. People are appalled by the Floyd thing, but said there would have been clappers before, but perhaps there are silent clappers at home now. You can’t mandate ethics and morality, he told us. White people need need to have these conversations at the table.

He had special wrath for Candace Owens, who he said is spending her time discrediting Floyd as not  a martryr, not a hero, but he was the wick that lit the candle (loud applause).  Owens is an articulate, outspoken young black Christian Conservative woman who has been very critical of Floyd and cited his sorry record and some circumstances about and surrounding the incident that hadn’t been publicized. She has also focused more on what the black community can do on its own to make improvements, something less in evidence at today’s event. But regardless of how bad Floyd might have been, his death the way it happened is decried by nearly everyone who is speaking out.

Fontes said we need support not only from the police, but other institutions. He warned that the social contract is “breaking down,” “the top” is getting more and the poor less and regulated, so structural change is needed.

He minimized the role of Antifa as just a few nuts running around instigating riots and claims it is the system itself which is agitating people. Fix it or there will be revolution- the choice is ours- look at the data, look at our institutions, he intoned.

He mentioned the “misery index,” which is a different one than I learned. This one looks equally valid though and includes housing density, education, income, heavy police presence, crime rate- all bad in the south side of Oxnard- poverty still here. All these are neglected and need to be addressed.

Fontes wrapped up by telling the BLM protesters: “don’t let your posters get old.” Think about what to do afterward, every day, in concrete ways, people applying for jobs, in fear of police, etc.

 

Q&A

Jordan Ward then called for a Q&A session. His mechanism to do that was to bring on 8 community members and also throw out a few questions people had forwarded him….

Anthony Scott (read by Ward)- Cops on foot patrol knew the people, making it harder to mistreat them, easier to take on everyday matters. What happened to that?  Ward threw the question to Chief Whitney, who seemed to agree and regretfully conceded that community policing/foot patrols was a casualty of budget cuts (it is simply cheaper to put cops in cars and have them cover a wider area, faster). Whitney recalled that he had been assigned to the Colonia storefront station in 1992 and described it as working well. He said the police have become driven more by 911 calls dispatching now. More recently, with budget cuts made, the 13 neighborhood cops had to be assigned back to patrols.

Denise- Do senior officers think race sensitivity training is needed? Whitney- People in upper ranks do. Not sure about all the sergeants who might not even tell him.

Destiny- (To City Mgr. Nguyen)- Where does the $52 million dollar police budget from the state go- need an itemized list. Nguyen-  1) it’s all in the budget and proposed budgets on city website, 2)- money is local, not state.

Kingsley- Work with Police Activities League (PAL), for Terrell Harrison (Cultural and Community Services Director) – coach football, basketball, ran hip hop program. Race inequality here and is not just in the USA. He pointed out that (Chief) Scott said he only learned about institutional racism when he was 40. What does that say about the police dept., which shouldn’t be given a pass for that? The whole system of policing and what it is built on needs to be questioned. It’s built on racial inequalities, anti-blackness, systematic oppression. ” It stems from “slave patrolling”. We have to sit and listen to you guys say sometimes people make mistakes, but those type of mistakes should be nonexistent.  We sit here in oppression and when the white man in power talks we listen and sometimes we forget what really happened to George Floyd, because he’s talking now.Thanks for giving me the information, but that wasn’t good enough.  Because he’s the chief, we have to sit here and listen. We have to address those foundational things, those creeds you guys live by.Then you got somebody coming here as a cousin (Quentin Floyd), but he’s a former law enforcement officer.

You cops are involved in way too much in the city. A large percentage of shootings could have been dealt with something other than cops. We’ve been trained to call police for everything. Anything that freaks you out. We’ve taken on same mindset as the oppressor, but still think we have to call the police. You guys (police) are not saying what you’re doing wrong, not saying what you can do better, but just saying why you do what you do,. He pointed out the empty seats (it was sold out, with no-shows) as meaning people didn’t think this event is worth it. This is like a slap in the face for the people.

Eileen Valencia- Said she’s a lifelong social justice/environmentalist/farmworker rights advocate, moved to BLM movement. Said she has Bachelor’s, Masters, 3000 hrs social work. Black vet rights are not respected. She is afraid to have a black baby whose rights won’t be respected. Don’t know if law enforcement has mental  capacity to deal with violence, PTSD. (Megan) Hockaday was disarmed by her husband earlier, so why did a cop have to shoot her instead of just disarming her? (She was shot by an officer when she charged him with a knife while under influence of drugs). What has Whitney done to address police PTSD and cooperate with mental health services? They (cops) don’t react/respond well, don’t have community trust. You should take ownership over community concerns.

Ward read a question- What is going on to change the (police) academy?  Whitney- We give the best training available- 5-6 months, plus 4-5 months field training. Meets state requirements. Additional training could be done in academy or post–academy.

Pastor Greg Runyon- Works with at-risk kids. Was in prison 10 years. He profoundly changed because of a black man prisoner (Marcus Slaughter) who helped him.  He said he was also helped by a black police officer. Gave his life to work for Jesus after that. Dexter Nunnery was the right coach, not just a black coach. Need to dialog, sit, listen, change. What is PD. going to do to improve black treatment?

Dexter Nunnery- You are asking about things on (presentation) slides. This platform (event) lets out some frustration. There is gonna be a conversation. Something to do about it. OPD needs to put something on paper about it. There will be follow-up. Things like SB 1421 action.  Scott Whitney responded- who we hire mirrors the community. The best our community offers. Every employee owns some of it. Very little state and federal input. I did the best I could to make positive change.

Patricia True- Born 1955 in Beaumont, TX, which she described as highly racist- most segregated state in the union. Her mother told her about the KKK there. Black people still disappear there. Her nephew is in the Oxnard Police. She graduated Hueneme HS 1973, was a real militant “Angela Davis” wannabe. Saw people killed in the South. There were black and white water fountains, pools, laundromats. George Floyd video “was her father.” Lost cousins to gang violence. Police are human beings like anyone. Got to know some police in security at work- racist. Her husband is white- ex CHP. Police are quiet on racism. Police stop you, sometimes kill you. Lots of bad feeling. Police need serious training in US history, to understand history of what they (blacks?) have been through. Too much excessive force. Seen people killed by police who were in fear of their lives. She’s lived all over the world and the U.S. is still the best country. Racism is a cancer.  Improvements have to come from US grassroots, not the police.

Kyle Garza- HS English teacher in Westlake, highly involved in conversations with students. Police unions coming under heavy fire, being labeled wisely as a harmful system protecting bad apples- if research comes out that they are doing more harm than good. What would officers lose if unions become a thing of the past? Whitney said that under current CA law that is unlikely and that unions primarily represent members for compensation and working conditions issues, but clearly they advocate for members. Sees potential for state to change the law on personnel records and discipline. Garza wrote his own account of this event.

Unnamed woman- If pulled over, what is the plan to assured people won’t be mistreated with brutality because of being black?  She said her daughter was mistreated. They wanted to search her car and her rights were violated. Invoked Christ to establish that all must be love and treated fairly, and that all should follow his role model.Whitney responded that one of the best things we can do is to have good relations with the black community. If you feel confident in us and know us and vice versa it will go better. and that body cameras can be used to evaluate compliance with the law. So t;s relationships and we have to prove we are accountable to you,

An unidentified man stated that the Minneapolis police and DA weren’t initially doing anything to prosecute the officers responsible for killing Floyd even though it was on tape. Underlying conditions? Come on. let’s get serious. Black Lives. 

 

Analyis

In conclusion, the consensus of speakers seemed to be that the George Floyd killing, a murder to many, was only one more depressing milestone in a long series of racially motivated police violence/killings of blacks, especially black young men.  Statistics and research show that the actual numbers of unjustified killings are low and dropping significantly (but still exist and that’s still too many), but public perception doesn’t reflect that. This is all attributed to not just racist cops, but institutional, generational racism. Some BLM rhetoric has even opined that this racism is encoded in white DNA, but that didn’t come out in today’s session. Far more white people are killed under similar circumstances, but this rarely makes national news and there are no “white lives matter” protests or riots. The similar circumstances may indicate problems of how police in deal with conflict in general, especially with those who don’t react as they expect.

Interestingly, several speakers said that the US has made great progress in race relations, even among the best in the world, but they still feel it is quite bad. One speaker said  it’s still like the 50’s -60’s. Although the Oxnard Police Chief and City Manager both cited the city’s claimed strong commitment and results in reducing bias, there was some skepticism. Several years back, there was a string of people who died at the hands of police. No one came right out and advocated violent revolution, but more than one said or hinted that it could occur without proactive, fundamental change.

The discussion went far beyond just police racism and expanded to white institutional racism damaging black progress and even survival.

Not discussed were things black people could do on their own to improve the situation and other things holding them back.

There might have been more of a true dialogue via including people of more varied opinions, but maybe it’s too soon for that. In any event, this event served as a good vehicle for aggrieved people to discuss their concerns and for two key city officials to respond to them.

It seemed that some people there were expecting OPD Chief Whitney to speak for all police and were frustrated when he limited his discussion to claims of very good progress, wisely sticking to his own department. He only discussed a single fatal incident several years back. The biggest problems we hear about are handling of gang members/gang injunctions and homeless.

We have seen big differences in perceptions, by race and politics. The fault lines cut across levels and types of faith and political leanings.

———————-

So far the only other account of this event we have seen is by Kyle Garza on Facebook.

We note the presence at the event of Mayor Tim Flynn, Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramirez, Councilman Bert Perello, Assistant Police Chief Eric Sonstegard and Assistant Chief Jason Benitez.. There might have been other officials, but it was difficult to identify them in masks, from the back.

Organizers were offering these masks to event attendees:

 


George Miller is Publisher/Co-Founder of CitizensJournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant residing in Oxnard.

Get Citizensjournal.us Headlines free  SUBSCRIPTION. Keep us publishing – DONATE

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *