By Kevin Harris
The Thousand Oaks City Council passed an “anti-hate” resolution in response to a hate group’s protest on a local freeway overpass on February 12. A solo project by Council Member Claudia-Bill de la Pena, the resolution denounces racism and white supremacy and declares the city’s inclusiveness and tolerance for all races, sexual orientations, and religions, among other things.
Item 13A) Council Member Recommendations: Anti-Hate Resolution
“Resolution reaffirming findings in accordance with city council Goal No. 1 authorizing an official position against bigotry, white supremacy, anti-semitism, hate speech in the city of Thousand Oakland its subordinate bodies.”
The resolution was created and presented to the city council by Council Member Claudia Bill-de la Pena, who noted that she was “extremely disturbed by the white supremacy, Neo Nazi incident on February 12 over the overpass.” (Borchard Road / 101 overpass). She claimed that the group that was on the bridge used a drone to record their protest to make a recruitment video.
“This event was probably the most direct, recent expression of bigotry in our community,” de la Pena said, before referencing the previous Westboro Baptist Church protest and the Borderline shooting in 2018, as well as the vandalizing of Black Lives Matter signs on Westlake Blvd., Hitler speeches broadcast at a local high school, and racist, fake dollar bills left on the lawn of the Civic Arts Plaza last June.
“No matter how great a community like ours is, we’re not immune from hatred, or even, as we saw, from white supremacy or Neo Nazi extremists,” she said, before running through a list of national hate crime statistics showing some crimes to be increasing. “I’m not saying with this resolution that Thousand Oaks is a racist town. I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is that we can no longer remain silent, and that is why I brought this forth,” de la Pena said.
The former Thousand Oaks mayor, who said she is running for office, asked those who question her motives for pushing this resolution, “when is a good time to stand up to white supremacy?” She said that her job ends at the end of this year, and that she will continue to do her job to the end, regardless of the fact that she’s running for office as well. She also mentioned wanting to form a sort of “diversity roundtable” at the city staff level, to analyze local progress on diversity issues. De la Pena insists that this entire discussion should have been had a year ago.
City Council Questions/Comments
Council Member Kevin McNamee asked the city legal team if the resolution has gone through, and received approval from them, and legal review in general. According to City Attorney Tracy Noonan, the resolution did not go through a normal review, though she also said that “city staff doesn’t make policy, we implement policy.” But according to Noonan, “I did not go over the resolution in detail.”
McNamee then followed up by asking Noonan if the resolution passes, “is there the force of law behind it? Is there any way people can be arrested for hate speech or anything of that nature?”
Noonan: “The resolution, based on my review of it, is more of a public denouncement of hate speech. In case you are not aware, hate speech is protected speech under the First Amendment. The government can not control content of speech, so every person has the right to express their opinions, and that’s the First Amendment in a nutshell. You can not criminalize expression.”
There were at least 50 public speakers registered to present remotely. Each one was given two minutes to speak. Following is a representation of those speakers:
Desta Gainer: Thousand Oaks resident. Supports the resolution, and believes it should be backed by action and not just words. “We need to be beyond welcoming. We need to be safe. We need to help take care of our neighbors’ basic safety,” she urged the council.
Sally Hibbitts: Thousand Oaks resident since 1972, representing the American Association of University Women. Supports the resolution and believes everyone should speak out against hate speech.
Caleb Standiper: Newbury Park resident, 29 years. Opposes the resolution, and doesn’t believe it is the job of government to try to make us feel better when an ignorant group offends us with hate speech. “Imagine ignoring them. The people of Thousand Oaks will not be intimidated or persuaded by these yahoos. City council, don’t take the bait,” he said. He also suggested that the freedom of speech is sometimes messy.
Joel Mancuso: Conejo Valley resident, 23 years. Opposes the resolution. “In my opinion, the treatment of the hateful banner has given it the attention the hate group was looking for. You gave it life. One hanging sign on an overpass was all it took,” she said. She said she was disappointed when she saw the city council was taking up this issue. “Conejo Valley does not have a hate issue.” Ms. Mancuso called the resolution “political theater” that was created around an isolated issue.
Rosanna Gara: Thousand Oaks resident since 1993. Supports resolution. Listed several examples of local hate incidents that took place since the pandemic began. “We must say ‘NO’ to any group that has hate as part of their mantra.”
Sean Meridian: Opposes the resolution because he believes it doesn’t go far enough, and that it is just a political gimmick. He then accused de la Pena (not by name) of acting in an anti-Semitic manner against a local family, in conjunction with Linda Parks (by name). “Once our elected representatives are held accountable for their actions, the rest of us will take resolutions like this more seriously. Until then, please stop manipulating our community,” he said.
Charles Willhite: Newbury Park resident, 38 years. Opposes the resolution. Does not believe racial hate is a serious problem in the Conejo Valley. “This kind of stuff (anti-hate resolution) only leads to division,” and he warned about the “next steps” such as committees and pitting race against race. He pointed out that we’re divided enough already by the pandemic, such as the conflicts over vaccines and masks. “This is a time to bring us together, and not go down this ugly path. Please vote against this.”
Tim Toton: Opposes the resolution, and calls it a “racist slander against the people of Thousand Oaks and Ventura County.” Does not believe there is a serious local racial hate problem and suggested that the resolution is politically motivated.
David Newman: Thousand Oaks resident and Planning Commission Chair (speaking as a private citizen). Supports the resolution. “There is a temptation to treat this repugnant event as an isolated incident and to just ignore it. But it wasn’t isolated. The white supremacist flash mob here in Thousand Oaks was one of many that day across the state and the nation,” he said. He also said that last year alone, one in 4 Jews reported being victims of hate crimes, according to the American Jewish Committee.
“This should be the easiest vote you make all year.”
Council Member Response / Discussion
Council Member Kevin McNamee: Said he doesn’t accept or tolerate racism, bigotry or white supremacy. “I condemn it,” he said. But he also admitted that as a freedom issue, as much as he deplores hate speech, they have the freedom to say it.
“A resolution like this will not change the hearts or minds of white supremacists, or bigots, or racists,” McNamee said. “Even if you enacted this last year, it would not have changed what occurred a few days ago on the freeway overpass with the signs….
My challenge here is that this is not a well written resolution. It has not gone through the process, it has not seen a legal review. The city procedures need to be done. I need to protect the city from its legal review to make sure that we’re not at risk. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to what terrible thing happened last week. I want it done right,” McNamee added.
McNamee said that he is unable to support the resolution as it is, but he also said that he will not vote against it, lest residents might view him as a racist. As such, he said he will abstain from voting on it.
Mayor Pro Tem Ed Jones: Asked de la Pena to read the entire resolution since he didn’t have it in front of him. After she did, he commented that while he supports her intentions and ideas fully, he thinks it is too wordy and “needs a rewrite.” He said he will support it either way but that he’d feel better about it if it was rewritten.
Council Member Al Adam: Said while he completely agrees with the sentiments of denouncing racism and white supremacy, “is it going to make a hater stop hating? No, I don’t think so.” But he also said there are things the council can do, such as “support people that are targets of this to show some solidarity with them. To create equal opportunity with them here in Thousand Oaks.”
Adam also wanted to message local residents that when they do run into incidents of hate crimes or hate speech, the city wants to keep track of the incidents, and urges you to call the following phone number to report the incident: 805-654-9511.
Adam said he will support the resolution, but that is all he’s willing to entertain on the issue at this time, meaning he does not want to proceed further with de la Pena’s agenda of establishing a “roundtable committee” or any other extensions of the resolution.
Mayor Bob Engler: “I hope we can pass this resolution tonight, because to not pass this tonight would send a message. And it sends the wrong message,” the Mayor said. Engler also said that while the resolution will not change the minds of any committed racists, it will those who were targets of racism, and those marginalized, feel like they are welcomed community members. “I’m hoping we can get a 5-0 vote on this because it is the right thing to do,” he said.
The Mayor also said that moving forward, such items should be worked on as a team, which he called “our normal order,” rather than have one member bring it to the council, as was done tonight.
The vote was 4-0 in favor of the anti-hate resolution, with Council Member McNamee abstaining.
The next Thousand Oaks City Council meeting will be on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, at 6:00 PM. The URL to watch the meetings back and to download a meeting agenda is https://toaks.primegov.com/public/portal.
Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists, and having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also an author and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks.