At the Whittier City Council Special Meeting on Monday, January 6, public attendance was among the largest witnessed in recent years. The meeting was called in reaction to the tragic and apparently drug-related death of a member of the Parnell Park community on New Year’s Eve (the coroner has not yet issued a report).
I attended the Council meeting with a few unhoused friends from Parnell Park who somehow found the courage to come and speak. Watching them weep while their dead friend’s mother spoke was hard enough. It was harder to watch them endure cruel and unjust Public Comment.
The rhetoric around homelessness in Whittier has become uncivil. “Criminal addicts” has been promoted as a synonym for “homeless”. Words we heard in Public Comment at City Council on Monday included “trash”, “scum”, and “those people”. Overheard: “Did you bring your pitchforks and knives?” Mayor Joe Vinatieri himself has used the word “blight” in his campaign re-election materials to describe our unhoused neighbors.
Lynette from Parnell is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, very vulnerable, and in need of services that are short in supply. Unfortunately, she walked out of Council Chambers alone after her Public Comment, and people sitting in the downstairs lobby screamed at her to get out of Parnell, that she was a bad person. She ran crying into the night. I don’t know if she’s okay. I haven’t seen her since.
In the Public Comment line, I recognized two young women from their retail work in Uptown. After the fact, they told me they were harassed and taunted just outside of Council Chambers by an adult man. A friend who stepped in to de-escalate the situation said later that people around them were chuckling with enjoyment. Three policemen stood a few yards away, oblivious.
Bullying, intimidation, and threats toward people exercising their right to express themselves at Public Comment is unacceptable. Allowing an unsafe environment to thrive at City Hall is a violation of this right. Failure to address and eliminate this unsafe environment is disenfranchisement.
Council: Let’s implement a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and hate speech at City Hall.
Content Warning: If any children are reading this opinion, please cover your eyes. I’m about to use a word that your parents would prefer you not learn.
If an angry person walked up to the microphone at Public Comment and said, “Fuck these fucking people and their fucking problems,” they would be reprimanded quickly and firmly. There are civility standards for speaking at Public Comment.
Civility standards also include hate speech. Calling a marginalized human being “trash” should get the same reaction as “fuck”. Maintain civility. Do not allow these comments to pass. Let the speaker and the audience know that it is not acceptable, every time, loud and clear.
The dangerous and lawless mood of the hallway outside of Council Chambers is influenced by the lack of control over folks making noise. People aren’t supposed to clap, holler, laugh, or make any noise at City Hall during Council meetings. Nonetheless, all these noises are tolerated.
Council Members: Think about a judge with a gavel. If you disrespect her court with your noise, she may give you a warning, but she’ll throw you out of the courtroom if you don’t knock it off. Be persistent in maintaining order. End the clapping and hollering. You can instruct your officers and staff to give those in the hall notice, too.
Implement policies that provide equal protection for everyone attending Council meetings. How we treat the marginalized shows just how civilized our society is.