An Open Letter to the Cities of Clayton, Concord, Their Police Departments and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office

I am writing to you today regarding the peaceful protest against police brutality that was held in downtown Clayton on June 2nd. As you may recall, once the 6pm curfew started, police from a variety of agencies sent smoke and tear gas into the crowds in order to disperse them.

I am a citizen and homeowner who has lived in Concord, CA for more than 15 years. Like most Americans, I have watched with deep concern and anger the growing unrest happening across the nation. What started with a call for justice for the wrongful death of George Floyd has evolved into a massive referendum against the brutality experienced by American citizens at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve us. These instances of unwarranted violence have been well documented for years, but little has been done to address the underlying issues that cause it systemically.

In recent days as I have continued to shelter in place during a worldwide pandemic, I have watched in horror as police agencies in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles and other municipalities have responded to protests against police brutality with more police brutality, often in full view and awareness of the cameras. I have decried this and naively thanked God it was happening “over there” and not here.

That is, until I tuned into on June 2nd. You can view the video in question yourself here:

The videos captured by the KPIX news crew around the time the 6pm curfew started in Clayton clearly show peaceful protesters – most of them apparently high-school aged – in defiance of orders to disperse. Their defiance took the form of standing their ground and shouting at the officers – no actual physical violence of any kind can be detected here.

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A Different Perspective on Obama’s Financing Decision

Everyone’s all abuzz about Obama eschewing public campaign financing because his own fundraising abilities should exceed the $84.1 million he’d be limited to by accepting public campaign finance. The Chronicle’s conservative columnist Debra J. Saunders, like just about every other conservative out there, excoriates him for this decision in today’s column.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t see what the big deal is. I realize that public financing is intended to limit the kinds of favors-driven financing that haunts most political campaigns, but it is a wildly imperfect system. The existence of so-called 527s – political organizations not tied to a particular campaign, but with the ability to stump for a particular candidate – all but makes the public financing system purely symbolic. It’s rather nice in theory that McCain has committed to sticking with public financing, but it won’t stop McCain supporters from using 527s to attack Obama without recourse. Remember John Kerry and the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth“? Tell me Karl Rove wasn’t directly involved in that.

Even without the existence of 527s, I tend to think public financing is a lousy idea. The money comes from that extra $3 you voluntarily send off with your tax return to help finance presidential campaigns. I never check that box – I think they should finance their own campaign, and I voice that opinion by not contributing to that fund.

And that’s ultimately why I’m against the idea of public financing. As Americans living in a capitalist society, we often speak with our money. If we don’t support what a company is doing with their business, we simply don’t patronize them. And if we don’t support a candidate, we certainly won’t contribute to their campaign. On the flip side, if we love a business, we become loyal customers. Likewise, if we love a candidate or a cause or what have you, we freely send off our checks.

If a candidate can not build the kind of loyal support that a well-financed campaign represents, that’s tough luck. I do vote with my dollars and don’t think there needs to be an even playing field for campaign spending – if one candidate has a stronger war chest than another, that indicates to me that they either have a lot of loyalists willing to donate to their campaign or have a number of powerful, wealthy allies.

This is a very Republican point of view, I realize, in large part because Republicans are traditionally more business friendly and, therefore, get a lot more wealthy donors. If that’s the case and the Democrats are concerned about not having that money, they clearly need to spend more time appealing to those businesses and listening to their needs. Or, they can do what Obama has done and inspire millions so much that they become campaign contributors. And, yes, this method of financing is fraught with potential for fraud – the old money-for-favors thing. Any reformation of campaign finance rules must allow for complete and total openness of campaign finances. Every cumulative donation over, say, $20 must be reported and kept in a publicly accessible file so that anyone can verify the donors. Note I said “cumulative”. If I give Obama $19 every week, by the second week my total contributions should be on that list and maintained as I give him more of my money.

This information should be digitized and made freely available in an online database in plain text so that it’s easy to search. Donors concerned about having their privacy violated simply should not donate – you must understand that by giving money you implicitly allow your full name, city and state to be posted publicly along side the total amount you gave.

A system such as this already exists, and it is possible to search through it, but the minimum reporting amount is rather high and there are all kinds of ways to skirt around the limits. Campaign finance reform should focus less on limiting contributions from the public – let the voters speak with their wallets – and more on making the entire process far more transparent. After all, not everyone disagrees with the favors for votes mentality. If the winds of society shift in a manner that such a system becomes acceptable, the government shouldn’t necessarily hold that back. It is the responsibility of the people and – more importantly – the press to keep these candidates honest. Laws making this difficult are counter productive to a genuinely democratic society. So, instead of carping about raising funds outside the governmentally-provided system, John McCain – Mr. Campaign Reform himself – should put more of his energy into making information about contributions accessible to the public. Otherwise, what does he have to hide?

Barack Hussein Obama and the Lies of Ethnicity

I will tell you now that I have not read any of Barack Obama’s books, but I have heard him speak many times on race and have read much about what he has written in his own words about his experiences as a bi-racial man in America. Obama’s mother is white, his father black and a true African native. Obama’s father left them when Obama was quite young, so much of Obama’s early experiences had him identifying more with his white side than his Black.

Things changed when he got older. The color of his skin clearly marked him as non-white. There’s an email going around apparently, covered over at Snopes, that contains a number of quotes from his books that reflect his feelings about being black. Quotes like, “I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites” and “It remained necessary to prove which side you were on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and name names.”

The history of black America is one of constant struggle and, in many ways, humiliation at the hands of other people who just happen to have lighter skin. Slavery gave way to blacks being considered 3/5ths of a man, which gave way to the civil war, which resulted in Jim Crow laws, segregation, poll taxes and literally hundreds of other methods intended to marginalize, intimidate and otherwise “put the black race in their place.” I believe amongst many non-blacks that there’s a sense that they should just get over it. Unfortunately, many of these laws were still on the books up until the late 1960s and the animosity felt on either side of the racial fence has not yet had the time to fully leave our collective systems. Thus, “getting over it” is much, much harder than it looks.

Obama’s personal struggle with his ethnic identity and his eventual sense of militancy is a direct reflection of the time and place in history in which he lived. In other words, there are few things more quintessentially American than an angry black man in the 60s and 70s. And why not? We still feel the reverberations of not only the Watts riots in 1965, but also the L.A. riots of 1992. If you truly believe there’s no more racism in this country, I urge you to visit the iron triangle in Richmond, California – a place dominated by poor blacks still paying the price for this nation’s history of institutionalized racism.

I know terms like “institutionalized racism” because I spent five years at UC Berkeley, the home of all kinds of riots and protests held throughout the past 40 plus years. When I was still in high school and applying to colleges, I had a bit of a dilemma to face. My father is a mixture of Mexican and Basque. My last name, Zazueta, is actually a Basque name, heralding from a region in Europe near the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. It is, however, widely recognized as a hispanic name and, when I was 17, I received a number of bilingual letters and scholarship offers geared specifically toward helping latino students – presumed by their race alone to be disadvantaged – attain a college education. I was, in fact, named by my high school as one of their top latino scholars with a newspaper picture and everything. That was among the more confusing and conflicted times in my life at that point because, though my father was indeed Mexican and, as I like to tell people, “Zazueta ain’t just a fancy name,” I was clearly not in the disadvantaged crowd they were trying to target.

I wasn’t a wealthy white kid by any means, but my family was fairly solidly lower-middle class. I was clearly on a path to college pretty much from birth and had every possible opportunity handed to me. Because I also happened to be of hispanic heritage, I had an extra helping of opportunities piled on my plate that my mostly white and asian friends did not. When I would point this out to those making the offers, they would simply tell me to take what I could get – I was hispanic and, by that alone, I deserved these additional opportunities.

Getting into a good college was extremely important to the crowd I ran with in high school – more important than anything else. I remember clearly when my then girlfriend, like all but two of the 20 or so students in my class who applied, got rejected from Stanford, her dream school. I genuinely thought she was becoming suicidal as a result. With all that going on and my own sense that this was the single most important thing I had to do in my life, I marked “Hispanic” under the ethnicity box on all six of the applications I filled out with the understanding that it would improve my chances. I was accepted to USC, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Boston University and Cal Poly SLO. The only school to reject me was Stanford, which came as no surprise. I was, naturally, ecstatic and gladly shared this with my friends, many of whom were not as lucky. I was never what you might call a star student academically, but I did quite well on my SATs and advanced placement exams and can write a mean essay. Knowing my GPA, however, I got the same response from most of my friends – “You only got in because you’re Mexican.” That was deflating.

For various reasons, Boston University was my first choice for schools, but I hadn’t really expected to get into Berkeley and, as I thought it through, I decided I’d be happier there. That August, I arrived on campus and moved in to the dorm. When I signed up for classes, I was required to take one to fulfill what they called the “American Cultures Requirement” – essentially a class that covers a wide range of the major ethnicities that are found in the US in an attempt to give us some appreciation for our nation’s multiculturalism. The residence hall I was living in held several sessions where we talked about ethnicity and how important it is to respect ourselves and each other. Even the freshman orientation session has a mandatory unit covering multiculturalism where we were strongly encouraged to share our experiences with racism and explore our own ethnic identity.

I later joined the freshman orientation team, called Cal Student Orientation or “CalSO” for short, as a counselor for new students and their parents. During the summer training, we spend an intense week living together and learning for about 12 hours a day all of the ropes of life at Cal and what information we’re supposed to share with the new students. One of these learning sessions was held with Dr. Francie Kendall, a huge friend of the CalSO program and an expert in ethnic, sexual and other social issues. For one extremely intense, emotional day we discussed at length our identities – from ethnicity to cultural, to sexual orientation to gender – and watched videos talking about racism, intense sexism, feminist theory and other weighty topics. I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t feel a little like brainwashing. We learned during one such session that more than one of the women in our group had been raped at some point in their life and that we were the first people they ever told. We experienced first hand the anger certain ethnic groups felt as they expressed their views and got into rather intense, heated arguments with those who were of a race they felt looked down upon them. Through it all, we were encouraged to strongly identify with our backgrounds and own them while respecting each other. While I do sort of feel like I’m a better man for having gone through that, I don’t believe it was necessary.

Cal is full of ethnically-related organizations. MeChA was a big force on our campus and they sponsored an engineering tutorial program open to everyone but geared toward latino students that I was consistently encouraged to join. When I arrived, though, no one looked like me. Many spoke to each other in Spanish, a language I passed up in high school in favor of learning Latin. And, though everyone was welcoming and friendly, I just didn’t feel like I fit in. Again, I felt like the privileged white kid taking an opportunity from someone who really needed it.

And yet I identified with my Mexican heritage, desperately clinging to it and trying to justify it to myself and others even though I really didn’t have much of a tangible sense of it. The most exposure I got to my Mexican half was attending the huge family parties my aunt Nena held with her six children and their spouses, significant others and children. They were clearly Mexican – let there be no doubt. But even amongst my own family I felt like an outsider, very non-Mexican despite my name and parentage.

Fast forward to just two years ago. Shortly after my mother died, my father told me that, from a biological standpoint, he’s not technically my father. He had assured me at the time that I was still Mexican, but a close family friend later revealed that this was also not true. Apparently, when looking through the catalog of potential sperm donors, my mother did not find an ethnic match she particularly liked, so she chose a man with mostly Italian heritage who also happened to be extremely healthy and successful as a doctor.

For all of the urging that I identify with my ethnicity (notice I only mentioned the word “culture” once – it was always more important to everyone that I have Mexican blood rather than have a genuinely Mexican cultural experience) and all of the internal struggles I’ve dealt with in regards to my “Mexican-ness” it turns out I may not have a single drop of Mexican blood in my veins to begin with. It turns out that my ethnicity is, ultimately, a completely irrelevant issue. You can not imagine my anger at this realization.

So to listen to Barack Hussein Obama’s detractors attack him on the front of him exploring his ethnic background, of dragging out the fact that parts of his family are Muslim (on the whole, an extremely peaceful and pious people marred by a handful of marginalized extremists) and trying to paint him as an angry black man makes me one hell of an angry Irish-Italian-formerly Mexican man. The issues of his race are completely and totally irrelevant, as it seems he himself has come to realize as he has worked his way through his own black anger and come to recognize that his own ethnicity does not define him, it simply accentuates him. Being black is part of his American experience, and to be black and not have some anger fed by the racism that continues to be felt throughout this nation, albeit less obviously than before, is to be someone who is simply not paying attention. But he is paying attention, and he is saying to us that we need to get past this. He knows it’s easier said than done, and the racism inherent in such things as the warning email posted at Snopes makes it all the more difficult. Despite it’s incredible irrelevance, race and ethnicity will always be an issue in this and every election, just as it has been at issue in every election that has addressed slavery, reconstruction, segregation and immigration. Racism is among the more truly American hallmarks, which is a tremendously sad thing to say. But it’s an identity we must eventually own and come to terms with if we can ever hope to get past it.