Protesters Allege Racism At El Cajon City Hall
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. El Cajon has become a melting pot of culture in recent years. The Latino population has grown in the number of Iraqi immigrants and Iraqi-Americans have increased dramatically protesters at yesterday's city Council meeting say that the city's power structure including the City Council, does not reflect that diversity. The accusations is that minorities are not treated fairly in El Cajon. Protesters say that they want some representation. Here to talk with us about this is Bill Wells. Welcome to the program. BILL WELLS: Thank you for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mark Arabo is head of the neighborhood association in El Cajon. Welcome to the program. The city Council meetings lasted nearly two hours with speakers protesting what they felt was unfair treatment by city leaders. What sparked this protest? Why did you decide to come together and do this? MARK ARABO: It's been a long time coming. It's been a few years of insensitive comments to minorities that are factual and sourced and we're happy that yesterday Mark Lewis did admit to one of the comments to say that he did make the statement, but said it differently. We all want the same thing. We all want El Cajon diverse. We are on the same page. Want someone to bring out love in the city community and not targeting this group or that group, because at the end of the day we are all children of God. We're all Americans and want to celebrate our differences, not attack them. Yesterday was, the only thing unfortunate was a few Council members changing the subject. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I will get to that. I want to talk about the comments that you referenced from a published progressive magazine. What the progressive magazine published was that Lewis has said ìsome school children who received free lunches are being picked up by Mercedes-Benz. They come over here and it doesn't take them long to learn where all the freebies are.î That is a quote from Mayor Mark Lewis, who acknowledged that he made those comments. I'm wondering, Bill Wells what is your reaction? BILL WELLS: Well I had not heard him make those comments, but he said that, and it's in indefensible. It's really does not make much sense to say something like that. It's excessive. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see you're distancing yourselves from those comments. So I'm wondering, you told protestors yesterday that there's no institutional racism. I want you to explain how do you prove that point? BILL WELLS: Well I think we proved that point last night over and over. At the council meeting. People came up and said that they felt there is racism and discrimination happening, and I just said very plainly, please tell me what policies we have enacted or what laws enforced that have made you feel discriminated against? Time and time again, nobody could say anything. This is really just based on emotion and my point was that this is very dangerous. Racism is a very serious problem in America but if there really isn't a problem you can set relations back by decades. You can cause violence and who knows what other consequences. I take it very seriously. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay Mark Arabo, point to some policy that shows that there is a bias against minority communities. MARK ARABO: Sure. The easiest thing is to point out things that they've made. Just from Mayor pro- tem saying that I distance myself from it, we would like all people from City Council to publicly denounce Mark Lewis' statement and start asking for an apology. They are saying that best suited that the tone would be a lot different. There's absolutely no political gain whatsoever here, this is racism. Racism is alive today and is a real issue and we're talking about facts. Certain people and Mark Lewis targeting the Chaldean culture. The piece of this group publicly demotes it. At first they said he didn't say it. He admitted he said it, it would be great if we could all come together and say Mark Lewis, we retract your statement and now apologize. One way of bringing more minorities to the table and asking for is this districtwide geographic elections like the city of San Diego and Chula Vista. San Diego is so diverse, it has the only African-American female representing, the first openly gay mayor. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me take your first point. Mayor Wells, do you want to ask Mayor Lewis to retract his statements? BILL WELLS: Certainly. That statement is indefensible. He should not of made it, he should apologize for it. But I really think that we miss the point. I think Mark just made my point again. You cannot come up with one cause. You have to keep this racism charge out of it. You said there is racism within the city; you need to point to some kind of policy. MARK ARABO: One thing we know if you visit NewElCajon.org, there were three different instances. We all want the same thing. I want to thank you Bill for announcing it in apologetic. If Mark Lewis apologizes today, we can together and we work hard together to make the whole city good, we're happy. Want to put this behind us. BILL WELLS: Mark, I can work with you to make that happen. I cannot force anything but I can certainly plan on it. MARK ARABO: I can tell you right now I got a call from Bonnie Dumanis' office. They are going to release a statement today about unity and celebrating diversity. I can tell you today that I have numerous phone calls from a lot of public officials in San Diego saying that Mark Lewis should apologize. Hearing that from my good friend Bill Wells, that is refreshing because we want to move forward and make El Cajon diverse for everybody and really instill love, unity and peace. Celebrate differences, don't attack them. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask ñ oh, go ahead Bill. BILL WELLS: I would like to say that ñ can we all agree that there are no racist policies or laws that can be evidenced in El Cajon? MARK ARABO: We see statements that are made ñ BILL WELLS: I was talking about separate from the statement of an individual, Mark you know I would be shocked if you had any kind of negative statement from me, I do make statements like that but I want to keep it in, make sure people understand that the City Council works very hard to include all people. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, there are increasing numbers of minorities in El Cajon but is by some of estimates, nearly 50% of the population of El Cajon is minority groups. Why is that not reflected on the City Council? BILL WELLS: We have not had a Chaldean on the council but I am certain that will happen. We have several Hispanic members. For one thing, our second-highest legislative body ñ which is our planning commission ñ we have appointed two Chaldeans, one of which is a woman. I think we have shown diversity. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Mark, you want to the city to move to district elections to ensure some kind of diversity that you see on the City Council of San Diego. MARK ARABO: San Diego, Chula Vista did last year and we're trying to avoid ñ we do not want El Cajon to be the Escondido of the east county. There's an easy fix ñ districtwide geographic elections. Everyone gets better representation. Better diversity and more minorities on the Council. That is the easiest fix; the Council can do it. Put it on the ballot for districtwide geographic election so each geography has a Council member representative. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Bill Wells is that something the City Council can entertain? Putting that on the ballot for districtwide factions? BILL WELLS: That is a possibility but we would have to look about it. I think that it's more about governing than diversity. We have to look overlook a lot of different factors. I'm not so sure that is proven that districtwide cities are good thing. When you have citizens going voting in the district, the only focus is on that one district. We saw the mess of San Diego is result of that. I think there's a good argument to be made that ñ aside from diversity issue ñ there is not a lot of good governing involved in a districtwide election. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Were talking about terms of Escondido a while back. It seems to be growing diversity of cities in California that district elections seem to be a growing trend. Even though it doesn't strike you as a cure-all, will you and the Council will consider this? BILL WELLS: In the end we are representatives of people. If the people want this, we will do it. We're not looking to go to war with anybody. If that's what we need to do to provide fairness we will. We won't be bullied into doing that just because it is a trend, however. I think it we have to study it and look at it and get a good sense of what's at stake here. MARK ARABO: I appreciate that, the big thing is we're at a point where actions speak louder than everything. If we could champion the cause, and put on the agenda and go for districtwide geographic elections and get diversity on the Council. Match constituents to members. People look at these differently. Diversity, yes there is more to governing than to diversity. But diversity is a huge part. We are at a crossroads. Best way to show that we're united Americans. If we go together and put it on the ballot, district wide geographical elections. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you if ñ a council member claimed this ñ that your protest yesterday, it actually is about an ordinance that cracks down on liquor sales to underage customers in Chaldean stores? MARK ARABO: It's not and it's very shameful that they said that. And they went back for two minutes and tried to change the story. They tried to change the subject to not talk about facts. Mark Lewis mad three statements, in 2011and 2013. Yesterday they went from saying Mark Lewis never said this to yes he did say this. The thing to do now is unite and heal the city. This city is for everybody. Everyone should have a seat at the table. Get the citizens to vote, geographic elections or not. That will solve everything. If he publicly apologizes and may denounce it, we will move forward. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me wrap it up by asking a question. The change in the demographics of El Cajon have been slow, but they've seemed to be increasing rapidly in recent years. Are some people in El Cajon that just really haven't kept up with that? The they look at the old El Cajon and want to keep it that way? BILL WELLS: Truthfully I don't. I think elections are fair. I haven't had anybody complainant to me about it. Our major demographic complaint that we have had was Hispanic. We usually have had Hispanic representation on the Council. According to the consensus, the geographic of Chaldeans as far as I understand are in the same category as Caucasians. We have about 25% Hispanic population and about 10% African-American. I would like to see more of those folks run. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It sounds like this is an ongoing story. I want to thank you both for the conversation today, it was remarkable. BILL WELLS: Mark is a gentleman and a friend. MARK ARABO: Bill, thank you for everything. There have been posts on Facebook, nasty stuff going around. Bill, if you would help me to denounce every statement. I hope that we showed unity in the sense that we do not want hate spread. BILL WELLS: These are things to debate, not divide over. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have to wrap up there, thank you.
A rally was staged at the El Cajon Civic Center on Tuesday to call for equality and acceptance of minorities.
Protesters claim the mayor of El Cajon recently made racially insensitive comments and has excluded minorities from city politics. They say El Cajon council members, four Caucasian males, are also guilty because of their inaction.
In a May 2013 issue of The Progessive magazine, El Cajon Mayor Mark Lewis was quoted as saying, some Chaldean schoolchildren who receive free lunches are “being picked up by Mercedes Benzes. First time, they come over here, it doesn’t take them too long to learn where all the freebies are at.”
El Cajon is one of the most diverse communities in the county with nearly 50 percent of its population made up of minorities, including 10,000 newly arrived Chaldean refugees from Iraq.
"Fifty years after King’s speech, racism is well alive in our community,” said Mark Arabo, a Chaldean American and president of the Neighborhood Market Association.
Arabo, a lifelong East County resident, said Chaldeans were unfairly singled out in a federal raid of a nightclub in 2011 and last year they were targeted in a card room ordinance.
"It’s a culture of the city council and the mayor of El Cajon not accepting diversity, not accepting minorities, and women and everyone in general. And we want a new El Cajon," Arabo said.
Lewis could not be reached for comment, but Mayor Pro Tem Bill Wells said they are not running an institution of racism.
“I can categorically tell you that is absolutely not true,” Wells said. "We have a city council, which is elected by the people. So we don’t choose the city council, the people choose the city council," Wells said.
"The places we do make choices is in our planning commission, our veterans commission, and I can tell you those commissions are very diverse," he added.
Wells said two of the five seats on the planning commission are Chaldeans, and one of those is a woman.
Arabo said they are in talks with the ACLU and they'll continue rallying until the issue is resolved.
"And we’re going to do it legally, whether it be a charter amendment, whether it be a lawsuit through the ACLU," Arabo said.