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Emotions flame in Boulder Council chambers during racial equity discussion

Community members make charged response to controversial Nagle comments

Mirabai Nagle waves to the crowd during the swearing in of Boulder City Council members elected or re-elected in during a ceremony in the Boulder City Council Chambers in 2017.
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Councilwoman Mirabai Nagle remained silent for nearly two hours Tuesday as more than a dozen statements were made on the state of systemic racism in Boulder, including by her colleagues from the dais.

After drawing sharp rebukes from community members for her comments on race made during the mayoral and mayor pro tem selection process late last month, Nagle was accused of ignoring the significant role white male privilege has played in Boulder and American history, and its present impact.

The councilwoman also drew support for the comments since they were made in response to members of the public requesting one of the Council members who is not a white man be given a shot at the mayor or mayor pro tem roles, despite that only Councilmen Sam Weaver and Bob Yates threw their hats in the ring for the respective leadership positions.

“You have pigmentation that you can’t help, and you have genders you can’t help, but you’re being lumped into the white male (demographic),” Nagle said last month. “Every single race on this planet has in some way been … ” she paused, before finishing, “has had something horrible happen to them at some point in our history. For us to be lumping you into white males, I’m sorry, I’ve had it, it’s obnoxious.”

In the days since, Nagle has admitted she could have been “more eloquent,” and also penned a Camera op-ed that called a critical editorial by the newspaper’s opinion editor unfair for not including the fact she said, “I’m a white female, but I’m also Jewish,” before the comments that sparked outrage among some residents.

“Councilmember Nagle is white, privileged and in denial that she enables and perpetuates racism and privilege,” Anna Segur said during  open comment at Tuesday’s meeting. “When signs were hung in restaurants, buses and schools that said, ‘whites only,’ it wasn’t to highlight the diversity of whiteness, it was to construct whiteness as a means to exclude people of color. It’s this historical exclusion that we seek to address.”

Other community members, including Shawn Rodda, the mother of two children of color, evoked the experiences of their non-white family members in Boulder to explain their concerns with Nagle’s comments.

“I have no problem with Sam and Bob as mayor and mayor pro tem, I think it’s perfectly appropriate given their experience and frankly nobody else raised their hand,” Rodda said. “But you didn’t say that, did you? You didn’t say, ‘nobody else wants it, let’s move on.’ Instead you went on a rant denying white privilege and denying the racism that the people of color in our community are experiencing every day. You are so privileged you probably have no idea what it’s like to be asked for a receipt when you leave a grocery store.”

Mark Gelband, a resident who frequently criticizes Boulder policies that restrict housing expansion, and who was among those who requested a non-white council member be given a leadership role, took issue with Nagle’s op-ed.

“As the son of a Holocaust survivor and a first-generation immigrant, I find your allusion to your Judaism offensive, disgusting,” Gelband said.

“You really do need to educate yourself what it means to (have) the kind of privilege that we were talking about, because what we talked about wasn’t just the fact that they were white men, what I talked about was that I am looking at two of the most privileged single-family homeowners,” Gelband added. “I’ve lived in this community for 30 years, and I’ve watched policy be made primarily by and for the richest, whitest, most privileged single-family homeowners. It is time to look in the mirror and take some responsibility for the decisions you’ve made that have obviated the concerns of people of color in this community.”

Others who spoke during public comment rejected the notion that Nagle’s remark was inappropriate or diminished the impact of white privilege.

“I know what an old white boys club is when I see it, I don’t think it’s going on here,” Suzanne De Lucia said. “I know I’m white, I think we’re all privileged in oh so many ways just to be here, but I have not seen the racism in Councilwoman Nagle that others are expressing. I’m mind-boggled BY? what happened, actually, at the first Council meeting, and also feel abuse was given to Councilmen Yates and Weaver. They were the only (members) that wanted the job from what I understand.”

Nagle declined to offer a direct response to the public concerns in a text message from the dais.

“I said all I had to say in my op-ed,” she wrote.

Following the emotionally charged public comments, Council held a discussion of members’ views on white privilege and the response of the community since the mayoral and mayor pro tem selection process stirred debate.

Councilman Mark Wallach characterized some of the comments as disrespectful.

“I think it is a very serious allegation when you accuse someone of racism,” Wallach said. “You need to know what’s in their head and heart, and … I do not believe even for a minute that my colleague is a racist. In Boulder, we rightly emphasize values of diversity, inclusivity and equity, but they’re not the only values of importance in this community. I think some of our other Boulder values are respect kindness and grace, and unfortunately there were too many comments this evening that did not include any of those values.”

One audience member shouted, “That’s racism,” as Wallach finished his statement, and Wallach responded, “I don’t think so,” from the dais.

The councilman went on to paraphrase a Bible verse from the book of John: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone.”

Audience members shook their head and audibly groaned as Wallach quoted the Gospel.

Councilwoman Mary Young said her work with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity and research into Boulder’s history, starting with white settlement of Native American land, has taught her the pervasiveness of racism

“You can’t call someone a racist without knowing and understanding that we all are,” Young said. “We live in a structure and a system that was founded on policies that were working against black people.”

Councilwoman Junie Joseph, the only black member, pushed back against that, differentiating racism from racists.

“I think we have faults, but racism is a structure, it’s systematic. … But to be racist, it’s something you have to actively live every day of your life,” Joseph said. “Some people have messaged me as well and asked me, ‘Why are you silent, why are you so quiet?’ I think as a black woman, just being in this room is part of my advocacy as well.”

Council scheduled a Dec. 17 public hearing on the reading of a resolution based on Government Alliance on Race and Equity principles, at which point it is expected to commit to working to dismantle policy based in historic systemic racism. The resolution was pushed forward sooner than it would have been in response to email traffic since the mayoral and mayor pro tem selections.

Weaver also read a lengthy statement that acknowledged the heavy impact of racism and the resulting white privilege in the nation.

Nagle did not speak during the discussion following the public comments nor the discussion of the resolution.

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