Center of the conversation

Peace group focuses efforts on racism, understanding white privilege

Jordanne Provance was moved to protest police brutality by the deaths of Sandra Bland and Sam DuBose.

Jordanne Provance was moved to protest police brutality by the deaths of Sandra Bland and Sam DuBose.

Photo by Ken Smith

“I recognize my white privilege, and realize that every day I get treated differently because of my skin color, but in a more positive way than others do,” said 17-year-old Jordanne Provance, during the End to Police Brutality Protest she helped organize last Sunday (Aug. 16) at Chico City Plaza.

Provance, who is fair-skinned with dyed pink hair, explained she’d planned the rally partly because of her dismay over conversations she’s had about recent police killings of unarmed blacks.

“I realized that when someone white dies [in a similar situation], nobody questions their character, nobody disgraces their name, and nobody thinks for a second that what happened wasn’t wrong,” she said. “When a black life is lost, people instantly start questioning what they had on them, and what were they doing. It’s always made out to be their fault.”

The young woman related how many whites discount the racial element to how law enforcement officers interact with people of color: “They always turn it around and say, ‘Well, what about white people?’”

Afterward, as the two-dozen-plus rally participants began lining the sides of Broadway Street with signs bearing slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” the driver of a passing pickup truck—as if to prove Provance’s point—yelled out “Cops’ lives matter!”

Offstage, Provance—a Chico native who graduated from independent studies at age 16 and begins studying psychology at Butte College this semester—gave more information about how the rally came together.

“It seems like I’m constantly watching black lives turn into another headline,” she said. “I was personally really sick of not doing anything about it … I’m active and very vocal online and over social media, but I really wanted to do something to get the town involved, to make a public statement against racism and wrongful killings by the police, and to educate people about what’s happening.”

Provance said she contacted the Chico Peace and Justice Center several weeks ago for advice, and CPJC staff and volunteers helped her obtain the necessary permits, and to publicize and stage the event.

In a separate recent interview, CPJC co-director Olivia Schmidt said she’s witnessed a distinct rise in community involvement, concern and awareness of racial issues in light of police killings of unarmed blacks, civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., the June 17 Charleston church shooting and other high-profile racial incidents. She also believes conversations about white privilege and questions about the white supremacist nature of modern society have moved from activist circles to mainstream America.

“There is definitely a broader community response to racism and white supremacy going on in Chico right now,” said Schmidt, noting that one of the CPJC’s primary missions if to help foster and provide a “safe space” for those conversations. “These things have floated to the top of white consciousness in the last few months, and we’re trying to harness that awareness by continuing our own work and creating space for new groups.”

One of the newest groups Schmidt referred to is the Coalition for Reconciliation and Community Transformation, abbreviated as CRCT but commonly called “Cricket.” The group formed in response to an incident in which a Confederate flag was placed in the yard of a multiracial family late on the night of Jan. 26, following a racially charged confrontation between a family member and Chico High School students earlier that day (see “Flag flak,” Newslines, Feb. 26, and “Hijinks or Hate?” Newslines, Feb. 12).

CRCT’s main goal is to develop protocols for community response to acts of racial violence or prejudice. The group is still in the developmental phase, and at its latest meeting on Aug. 12 discussed finalizing a mission statement, readying support for last Sunday’s rally and whether it will begin meeting bi-weekly as formerly active members return from summer vacation (the group currently meets on the second Wednesday of each month).

Among the CPJC’s long-standing efforts is a month-long reading and discussion group based around Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the latest session of which began Aug. 3.

“[The New Jim Crow] workshop is about helping people understand the way our legal system supports the use of the war on drugs as a tool for racialized social control,” Schmidt explained. “It does a very good job of articulating how the history adds up to a very clear picture that policing is a tool used to incarcerate massive amounts of people of color, and poor people of all races.”

Another group, the Human Relations Network, meets the first Monday of every month at the center to discuss issues of discrimination or violence in the local community and foster dialogue. Schmidt said that group is commonly attended by members of local law enforcement organizations, as well as community activists from Stonewall, the NAACP and homeless advocates.

Yet another organization based out of the building is the MLK Unity Group. That organization is primarily dedicated to planning annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations in Chico, but also deals with current issues.

On the evening of Monday, Aug. 31, the CPJC will host a three-hour Beyond Violence meeting, an interactive, experiential workshop at which participants will be asked to explore and examine their own relationships to racism and white privilege in contemporary American society.

The CPJC’s ramped-up focus on race relations has apparently not gone unnoticed, by supporters and detractors alike. On Monday (July 20), a man who’d previously been ejected from the center twice for using anti-Semitic speech entered the office and began referring to President Obama using racial epithets. He was again ejected, but returned soon after to scrawl phrases like “Obama kills 2 million women” and “3.6 million Caucasions [sic] being Holocausted” in chalk on the sidewalk outside the center. Police were contacted and a fire crew quickly removed the missives with a pressure washer. No charges were filed, as no actual damage was done.

“In this case, I think he’s approaching us because we’re doing anti-racism work,” Schmidt said the day of the incident. “He’s obviously got a racist agenda.

“I think it’s important at this point for any instance of outright white supremacy that’s showing up in our community to be flagged as something that we can’t just write off or ignore. We need to be addressing these issues head on.”