Community Advocates Forge On Despite Strained Relationship With Bakersfield City Officials

If a friend were in a toxic or abusive relationship, most people would agree that they’d urge their friend to leave or fight back. Well, this is the exact analogy one community member used to explain their relationship with Bakersfield city officials. 

By Janell Gore | South Kern Sol

If a friend were in a toxic or abusive relationship, most people would agree that they’d urge their friend to leave or fight back. Well, this is the exact analogy one community member used to explain their relationship with Bakersfield city officials. 

Over the last three years, people have filled the City Hall Chambers at any given point in the year to advocate for what they believe in. Sometimes they are met with acceptance and can celebrate a victory. However, some community members have gone to countless meetings to feel they have never been heard. 

For several community members, it was made even more clear to them a couple of years ago when they were not only met with rejection but were kicked out of the city council meeting. That was a meeting that two community members stated “drew a line in the sand,” letting them know where they stood with local government. Since that intense meeting in 2021, they have seen little to no change in how they are treated. 

“That proved to a lot of people just how terrible our city council and most of our elected officials here in Kern are,” said Daulton Jones. “Our city government is not on the side of the people. They are literally here for themselves and to make sure they get to elevated positions of power that are outside of the city council, and it’s just a stepping stool.”

Community members were not the only ones disappointed with the outcome of this meeting. Council member Eric Arias expressed being disappointed in the outcome of that meeting and the changes that have happened since. 

“I, for certain, was really disappointed with the way that particular meeting. Where many of the advocates were kicked out, and the meeting was delayed essentially because they weren’t in favor of what was being said, and I am of the mindset that that’s unacceptable. Anyone in the community has a right to voice their opinion,” said Arias. 

According to Arias, he recently asked for community members to be able to comment on a topic after the agenda item has been presented instead of only before. He believes this will increase transparency along with one other change to meetings. 

After the 2021 meeting, Mayor Karen Goh implemented a blurb at the beginning of meetings that Arias states works as a first warning to community members who were not in compliance with rules of decorum. 

“I think that was really aggressive and uninviting to members of the public,” said Arias. 

After conversations about transparency Arias stated that the blurb would no longer be there for future city council meetings. 

Jones reflected on how scary that meeting was because he was the next speaker for the meeting when people were kicked out. Now in 2023, similar to the first warning, other remnants of that meeting and the tone it set for the relationship between the community and officials still have a part to play in community members being hesitant to use their voices. Jones stated abuse of power, among other things, is included. 

“People want to be involved. However, our city council and other elected officials have consistently failed every single time,” said Jones. “So, I think that’s part of it. I think it’s definitely the abuse of power we’ve seen. Another thing is like how they have the measure N community meetings in the middle of the day. People work. Who is leaving their job to listen to a bunch of privileged people talk about how money should be spent if it’s not going to impact them? They know the money is not going to be spent in a way that actually benefits their neighborhood.”

Accessibility and transparency were also mentioned by Emma De La Rosa with Leadership Council when discussing getting community members involved with the city council. 

“A lot of folks, if you’re not involved with this type of work, you probably don’t know that there is a city council meeting every Wednesday at 5:15 p.m., and you probably don’t know where to access these agendas,” said De La Rosa. 

She stated that there is more the city council can do, like having a hybrid option for community members at home to express verbally their comments versus only being able to submit via email or comment card. 

“There’s always a huge impact when you can hear the resident’s voice. So I think improving accessibility is always important, and providing materials in multiple languages,” said De La Rosa. 

However, being let down or not feeling connected to elected officials is not stopping community members from seeking the change they need. Continuing from the fight in 2021, advocates are still demanding changes such as; the Bakersfield Police Department being defunded, funds being reallocated to fit the needs of the community, rental assistance, abolishing the police, and an evictions ban.

Faheemah Salahud-Din Floyd stated that community members are not stepping away from the advocacy but instead finding ways to meet their needs without city government. 

“People are still advocating, but I think that people are more invested at this point with finding ways around without having to interact with local governments to get things done,” said Salahud-Din Floyd. “I think that the past four years and longer local government has been increasingly disappointing, and because of that, community members feel less invested in the collective idea that local government will assist us in getting the things that we need for the community.”

She continued to explain that grassroots organizations are helpful to go around the government because city officials are a part of the overall oppressive system. Salahud-Din Floyd expressed that the city council does not care about the community and will “lie in the police department’s pockets.”

Riddhi Patel also spoke about the law enforcement influence when discussing the city council. 

“40 percent of workers do not make a living wage in Kern. The median wage is $30,000, the lowest it’s been since 1979, and yet the police department takes up 41% of our taxpayer-funded general fund budget,” said Patel. 

Patel stated they believe this is a reason that stands in the way of community members feeling comfortable going to give public comment. 

On the other hand, while some people stopped going to city council meetings because of a lack of hope, Salahud-Din Floyd stated that there are people who don’t have to go because they’ve already gotten their needs met from being connected to the city council.

 She explained that as organizers, there is often a point where people must decide to either “play within the system and get served breadcrumbs or flip the table and get what we deserve.”

“Many people decided to take a seat at a white supremacist table and receive the leftover pig entrails because they were too afraid to flip the table and get what is deserving,” said Salahud-Din Floyd. “So, a lot of people don’t come to city council meetings because there’s no reason to go because the things that they want are already being done because they are in bed with the police and city council and all of the other local officials who are not doing anything for the community.” 

Patel added that this is something that has happened historically with people in power trying to pit the community against each other. 

“Some people make the argument that, oh well, what you want is like complete abolition of this department; isn’t that too lofty of a goal? Isn’t that too far? Isn’t that unreasonable?” said Patel discussing the difference in community members’ views. “We shouldn’t let anti-black city council pit everyone else against each other so that they can keep operating in incrementalism.” 

Josth Stenner, who organizes with Patel, Jones, and Salahud-Din Floyd in People’s Budget Bako, stated that incrementalism is only going to get the community so far. 

“How much can you reform a particular thing until you realize, like hey, it’s time to throw this away?” said Stenner. “At the end of the day, that’s the fundamental difference between folks who are willing to with the government and willing to ask continually.” 

He continued to ask, unless someone is getting paid to go to the meetings, how many times can you afford to go to those meetings and be told no? 

Salahud-Din Floyd said if someone were to apply the situation between the community and the city council to another relationship, it would be seen as “absurd”. She stated that if she stayed in a relationship with someone who refused to acknowledge and be there for her needs, she’d be called a stupid woman. 

“Yet people, the community, are expected to continuously be in an abusive, toxic, non-reciprocal relationship with elected officials,” said Salahud-Din Floyd. “Because why? They were elected? People elect you with the belief that you will do good for them… In some cases, you’re the best of a worse situation. In Bakersfield, California, in Kern County, we often elect people because you are the best of a messed up choice. Make no mistake about it.”

Despite what help organizers feel they may or may not get from the local government, they will continue to fight for what they believe in. Salahud-Din Floyd expressed that what they have been fighting for and will continue to fight for is freedom. 

“Freedom is a basic human right. All we’ve ever fought for is the freedom to live, grow, heal, and be treated like people. Everyone is deserving of that. But city council wants to cut off your arm and tell you that you don’t need two, that you only need one.”