The Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees meeting on February 14 ended in disarray, not unlike several of their most recent meetings. At this meeting, the board was considering a resolution to add the Pledge of Allegiance to board agendas. The meeting was held at SBCC’s Wake Campus to accommodate the large number of individuals interested in the resolution. More than 60 public comment slips were submitted to speak on the subject of the pledge and about 250 people sat or stood in the audience. Two deputy sheriffs and campus security members were present at the meeting.
The pledge had not been recited at board meetings since at least 1959, according to the trustees’ resolution. Then in July 2018, former City College instructor Celeste Barber requested that it be added to board meetings, which it was. However, in early January the pledge was removed by Board President Robert Miller claiming it is rooted in white nationalism. At the January 24 meeting, during public comment, Barber and two other women requested it be reinstated. At the same meeting, students were protesting the unaddressed racism on campus and incidents surrounding Vice President’s Lyndsay Maas’s use of the unabbreviated n-word. When Barber spoke in support of the pledge audience members heckled her and students began stomping, all of which was captured on campus video and was later picked up and rebroadcast by conservative national news outlets. Shortly after, the pledge was temporarily reinstated on January 29. The February 14 meeting was to determine whether the pledge would be permanently reinstated.
Just over 40 people spoke, most of whom were community members and not current students. They emphasized the importance of patriotism, quoted Martin Luther King Jr., and mentioned phrases from the pledge, particularly, “indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” One man said he understood people’s reluctance to recite the pledge but said, “We need not destroy the [pledge], only live up to it.” Several others speakers called for the resignation or firing of President Miller, and others requested that board members who refused to say the pledge should resign.
However, about one-third of the speakers veered off topic and began criticizing student activists whom they called “social justice warriors.” One speaker said she was “very tired about hearing about white privilege in our universities.” Also commenting in favor of the pledge was James Fenkner, chair of Fair Education, an organization that’s suing Just Communities, accusing the education group of promoting “anti-white, anti-Christian, and anti-male” rhetoric. Emotions in the audience were already running high when Goleta resident Gary Vandeman used the unabridged n-word. Vandeman said he stood for “equal opportunity,” which was denied to white people if only black people could use certain words. A number of people applauded in support of his comment.
Shortly after Vandeman’s comment, the meeting was interrupted by several members objecting to the use of the n-word. One, former student trustee Krystle Farmer, made her way up the aisle demanding among other things that the board address the use of this word. Other audience members yelled at Farmer, some calling for her removal. President Miller banged his gavel in attempts to restore order in a meeting that was quickly disintegrating. Recently elected Trustee Kate Parker called the use of the word “so distracting” and “so offensive.” “We can’t let that kind of stuff slide by,” said Parker. Trustee Jonathan Abboud highlighted the fact that Farmer was gaveled down but Vanderman was not stopped after using the racial slur.
At this point, in a room already emotionally charged, a woman told the board she found the anti-blackness sentiment expressed by some of the commentators so stressful that she had decided to speak. She criticized the board’s delay in responding to students’ complaints about racism on campus. She reminded them that students of color have been attending board meetings since November to voice their serious concerns and experiences. Yet, no actions have been taken, she said, while a request from three white women for the pledge to be reinstated had the board preparing a resolution for discussion for the next regularly scheduled meeting. On the topic of patriotism, she reminded the audience that people of color are overrepresented in America’s armed forces.
At the end of the comment period, the board began to discuss the resolution that would make the pledge a permanent addition to the trustees’ meetings. Student Trustee Kenny Igbechi then made it clear that students had nothing to do with the removal of the pledge and that students were not against America. “This is not an issue that affects students,” he said, it is homelessness and food insecurity that affect students. Trustee Abboud expressed a similar sentiment and described some of the speakers’ comments as “toxic.” He found it “hard to believe it’s just about the pledge.”
At the end of the evening, the resolution to add the pledge passed unanimously.