By Jonathan London
There was just one jarring note in an otherwise inspiring candlelight vigil March 16 at Central Park, for Mikey Partida, the young man brutally beaten in what is understood as a hate crime, based on Mikey’s sexual orientation.
We heard the heartwarming and heart-rending testimonials about Mikey by his mother and other relatives as well as many community leaders, and we also heard one phrase repeated by several speakers that rang hollow for me. This was — to paraphrase — “this kind of crime does not happen in Davis: This is not who we are.” Beyond noting the obvious fact that the vigil was necessary because such crimes do happen in Davis, I was curious about why this phrase kept reoccurring.
This note was especially dissonant as many of the participants at the vigil soon rushed off to attend a showing of “The Breedless Kitsch,” a play inspired by the hanging noose discovered in 2012 on the goal posts of the Davis High School football stadium. As quoted in a feature in The Davis Enterprise, one of the play’s cast noted, “This play calls out some of the problems that a town like ours sweeps under the rug to have a perfect community.”
Drama teacher Gwyneth Bruch added, “We have an incredibly beautiful town. I love this town … and we can talk about stuff like this. And I don’t want us to become a town of bystanders who shrink from scary issues.” Bruch has rendered a great community service through her transformation of the high school’s drama program into a socially engaged theater that does not shrink from explorations of racism, homophobia, sexism and other “scary issues.”
The image of a town that tends to sweep issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia under the rug came home even more vividly when I happened upon another rally organized by UC Davis on campus later that week. Speaker after speaker at this rally testified about their ongoing experiences of physical and psychological violence they experienced as women, as gays, as lesbians, as transgender people on and off campus.
Many of the rally participants described the added pain of the willful blindness of their peers to these violations. One young gay man described having anti-gay slurs shouted at him from a passing car one evening, while dozens of fellow students walked by without a word of support or even acknowledgement. It was left to this young man to confront his tormentors alone, which he did, at great risk to his own safety.
Another young woman, in a matter-of-fact tone, disclosed that she had been raped last year at an off-campus fraternity house. But what was even harder to address were emotional scars from what she called the everyday “micro-aggressions” of unkind words and thoughtless comments that made her feel unwelcome and unsafe on campus and in the community.
It was the pain of feeling “swept under the rug,” of being invisible in the eyes of the “bystanders who shrink from scary issues” that most deeply saddened and enraged these students. It is this toxic experience of invisibility that makes the “this does not happen in Davis” phrase so problematic.
This is the problem with repeating this mantra as a fact, as opposed to an aspirational statement (“we hope for a day when this won’t happen here”) or imperative declaration (“we won’t allow this kind of thing to happen here.”) Repeating this mantra can actually make tragic events such as gay-bashing, and other micro-aggressions more, not less, likely to continue.
This is because by framing such violence as an outlier or aberration, we avoid asking ourselves hard questions — questions such as, Why does this happen here? What is it about our town culture that allows for nooses to be hung on football goal posts, that allows gay men to be beaten outside their homes, that allows college students to be bystanders as one of their peers is harassed and endangered? What is it that prevents our coming together to truly make Davis a safe and welcoming community for all? Maybe it is exactly our stubborn belief — against all evidence — that these things don’t happen here. Because they do, and simply saying different doesn’t make it so.
There is an amazing Facebook group set up in the wake of Mikey Partida’s beating called Justice for Mikey. Hundreds of people post messages of moral support, love and solidarity for Mikey and his family, along with donations. This outpouring of love represents the very best about Davis, and is something to be cherished.
In this spirit, I offer the question: What would it take to achieve justice, not only for Mikey, but for all of those who experience violence of any kind, and who are wounded by the averted eyes of a town that believes such violence does not happen here?
— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org