Prior to the state launching their stay-at-home order, I reached out to several civil rights organizations in San Luis Obispo County regarding the homophobic and obscene robocall by Kevin P. Rice that he delivered to residents in late February. The impetus to reach out was fueled by Rice’s call-in appearance on the “Dave Congalton Show” and Congalton’s oddly lackadaisical condemnation of Rice’s actions. What I ultimately got was either radio silence or comments from board leadership that they don’t want to get involved.
Though I support the work that organizations like Women’s March San Luis Obispo and GALA San Luis Obispo do, my frustration over their reluctance to tackle relevant local issues remains palpable.
I operate in the same social circles as volunteers who are actively involved in many of these organizations, including our local chapter of the NAACP, Bend the Arc and Rise SLO. The individual and group conversations I’ve had with these volunteers over the years clearly show a consistent pattern of unrest within these organizations and politically motivated reluctance to address the growing toxicity in our local elections. Every four years, we deal with the usual suspects trying to influence elections, but these bad actors attempt to stoop lower than the previous election. Yet not a peep about these issues are publicly discussed nor do these groups issue a public statement.
Rice’s robocall not only “satirically” impersonated the KKK to smear a Jewish County supervisor (District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill), but in the same call, he targeted the supervisor’s female political opponent and her sexuality (Stacy Korsgaden). There was absolutely no basis for these attacks. This was the kind of call that would stoke the ire of civil rights organizations in any other county. Clearly, this was a discussion that lit up local social media, especially when it was revealed that District Attorney Dan Dow would investigate the call.
In early March, I decided to write a letter to 920 KVEC’s parent company American General Media about issues involving Congalton show and Rice’s misconduct. I included a provision in the letter that stated anecdotally — and only anecdotally because volunteers associated with the groups I mentioned earlier were discussing the robocall — that there was concern about Congalton giving hate a viable platform on his show. I sent the letter to American General Media, copied both the Women March’s SLO and GALA on the email, to which both organizations almost immediately replied that their board had not made a statement on the matter. The implication was that they had no intention to publicly issue any kind of statement.
The question is: Why am I writing about this nearly a month later? Or to be specific, why does this matter now during a time when we’re all hunkered down to stop the spread of COVID-19?
Since I wrote that letter, I continue to hear from these volunteers on a number of other issues and they routinely complain of inaction either by their respective board leadership or the community at large when they try to engage the community in a call to action. For years, I’ve helped spur a conversation in hopes that these local civil rights organizations can utilize that momentum to fight for change, but to no avail.
There’s a part of me that wants to say to them, “You’re on your own. I don’t want to be a part of it” because I’m frustrated, but the better angel on my shoulder is encouraging me to stay in the ebb and flow of conversation and not play the role of isolationist during a time when the community needs to come together. At the same time, I feel compelled to look at the bigger picture, discuss some of these overarching problems and offer constructive solutions.
Many of these organizations refuse to take any sort of hard-lining stance on community issues. Instead, they focus on national-political news and trends that don’t garner much traction in the public dialogue. They will offer community resources and be responsive to those who need assistance, and that’s great, but they remain victims of SLO County’s subservient “feel good” culture. It’s like they pretend to ignore what’s happening on the ground because it’s the most politically convenient ignorance to have.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. About two years ago, I questioned San Luis Obispo mayor Heidi Harmon and why she, a self-avowed women’s rights activist, would actively promote and support Congalton. I reminded Harmon that in 2013, Congalton and one of his guests promoted a domestic violence suspect and his allegations against his ex-girlfriend. Knowing of his history of violence, Congalton and the guest defended his actions because he “only hit her once.” If that conversation took place during the height of the #MeToo movement, there would theoretically be some sort of reckoning. How did Harmon respond? She blocked and reported me to Facebook. My account was suspended. My account remains blocked, despite the courts clearly prohibiting public officials from doing just that. And since then, any comments I’ve made about Congalton on the Women’s March SLO Facebook page have disappeared.
Our local civil rights organizations need to evolve to a point that they recognize clear local issues and take decisive action. Our world won’t fundamentally change for the better if we call for a revolution but lack the resolve to revolt. We won’t advance as a society or culture if we state protests from within our safe, protective bubbles we live in. We may be a microcosm of systemic issues happening nationally, but if we don’t assess the problems in our own backyard, what leverage do we truly have? We don’t have any. I may be a white male and naturally born into privilege, but the inconvenient truth remains unchanged.
Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews. Click here to subscribe to his Patreon, check out exclusive news features and more.