Manny Yekutiel of Manny's Café (bottom left) moderated a June 12 American Jewish Committee event about racism, which included (clockwise from top left) state Assembly members Jesse Gabriel, Sydney Kamlager and David Chiu.
Manny Yekutiel of Manny's Café (bottom left) moderated a June 12 American Jewish Committee event about racism, which included (clockwise from top left) state Assembly members Jesse Gabriel, Sydney Kamlager and David Chiu.

State lawmakers share stories of racial discrimination, urge change at AJC event

As the Jewish community moves to strengthen alliances during what many hope will become a watershed moment for racial justice in the United States, the American Jewish Committee hosted a Zoom discussion Friday featuring a diverse group of California lawmakers.

The talk, moderated by social justice advocate and San Francisco café owner Manny Yekutiel, saw four members of the state Assembly share personal stories of when they themselves faced discrimination, and advocate for bills aimed at boosting racial equality.

The four, all Democrats, were Latina, Asian American, African American and Jewish: Monique Limón of Santa Barbara, David Chiu of San Francisco, Sydney Kamlager of Los Angeles and Jesse Gabriel of the San Fernando Valley.

The discussion was spearheaded by the AJC offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles with sponsorships from Be’chol Lashon, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Latino Community Foundation, the Network of Korean American Leaders and other multicultural organizations.

After sharing enthusiastic greetings with the lawmakers, Yekutiel asked them to share personal stories of when they experienced racial discrimination or injustice. “I really think it’s important to ground this in the personal,” he said.

Chiu said that growing up, he was subjected to so many racial epithets related to his Asian American heritage that he just “thought it was normal.” Limón said that when she was a kid, many of her friends didn’t understand why she spent days off helping her father, a gardener, rather than going skiing. Kamlager said she was discriminated against by landlords and had been called the N-word; she said her husband, who is a lawyer, has been taken for a criminal by a court clerk.

“You think you’ve moved forward, and then things like that happen, and you realize you haven’t,” Kamlager said. “And it hurts.”

Gabriel, who spent part of his childhood in Israel and attended a heavily Jewish public school in the L.A. area, said he felt very comfortable as a Jew growing up. But as a student at UC Berkeley, he remembers when the campus Hillel was attacked and bricks were thrown through a window. “Breaking glass is obviously a very sensitive thing for the community,” he said.

Yekutiel said growing up in West Los Angeles, his house was burgled a few times. One time, he came home from school and saw swastikas in red spray-paint all over the house.

“I remember being so confused,” said the owner of Manny’s Café. “I had read about stuff like this happening, but to have it happen in my own house was frightening, and also just confusing — I thought that this didn’t happen anymore.”

The lawmakers shared legislative fixes they were eyeing that they believe would improve racial justice in California, including their support for the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, drafted by Democrats in Congress. It would enhance federal oversight of police departments and would prohibit chokeholds, carotid restraints and no-knock warrants.

Anyone who’s blessed with sight can look at that video and understand who [ended] that man’s life. But who’s responsible? That’s a more complicated question.

The four are backing a bill in Sacramento known as the “sleeper hold ban” that would similarly ban chokeholds and carotid restraints in the state.

Kamlager spotlighted two bills she hopes to pass this year. One would reduce probation sentences, and the other, the CRISES Act, would make community organizations first responders for certain police calls. Supporters say some issues, such as homelessness, mental health and domestic violence, would be better served not by police but by teams “centered on culturally appropriate, trauma-informed and relationship-building services.”

Chiu spoke of a new bill to prevent evictions after the expiration of current moratoriums, put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic. And Limón vouched for AB 2501, which, similar to Chiu’s measure, would protect homeowners from foreclosure by extending the amount of time they have to pay back deferred mortgage payments before legal action is taken.

“Meaningful legislation that [moves] the needle is extremely hard” to pass, Limon said. “I have looked to all three of my colleagues, multiple times this week, asking for help.”

Gabriel, who is vice chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, said he had been reflecting on the George Floyd killing, particularly after a powerful experience outside the Capitol on June 9, when lawmakers knelt for exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck. Some African American lawmakers broke the silence by calling out “Mama” and “I can’t breathe,” as Floyd did. Gabriel called the experience “piercing.”

He said the killing should be “troubling for all good people,” and referenced an essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel in which he wrote his famous line, “in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

“Anyone who’s blessed with sight can look at that video and understand who [ended] that man’s life,” Gabriel said. “But who’s responsible? That’s a more complicated question.

“We live in a society where law enforcement way too frequently feels like that’s OK,” he said. “I have a responsibility, we all have a responsibility, to be part of the solution to that.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.