The pressure on Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn is intensifying as members of the community say he’s a racist and rally for his resignation in the wake of an offensive joke.
Controversy over Bohn’s divisive sense of humor and what’s seen as his tepid response to it peaked at the April 16 Humboldt Coumty Board of Supervisors meeting, where multiple community members demanded he set an example by resigning.
The focus on racism stems from a wisecrack Bohn made during a one-on-one conversation at a March 9 fundraiser in Eureka. An auction item for the fundraiser was a Mexican meal and when Bohn was told of its authentic content, he jokingly asked if the authenticity would motivate its consumers to hit the streets and “steal hubcaps.”
The remark has been confirmed because it was overheard and earlier this month, community organizer Renee Saucedo released a statement on it demanding Bohn’s resignation.
A rally preceded the supervisors meeting and many of its participants were in board chambers. During an open public comment session, Saucedo warned that use of language has social influence.
“An elected official made a joke about Mexicans stealing hubcaps – reinforcing the stereotype that Mexicans are generally criminals, gang members,” she said. “Why are comments like this exceedingly dangerous, supervisors? Because language, especially from public officials, becomes part of the local culture, which leads to discriminatory practices and policies.”
Other commenters described Bohn’s jocular allusion to criminal behavior as “extremely divisive,” “appalling” and “hurtful.”
Some spoke of the pervasiveness of racism and “white privilege.” An Arcata resident presented Bohn with a copy of the book “White Fragility,” subtitled “Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.”
Other speakers linked the situation to what they described as Humboldt’s generally racist social environment and the unprosecuted killing of Humboldt State University student Josiah Lawson.
“I come to you right now as a black man in Humboldt County and there hasn’t been a moment where I felt safe,” said HSU student Isaiah Alexander.
He added that to uphold standards of integrity and character for county leadership, Bohn should make “a very, very, very difficult decision” and resign.
“I’m saying that because I don’t trust you, I don’t trust anyone here,” he continued as applause sounded. “I’m saying this because this is real. People like me are being attacked, people like me are dying and if you’re not going to do anything about it — then just get out of the way.”
Meg Stofsky, a member of the local NAACP branch, challenged Bohn to confront the import of his remark. “You used your white privilege, you thought you weren’t going to be heard — but we’re listening,” she said. “We understand where that came from, we’re in a white racist society. We can’t help that but we can help what’s in our hearts and what comes out of our mouths.”
Stofsky invited Bohn to join a “white fragility group” that meets monthly so that he can “come and explore how you have been infected” and allow his constituents to have “what they need – someone who isn’t blatantly racist.”
A member of the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee that fields reports of discrimination, Stofsky described Humboldt County as “a racist society that lets black and brown people die on the streets.”
Kelsey Reedy, who chairs the county’s Green Party, said that racism holds sway in the county, even within HSU. She emphasized the context of Bohn’s role as a county leader and told him, “You’re being a Trump right now, Rex Bohn, and your apology needs to be redone because you didn’t apologize for what you did, you just apologized for the potential offense of it.”
She added, “You didn’t take any responsibility and you need to own that – resign or we’ll recall you.”
Bohn is chair of the board and as he called on Supervisor Mike Wilson to introduce the next agenda item, members of the audience called out, disappointed that there would be no response to what they had said. Bohn and Wilson explained that board commentary on non-agenda items is limited.
But the explanation fell flat and Charmaine Lawson, Josiah Lawson’s mother, stood up and demanded that Bohn respond to what had been said with a substantial apology.
When Bohn attempted to end the exchange by saying “thank you,” someone shouted out, “Stop saying thank you, be a human being with a heart and soul and say you’re sorry.”
“We’re adjourned,” said Bohn.
After a break, the meeting reconvened.