At the Feb. 4 meeting of the Borough Council of Kennett Square, a measure passed 5-to-2 that requires the president of Council to silence residents who violate behavioral standards during public comment sessions.
I resigned my position as Council president after that vote, saying I respected the will of Council in passing the resolution, but could not in good conscience serve as its enforcer.
It’s striking that the Council’s discussion missed my core point, though I’m certain I lived up to my reputation for directness and clarity. This was not a question of how long people could speak; it was about judging constituents and shutting them down if they failed to measure up to subjective standards. My words didn’t seem to register with my colleagues, even while they were being vigorously re-stated by members of the public during their comments.
Even a normally excellent reporter laid out the arguments in favor of the resolution in detail but posed questions about my reasoning as if he just hadn’t heard what I said. Other people of color won’t be surprised at this: Implicit bias is a part of our daily experience, and even those who actively oppose racism often fail to see us for who we are.
The limitations we’ve put on speech in the Borough government will absolutely be used to exercise bias, and it’s inevitable that officials will be blind to it. The contention that those who supported these rules didn’t intend them to be discriminatory is beside the point.
Those without power and people who think differently won’t speak, because these measures will discourage or block them from doing so. Passionate activists will be branded as agitators, and people who see a duty to shape their community will be shut down as disloyal. In a nation’s capital or in a local council hearing, restrictions like those we’ve now put in place erode a democracy.
It is clear that there were two primary targets for silencing: a Black woman whose family has been here for seven generations, and a White man who worked hard to put me – a young Black woman – in the president’s chair. Both have been outspoken advocates for those whose needs haven’t been high on Council’s agenda, and both have named racism when they saw it. Their civic engagement and dedication to the good of the Borough are unquestionable; they can be rough, but good government shouldn’t be about sparing elected officials’ feelings.
I refused to gavel them down, though I was told to do so in writing and in public meetings. The rules we’ve adopted were designed to strengthen the argument that I wasn’t exercising discipline and was obligated to do so. This was an effort to put in my place, pure and simple.
I won’t allow myself to be forced to end my neighbors’ comments, but I will continue to serve on Council, and will encourage constituents to speak their minds, regardless of whether anyone thinks they’re wrong or rude. I believe this new gag rule won’t stand the test of time, and those who have this “aye” on their record will be held to account by voters who refuse to be silenced, and by those who stand with them.
Injustice is a pervasive force, and it’s evident in the barrier we’ve put in place to keep those whose voices are missing from speaking their truth to power. The broad diversity of those who are actively trying to change a tradition of exclusion is heartening, and preventing any of those activists from calling us to account puts us on the wrong side of history.
It is easier to see racism somewhere else, but I challenge us all to reflect on our roles in furthering or fighting institutional racism right here, in the town we all love.
LaToya M. Myers