First District Supervisor Rex Bohn abruptly adjourned the Board of Supervisors meeting today for close to 10 minutes, slipping out the back of the board’s chambers and avoiding public confrontation with protesters calling for his resignation.
Around 10 speakers used part of the meeting dedicated to public comments on any issue — not just the ones on the agenda — to address Bohn joking in March about a Mexican tamale dinner being authentic enough to “make you want to go out and steal hub caps.”
Bohn — who earlier this month apologized in the press and on social media — facilitated public comment but didn’t address protesters’ calls for a better apology for his words.
As soon as the speakers had finished, the supervisors moved on to discussing an agenda item about voting formats. Government transparency laws prohibit discussion of items not on the posted agenda.
But those present reacted angrily to the notion that Bohn was prepared to move the meeting forward without acknowledging the issue they had raised.
“For him to not have the decency or the heart and soul to speak is a travesty,” said Christina Lastra, one of many who interrupted the meeting to air their outrage.
“Racism kills! You’re not going to speak?” demanded another who had spoken at public comment.
Both Bohn and Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson cited laws preventing them from addressing the comments directly. Wilson admitted the meeting format is “awkward” when it comes to forging dialogue.
Someone in attendance shouted that the rules are “colonial.”
“That might be true, too,” Wilson said.
Green Party organizer Kelsey Reedy pointed out that the Arcata City Council addresses non-agenda public comments all the time.
“We try to have a different level of decorum — ” 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass began, but her explanation was cut off by groans.
“I have not heard your apology, supervisor Rex!” said Michelle-Charmaine Lawson, the mother of David Josiah Lawson, a 19-year-old Humboldt State University student fatally stabbed in April 2017.
As the voices in attendance grew louder, Bohn adjourned the meeting and promptly exited through the back of the chamber.
Later, Bohn told the Times-Standard he left on the advice of interim county counsel, as well as Bass and Wilson, who he said told him to “take a break.”
After about 10 minutes, most of the protesters had cleared the courthouse, prompting the supervisors to resume the meeting for agenda discussions.
The standoff marked Bohn’s first public confrontation over his remarks since Renee Saucedo, a Humboldt County organizer and vocal advocate for Bohn’s former 1st District opponent, Allen McCloskey, wrote a letter condemning Bohn’s remarks and calling on him to resign.
At an early March fundraiser for the Ferndale Repertory Theatre, Bohn asked the theater’s director if a Mexican tamale dinner she planned to cook as an auction prize for the fundraiser was so authentic it would “make you want to go out and steal hub caps.”
He apologized in the aftermath, first emphasizing that he made the joke in a private conversation and later insisting the “bad joke” was just “eight words” and not indicative of how he actually feels.
“The people who know me know I am the farthest thing in the world from being a racist,” Bohn told the Times-Standard on Monday. “I have already apologized for something I said because it offended some people. I certainly didn’t mean to offend anybody.”
But protesters today said his comments were not enough.
“I didn’t accept your apology, Mr. Bohn,” said a woman named Brenda who identified herself as Mexican. “This is not a joke … you’re in a (powerful) position.”
Many of the people who spoke wore sticker badges carrying the words, “Reject Racial Rhetoric … Respect.”
Christina Lastra, a Humboldt County resident since 1973, criticized Bohn’s response that his comment was just a joke, or his supporters’ commentary that those offended are too “fragile” or should “get over it.”
“We don’t need racist dialogue toward people who are already on the fringes of society,” Lastra said.
Lastra said she found Bohn to be a “very nice guy” when she met him a few years prior — Bohn was “charming” and “inclusive,” she said, adding that doesn’t mean his disparaging comments get a pass.
Another speaker, Karpani Burns, offered Bohn a book titled “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” and invited him to attend a meeting among white people to discuss their role in a racialized society.
Bohn accepted the book, saying after the meeting he intends on going to a meeting.
Reedy, one of many who later criticized Bohn not directly addressing the speakers, reflected on her own gradual understanding as a former HSU student how racist rhetoric can affect people.
“We’re seeing how this is playing out with Donald Trump being president,” Reedy said. “He’s making the rhetoric that it’s OK to hate people and dismiss people. You’re being a Trump right now, Rex Bohn.”
Like others, Reedy called on Bohn to resign.
Isaiah Alexander, an HSU student, reflected on his experiences as a black man, tying Bohn’s joke to other language directed at minorities.
“People like me are being attacked, people like me are dying,” Alexander said, referencing the 2017 fatal stabbing of David Josiah Lawson, a black HSU student.
“If you’re not going to do anything about it,” he told Bohn, “get out of the way.”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.