I moved to Helper a year ago. Having grown up in a small town, I immediately recognized and appreciated the sense of community in Price and Helper; it was easy to make friends, most people I met were kind, and my neighbor even shared eggs with us every week. Folks down the road gave us zucchini.
In late June 2020, I learned about racist posts Price Police Chief Brandon Sicilia made on Facebook in 2016 and ‘17. Though not a citizen of Price, I called the department to express the following: it isn’t okay to say racist things, and the leader of a police department should know better (especially when police departments in the United States have historically targeted Black folks and continue to do so).
The person I spoke to suggested that I could meet with Chief Sicilia. On June 23rd, we met in his office.
I prepared a list of questions to learn more about the chief’s past actions and current views. We both recorded the interview, which lasted around 45 minutes. (Both of us wore masks, for those keeping score.)
Driving away from the police station that Tuesday afternoon, my first reaction was, “That was better than I expected.” For the next couple of weeks, I mulled over the chief’s words.
(My expectations of the meeting, I should note, were low. I’d heard that Sicilia said he was drunk when he posted racist things, and it seems to me that a drunk person’s words usually reflect a sober person’s beliefs.)
Sicilia and I engaged in civil discourse that afternoon. I disagreed with his opinions and word choice in several instances, but I wanted to believe that his explanations were sincere, albeit flawed.
Was it possible that this person, like a lot of folks, was learning to do better? Was open to continuing to learn? Was starting to see his own biases? And if so, didn’t that represent progress on an individual level, and maybe even a systemic one?
My second reaction, more considered and complex, was this: “Why does a 47-year-old (white*) man in a position of considerable authority get to keep making the blunders of an uninformed adolescent?” Because, to be sure, his words and phrases were problematic. He used the terms “pure-bred Hispanic” and “n——” as we spoke. Though he wasn’t calling someone the n-word in the context of our conversation, it was a foolish word to utter. Even after all this time and bad publicity, is Sicilia still not thinking about the words he says? And is that what Price wants in a chief of police? (I’m not calling for his head. Keep reading.)
Now, for folks who believe words don’t matter, we have no issue. For those of us who know that the words we use reveal multitudes, we absolutely have an issue.
So here we are, navigating a viral pandemic and finally talking** in-depth about the systemic pandemic that’s been killing, raping, torturing, robbing, chaining, and disenfranchising Black people for 400 years. (Try to get a home loan in the 1950’s if you’re Black. It’s hard to pass anything to your grandchildren when you’re not allowed to amass property in the first place.)
I don’t want Sicilia’s head on a platter. He should not have been promoted, but he was. I understand calls for his resignation, but I understand why he would not want to do that — going back to concrete is hard on the knees. But racism is hard on a city, and not only because it feeds the “ignorant small-town” narrative. If Sicilia keeps his job, what’s the plan for reconciliation, for action?
Sicilia naturally has lots of supporters in Price, many who have known him forever, believe he can’t be racist because he’s a good person, and dismiss his errors by declaring, “No one is perfect.”
Of course no one is perfect. It turns out, though, that in a situation like this, the dichotomy is not “imperfection vs. perfection.” Instead, the useful questions here are around “irresponsible vs. responsible”, and even “everyone should just move on vs. everyone should do better.”
(NOTE: a person can be “good” and racist at the same time. Goodness is relative, after all. My deep-south Kentucky grandfather undoubtedly had racist tendencies and was at the very same time one of the fiercest, gentlest, most wonderful men – to his family. I used to be more racist than I am now and believed I was a good person; now I’m learning to be anti-racist and working to shrink the racist part of me that exists by virtue of where I grew up and the messages I absorbed.)
If Sicilia is forced to step down, I worry this will galvanize any lingering racist beliefs he has, and radicalize his supporters, too. On the other hand, if Sicilia — starting right this absolute millisecond — learns to exemplify white allyship and enact tangible anti-racist practices, then we’ll have a redemption story on our hands. Carbon County is full of kindness and people striving to do better today than they did yesterday. And isn’t learning to do better etched somewhere in the Small-Town Codebook of Ethics, right along with “share eggs and zucchini with your neighbors”?
*color matters here. We know that Black children, for example, don’t enjoy the luxury of making mistakes the way white adults do.
**and hopefully even taking action
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