Border-crossing journalism from the Sacramento Valley
To people of color, Chico seems less friendly, more hostileChico State promises "Safety Summit"
by Leslie Layton and Denise Minor
When Vickie Nailing first came to Chico to pursue a master’s degree in 2015, she was taken aback by how friendly people were. She loved the community’s “hippy vibe” that reminded her of the 1970s.
“When I would pass strangers they would look me in the eyes and smile,” said Nailing, a graduate student in the Teaching International Languages program. “I’m from L.A. I wasn’t used to that.”
Nailing left Chico one year later to train English teachers in Ukraine on a Peace Corps program. When she returned in January, she sensed that something in the city had changed. Nailing, an African-American re-entry student, says she sometimes found herself facing upfront hostility and defensiveness.
“I feel racism here now,” she said. “I didn’t feel that before.”
Both students and community leaders interviewed for this story said racist sentiment in the community has become more overt, more direct, since the 2016 presidential election. (See our “Documenting Hate” sidebar.) Some students also believe that the city’s character has been altered by the explosion in growth since the Nov. 8 Camp Fire that destroyed neighboring Paradise.
“Since Trump took office, we’re seeing more incidents that aren’t just microaggressions,” said an African-American woman, a fourth-year student at Chico State, who asked not to be identified by name because of security concerns. “More students say they’re being called the N-word and having rocks thrown at them.”
Aramenta Hawkins, the executive director of the Chico Peace & Justice Center, said there has been a marked increase in the number of people reporting racist incidents that may be due to both the volatile 2016 presidential election and to the use of social media and technology that encourage discussion and capture interactions.
“It runs the gamut from racial slurs to physical interaction to being intimidated to the feeling some students have that they’re getting treated differently,” says Hawkins. “It’s verbal, it’s physical and it’s systematic.”
In interviews with ChicoSol, Chico State students said they want the administration and the University Police Department (UPD) to become more proactive in supporting people of color and ensuring a safe campus environment, and some took that message to a March 8 meeting attended by students, Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson and campus police.
Students who belong to the Carter Scholars Black Excellence Academic Program – a support program that holds regular study sessions in Meriam Library — said the UPD failed to communicate clearly and respond swiftly when reports surfaced early last month about a man lurking in the library and rumors flew through social media that he was watching students work and asking about emergency exits.
Police later identified the man in question as Daniel Darrington, a Butte College student who had been arrested in 2015 for allegedly carrying a loaded, concealed firearm to a movie theatre.
“Because of some of the man’s rants on his videos on social media, he was perceived to be a racist and misogynist, and our black students articulated feeling most vulnerable,” Chico State spokesman Sean Murphy said in an emailed statement to ChicoSol, adding that he was uncertain when the videos were made.
“To our knowledge, there was no specific language and no direct threat toward students of color (or anyone else) when he was on campus,” the statement says.
Darrington was issued a seven-day stay-away order that has since expired, and the university’s March 29 statement said that “to our knowledge” he hadn’t returned to campus.
Murphy’s statement says Chico State will host a “Safety Summit” this month for further discussion. “It will require a collaborative effort between the campus and community to be most successful,” the statement says. “We are consulting colleagues across the country as they are also dealing with similar concerns.”
Many minority students say they’re hesitant to ask campus police for help because they’re likely to be treated as suspects rather than victims.
Bree Jones, a 22-year-old Carter Scholar, said that because so many of her peers don’t trust UPD, she asked campus police to meet with students in January, an appropriate time because it was Black History Month. “They never got back to me,” Jones said. “They’re not approachable.”
UPD’s chief John Reid also didn’t get back to ChicoSol when this publication requested an interview.
Last fall, students at a meeting at CSUC’s Cross Cultural Leadership Center discussed what they were facing off campus. Most of the students in a group of about 10 African-Americans said someone had used the N-word or another slur to offend them since they had come to Chico. A young woman talked about the rage she felt when she was pushed aside on a downtown sidewalk by someone using the N-word.
Soon, the students were debating whether to ignore racial slurs or confront the people who use them.
Robert Morton, an African-American university staffer who attended the CCLC gathering, warned students that responding with anger could harm them more than it would the perpetrators. People of color who demonstrate anger elicit a different response than do white people demonstrating anger, he said.