We’ve seen this type of cruelty from other divisive figures. On Nov. 24, 2015, Donald Trump again revealed his true ugliness. Standing in front of a large campaign crowd in South Carolina, Trump mocked Serge Kovaleski, a reporter who has arthrogryposis, a congenital joint condition that affects his movements. Trump contorted his voice and his body in a cheap and offensive impersonation of Mr. Kovaleski.
It was a sad and challenging moment for a disabled person like myself. But I had hoped that here in the East Bay I wouldn’t have to face such ugliness. I was wrong.
I was appointed to the Richmond City Council in March of 2015. For a disabled immigrant from India, it was a humbling opportunity to serve my community. I wanted to use my position to help people who’ve had to deal with a lot of difficulty, like I have. It was a new challenge but one I was excited about. Of course, I knew that politics involved debating differences in ideas, sometimes heatedly. What I didn’t expect was to be bullied and shamed about my blindness by a fellow council member.
On the night of Sept. 13, 2016, an acrimonious debate over housing policy at the Richmond City Council devolved into shouting and personal attacks launched by a political group called the Richmond Progressive Alliance. One of the organization’s signs in the audience read, “Vinay is a Pimplé on Tom’s Butt” (Tom Butt is our mayor). Jovanka Beckles — then my colleague on the council, a member of RPA, and now a candidate for Assembly District 15 — launched into a ferocious attack against me.
“You’re disgusting,” Jovanka screamed into my face. “I want to tell you about the things you can’t see,” she kept yelling in my face, and repeating the message on the signs. While she continued her crude mockery of my blindness over and over, I sat quietly waiting for it to be over.
“The things you can’t see.”
The thing about being blind, though, is that, sure, you can’t see through your eyes. But there are perspectives I have, truths I know, and compassion I possess because of — not in spite of — my disability.
What is also disheartening for me to witness are the endorsements for Jovanka from organizations and elected officials I used to trust and respect. Do these organizations and individuals really support verbally abusing the disabled? I hope the people in these organizations ask their representatives why they support such behavior. Disabled children often face bullying in school. I did. Unfortunately, the bullies will now know that there are people in power who will use and accept their tactics.
I’m going to continue to live and speak my truth, no matter what bullies like Jovanka Beckles and her supporters say to me. I grew up a blind kid in India and immigrated to the United States. In this country, I’ve taught English literature, worked as a software engineer, became an attorney, and, of course, served my community on city council. I’m a proud progressive Democrat.
But with Beckles seeking a higher office, one in which she would represent nearly a half million people and be responsible for representing our community in the California legislature, I feel it necessary to speak out about what working with her in Richmond was truly like.
It’s important to say that her attack on me was not an isolated incident. Council meetings were regularly acrimonious and unproductive affairs, in large part because Beckles and her allies on council are focused on purity tests rather than real solutions. If they don’t get their way, they hurl invectives at anyone who disagrees with them. And many of their actions harm our community. She opposed the development of affordable housing in an area dominated by her well-heeled supporters in the RPA.
And while Beckles’ attacks on my disability represented a personal low point, the all-time low point for the Richmond City Council has got to be Beckles’ infamous “mind control resolution.” In her memo to colleagues supporting the resolution, she wrote that the legislation was an “effort to stand in solidarity with residents who claim to be under assault from space-based weapons.” I was astonished that this was a mental health professional’s idea of protecting the mental health of our residents. Beckles was trafficking in fringe conspiracy theories and validating the delusions of people who were clearly suffering from mental illness.
After Beckles passed her bill, the response was withering. “Richmond Council Saves Us From Space Attacks…What Will Save Us from the Richmond City Council?” asked a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Richmond police were inundated with calls from across the country as our law enforcement became a magnet for people suffering delusions.
Most sadly, I thought, was when the mother of a kid suffering from mental illness wrote to us on the City Council saying that the resolution discouraged her son from seeking mental health treatment.
The timing of this resolution was also shocking. The week before, Moody’s had downgraded Richmond’s bond rating by 3 notches, and put us on watch for future downgrades. The downgrade itself was, I believe, the result of Beckles’ collusion with others on the council in 2014 to suppress Richmond’s financial forecast. In addition, I believe Beckles colluded with others on the Council to circumvent laws prohibiting cities from borrowing for ordinary (non-capital) expenses. Moody’s wasn’t fooled by the swaption, which is a financial instrument that disguises a loan as a refinancing. This irresponsible mendacity by Beckles and her allies on the Council is expected to cost Richmond $10 to 30 million, money we can’t spare.
Jovanka Beckles is a bully. Far from an apology, all she has done is lie, and scold me. Her behavior on the Richmond City Council shows she cannot work with those that she’s not in complete agreement with, and will, therefore, be unable to build the coalitions needed to pass progressive legislation in Sacramento. Her opposition to the construction of new affordable housing will make our housing crisis worse. And her belief in outlandish conspiracy theories makes me fear what other dangerous ideas she might possess. She cannot be trusted to represent us in the California Assembly.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The interaction Pimplé describes was not recorded by the camera at the Richmond City Council meeting. There is a tweet by an East Bay Express reporter that shows Beckles walking out of the room after the meeting.
Councilmember Beckles says Mayor Butt is “disgusting” after he votes no on rent + & eviction moratorium. pic.twitter.com/4vLWirLMVS
— Darwin BondGraham (@DarwinBondGraha) September 14, 2016
At the next council meeting, at 1:22 Beckles refers to the incident.
“After the vote, several in the room, including myself, said ‘Shame on you,” to Butt, (City Councilman Nat) Bates, and Pimplé. It was not planned. It was an expression of pain and anger…”
“There have been false accounts circulating that I specifically bullied Councilmember Pimplé in a way that insulted him for having a disability. In the past, my colleague Vinay has requested that I read to him the signs that people bring to city council meetings so that he is aware of the full context of the room. I do recognize that as a result of how I was feeling, the tone in which I read the signs probably felt confrontational. That tone was not disrespect for his disability. I know what it feels to be on the end of identity-based bullying and I would never subject any another person to that kind of treatment. I am willing to acknowledge that I may have unintentionally caused pain to my colleague and for that reason I apologize.”
Bates said this after the incident in an email sent out by the mayor:
“With respect to the incident that occurred during last night’s council meeting between council members Vinay Pimplé, Jovanka Beckles and myself, I wish to validate Pimplé’s assessment of what occurred. After the vote Beckles became highly agitated and lashed out at both Pimplé and myself. When I ignored her, she directed her anger toward Pimplé who was sitting quietly to my left. I stated to Beckles her comments were unnecessary several times to no avail as she repeatedly continued her attack. At one point someone held up a sign stating “Vinay is the pimple on Tom’s Butt.” Obviously, with Pimplé being blind, Beckles was insistent upon making sure he knew what the sign stated. I have seen disagreements before between council members but this was one of the most insulting and disrespectful action I have ever witnessed.”