Mendocino, CA 95460

What’s in a Name?

In predictable if disappointing fashion, the Fort Bragg city council voted late Monday night to punt on the issue of changing the name of the only California town from that honors a Confederate general. When presented with the opportunity to make a historic and bold statement, the council, after a marathon public meeting, instead voted to put the issue to a ad-hoc committee which will essentially study the issue further. No time frame, strategic goals, guidelines for structure, or composition of the commission were specified. Nor was there any dedication of City budget or staff to the issue.

Although the name change issue was officially listed as the number two item on the council agenda (item #1 was consideration of new Covid-19 guidance received from the county) no one familiar with local events hereabouts was fooled by the order of march. The hot-button issue for the night was undoubtedly the name change, which had turned this relatively small coastal hamlet into an epicenter of the national cultural debate on racism, symbols, and reckoning with the past.  It was the name change, and not the Covid-19 announcements that brought more than 100 activists and local residents out with signs and placards, and that had prompted the city to close the main intersection in town, at Highway One and Laurel.  The CHP had several units on standby for security.

The dubious distinction of being the only California city named after a Confederate officer came in a roundabout manner.  The place was among the most remote of army outposts in the new state of California in 1857 when it was named after captain of the United States army Braxton Bragg, a West Point graduate who was considered by subordinates and superiors alike as a bumbler at best and a conniving fool by many. Bragg had in 1856 resigned his commission to take up the life of a Plantation Owner and Slaver in Louisiana, where he assumed ownership of a sugar farm along with more than 100 African American slaves. One of his former associates in the Army suggested the name, and thus the long march of tradition and history began.  

The story took an inconvenient turn in 1861, when our honoree took up arms against those same United States in open rebellion and an act of treason against the government which he had sworn an oath to defend.  Soon Bragg became a general in the Confederate army. One speaker at the podium last night suggested that the only good thing about Braxton Bragg was that his utter incompetence as a military commander undoubtedly hastened the defeat of the Confederate army by several months.  

In the event anyone came expecting trouble, they were disappointed ,as the crowd was peaceful and respectful. Upwards of 125 people had taken the time to show up, some carrying signs demanding Justice or an End of Oppression, and others sporting patriotic regalia, including a representative of the Daughters of the American West.  One character even dressed up as a Confederate General – Bragg, one assumes – who was smirking and laughing, unmasked, on the street corner with locals. It occurred to more than one observer that the very appearance of a white man dressed as Confederate “General Bragg” in June 2020 might have sparked a race riot at other places in this country.

Most people had come to the site on Monday night to make their views known. But space inside the meeting hall itself was severely restricted to comply with physical distancing parameters.  Only eight seats were available for the public, and two for press.  Opinion on the issue seemed to be roughly split among three groups: 1. those that believe the name should be changed to one reflecting Pomo Indian origins; 2. a sizable group that favors the current name, and 3. a group that wants the name changed immediately to anything other than one honoring a dead confederate general.

Most in this remote working-class community have fairly strong views on the issue that brought Fort Bragg into the center of the national debate: Residents are engaged in an impassioned discussion about values beliefs and symbols.

People against any name change consistently cited simple respect for tradition and history, along with the assertion that a name change alone does nothing to address underlying and systemic racism. To these people, changing the name is a clumsy attempt to re-write history.

Those favoring name change point out that the people and events commemorated by “naming” are in fact elevated to honor by society.  That each thing honored in this way is in fact a memorial, and as such are deeply meaningful symbols. And that symbols matter now too; not merely actions. One speaker compared Bragg to the biblical betrayer of Jesus, Judas Iscariot.  He noted that Judas has currently no cities named after him in the United States.

Both sides pointed to costs associated with their opponents’ proposals.  The “changers” cited the chilling and negative publicity that the name controversy, and that the name itself has drawn unwanted attention to Fort Bragg. One contended that there many are offended enough by the issue to boycott travel and business to the city. Those against change pointed to renaming costs – from stationary to parks, to signs, to the School District.

The argument was made by many against name change at this point that further study and review – by as yet undefined groups – might produce agreeable options and maybe even consensus down the road.  Perhaps.  In the event Council decided to punt the ball downfield and buy more time.  There were three options before the council that night, namely: 1. renaming the City then and there or voting to do so within a given time;  2. putting the question to a city-wide referendum vote of the people of Fort Bragg in November; and 3. the course actually adopted  – to bury the issue in committee for further study.  This decision will probably appease only the status-quo group. But the other two demographic components that together favor change, and that represent the majority of those present, is not likely to be silenced by referral to an ad-hoc committee with no budget, no staff, no reporting deadline, and no guidance from Mayor Will Lee other than to report their findings “sometime soon.”

Although neither Mayor Lee nor Concilmember Norvell returned calls seeking comment, City Manager Tabatha Miller offered the official perspective in an extensive interview.  She argued that for those seeking a name change, more time, study, and consultation is needed.  And everyone – at least publicly – supports an inclusive process that honors all viewpoints.  But Ms. Miller acknowledged that the City missed an opportunity to address the issue directly by publicly committing to name change on Monday night.  The council could have made a bold statement by voting to change from a clearly inappropriate current name to one to chosen a citizen commission with a one-year deadline,

As it stands, only those who support the status quo find much to cheer in the council vote.  And for those that see the name as an affront at worst and a inconvenient anachronism at best, delay is unsatisfactory. For this group, signs and symbols represent the collective values that a society holds. For these people, every moment that the name stands is an insult to those seeking to advance racial and social justice.

The council may have bought itself some time on Monday night. But a reckoning with the past of this place seems to be underway.

Andrew Scully
Andrew Scully
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