A chorus of community leaders gathered at San Jose City Hall to express their outrage over a racist image posted on the website of The Silicon Valley Organization and demanded politicians backed by the group return campaign donations.
“We stand here today to condemn the racist actions of The SVO and to call on all people of good will to stand up for what is good,” said Samantha Lynn Evans of Stone Church. “We today should not stand idly by while those in our community evoke the same racist thinking that undergirded the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of African peoples and chattel slavery.”
On its website, the business organization briefly posted an image of Black people in what appears to be a riot in South Africa. A caption reads, “Do you really want to sign on to this?”
The post was a political attack on progressive candidate Jake Tonkel, who is challenging San Jose Councilmember Dev Davis. It suggested Tonkel supports defunding the police and that his stance could lead to riots.
The gathering included leaders of Silicon Valley NAACP, labor unions, Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, Silicon Valley De-Bug and faith leaders.
The leaders called on Davis and Councilmember Lan Diep, who also received SVO PAC support, to return the contributions. Earlier in the day, Davis donated the $1,200 she received from the PAC to the NAACP.
“I (wanted) to donate the money to a local organization that fights for civil rights rather than sending it back to The SVO,” Davis told San José Spotlight.
South Bay Labor Council Interim Executive Officer Jean Cohen called on Davis and Diep to disassociate from The SVO.
“Distressing, shameful, abhorrent, disgusting, sad and in shock, these are some of the words that are being thrown around at local business institutions about why we are here today,” she said. “But there is only one word and one reason why we are here today: racism.”
The fallout for The SVO was swift. In a day, its CEO Matt Mahood was placed on an administrative leave and numerous board members resigned.
According to campaign finance reports, The SVO political action committee spent hundreds of thousands in independent expenditures to support Davis and Diep via ads and mailers. As of Oct. 28, The SVO spent $135,025 on Diep’s campaign and $40,033 on Davis’s, according to the reports.
Rev. Jeff Moore of the Silicon Valley NAACP pulled out a white envelope from his back pocket and told the people gathered around that he was holding the money Davis gave.
“This $1,200 will be spent to buy winter supplies for the homeless,” he said.
Moore also said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo should have called for the resignation of Mahood before his organization placed him on administrative leave pending an investigation.
“Here at home, in my city of San Jose, I cannot tell the serpent or the enemy from those who claim to be our friends,” Moore said, “They claim to be democratic and support democratic principles, but yet we constantly see SVO painting pictures of people of color, making them darker, and then saying ‘we’re sorry.'”
During a Facebook Live briefing, Liccardo addressed the controversy after being asked by a viewer.
“There’s no question that the use of that photograph was atrocious. It was morally wrong. It should’ve never happened and I absolutely denounce it,” Liccardo said. “If there is any silver lining here, I picked up the phone as soon as I saw and heard about the image, I called the CEO Matt Mahood who had just heard a few minutes before about the image. He himself was surprised. He took the image down right away and apologized publicly immediately as he should have… they’re trying to understand what went wrong.”
Moore, along with Tony Alexander of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, noted the history of controversy The SVO PAC has had with mailers in past elections.
In February, the group darkened the face of a Latina lawmaker — San Jose Councilmember Sylvia Arenas — in a campaign ad that was called racist.
The group faced similar allegations in 2016 when it darkened an image of Councilmember Sergio Jimenez, and doctored an image of council candidate Kalen Gallagher in 2018 to look like he’s flipping off the camera. The SVO leaders blamed third party vendors — website consultants and administrators — for the racist images related to Tonkel and Arenas.
“Why are we here? Why do we keep coming back and having these rallies? We don’t need to keep seeing this darkening,” Alexander said. “We don’t want history repeating itself, so again we stand with all of our brothers and sisters that are here.”
In a statement Oct. 28, The SVO officials apologized and said all political activity by its PAC will be suspended — a blow for the business lobby less than a week before Election Day.
“An image was recently posted on The SVO website that was blatantly racist, completely inappropriate and unacceptable,” said Madison Nguyen, The SVO’s executive vice president in a statement. “We are horrified by this image as it does not represent the values of the organization, the leadership, the Board of Directors or our members. For that, we apologize. There is no excuse. The Board of Directors is moving quickly and effectively to understand how this could have occurred, and to ensure it never happens again.
Father Jon Pedigo of Catholic Charities said The SVO’s decision to put Mahood on leave should be applauded but changing the face of a farrow does not change the farrow.
“What this post told us is the antagonistic nature against people of color,” he said.
Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.