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Native Americans Accuse Gilroy City Leaders Of Ignoring Objections To 'Mission Bell'

GILROY (KPIX) -- Native Americans in Gilroy accuse many city leaders of ignoring their repeated objections to the recent installation of a "Mission Bell" in the heart of the town, and plan to fight to have it removed.

"They don't care, they're going to tell history the way they want it to be told," said Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman Valentin Lopez.

The El Camino Real Mission Bell, which was installed on Monterey Street in downtown, is meant to celebrate Gilroy's 150th birthday. But Lopez said it instead symbolizes a history of oppression and murder.

"Those bells represent the destruction and domination of Native American people," said Lopez. "Those missions represent slavery, they represent brutality, whippings, rape, breaking up families."

When Lopez learned the bell was set to go up in downtown, he and several groups including the ACLU, wrote letters urging city leaders not to move forward with the project.

"We got no response from the city," he said.

But they didn't stop there. Lopez and other community members showed up to the Jan. 10 council meeting and spoke in opposition of the Mission Bell during public comment, including requesting for it be formally discussed by putting it on the agenda.

During the meeting, Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz proposed to have the installation postponed.

"Tonight we have the opportunity to not condone and not move forward with acknowledging historical wrongs and rather the opportunity to honor those who have suffered," Armendariz said. "I'm hoping we can agendize a discussion to postpone the installation of the Mission or the El Camino Real Bell."

However, as Armendariz was speaking Mayor Blankley interrupted Armendariz.

"My request is that we recognize their voices, we request what they've asked from us," Council Member Armendariz replied to the mayor.

The mayor then asked the council to give a "thumbs up or thumbs down" to agendize a discussion about the bell.

"I see one, two, three thumbs up so that motion fails," Blankley said.

The bell was installed a couple weeks later.

Blakley did not respond to KPIX 5's request for a comment.

Councilmember Zach Hilton said he was among the three members who voted to agendize the discussion, and said in a statement that "we shouldn't be approving the installation of any pieces of artwork, statues, or symbols of oppression without vetting them through an equity and inclusion policy."

Hilton said he would continue to work on getting it on the agenda.

Last year, the Santa Cruz City Council voted unanimously to get rid of all its Mission Bells. UC Santa Cruz also removed its campus bell several years ago, and Lopez said they stopped the city of Hayward from considering it altogether.

There is now an effort by tribes across California, he added, to discuss a statewide campaign to remove all Mission Bells from government properties.

KPIX 5 reached out to the Gilroy city councilmembers for comment. Councilmember Dion Bracco claimed in a statement to KPIX that to refer to the bell as 'Mission Bells' is incorrect and perpetuates a false misunderstanding of what they are: road markers. Most people who refer to them as Mission Bells do so out of ignorance, or to purposely inflame passions."

"They want to erase the indigenous history, they want to continue their domination over indigenous people," said Lopez.

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