Riley County Commission chairman Marvin Rodriguez on Thursday defended comments he had made earlier about Chinese people, saying he eats Chinese food and has Chinese friends.
Rodriguez also didn’t acknowledge demands from people attending Thursday’s meeting who wanted him to resign, adding that his comment were not meant to be disparaging to Chinese people and they were taken out of context. He also on Thursday reiterated the notion that China had deliberately spread the virus.
A handful of county residents and representatives from the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice (MAPJ) condemned the comments by Rodriguez, when he said that Manhattan is not likely to have many cases of the coronavirus because “we don’t necessarily have any (Chinese people).”
Fanny Fang, a partner at Asian Market in Manhattan, and MAPJ asked for Rodriguez to resign Thursday during the Riley County Commission meeting.
“It’s not just a matter of the Asian community, but the Manhattan community at large,” Fang said. “For me, (the comment) felt like it was a distraction from what really matters.”
Rodriguez responded to Fang’s comments via phone, as he was not present at the meeting, stating he got his information from a news report.
“My comments were not to discourage anybody, okay,” Rodriguez said. “They were comments that I received from the national news about the work of China. Chinese people in Italy, and how they worked, how China deliberately did what they did.”
Rodriguez said that people from China may have their nationality there, but ultimately, people are Americans after taking their “oath of citizenship” and have an American nationality too.
“You may have Chinese background, but you’re not no longer, as far as I am concerned, because of my name, I don’t look at me as Spanish or Mexican, or anything like that,” he said. “I’m American. It’s not meant to be disparaging on anybody, and it was taken out of context.”
Rodriguez apologized for his comments.
“I don’t know what else I can say, but, you know, I’ve apologized for the remarks and how they may have hurt people,” he said. “But that’s not what I do and that’s not how I think. I have everybody on my mind ... and I’ve got a lot of Chinese food here and I’ve got some Chinese friends and stuff.”
Fang responded to his comments, stating that she is proud to be an American and Chinese.
“I am proud to own a storefront that clearly says Asian Market, and represents not only myself, but over 50 countries in which we have products of,” Fang said.
Other residents called on the county to hold their meetings online and allow for public comment through digital means to stop potential exposure of COVID-19. Brandon Irwin of Renters Together MHK also video taped and posted part of the meeting on the MAPJ’s Facebook page.
“Now, more than ever, we need an option for citizens to submit comments without having to attend in-person,” said Jessica Preston Kerr, who spoke on behalf of MAPJ. “This becomes particularly critical during a pandemic, where as your own health department tells you, ‘You are not supposed to congregate in groups.’ We can’t even all be present today this morning.”
Commissioner Ron Wells said the county is looking into broadcasting meetings through digital means.
“We have our hands full with COVID-19, and trying to conduct business,” Wells said.
Kerr encouraged the county to broadcast meetings on Facebook for people to be able to see.
Commission John Ford said the commission is going to continue to try to have discussions on moving the meetings to digital means, but it isn’t the commission’s “number one priority.”
“I will tell you that we’ve had some dialogue here in recent weeks about this several times,” Ford said.
Ford promised Kerr that they will continue to have more conversations about this.
Manhattan resident Luke Townsend said that the commission’s reaction to Fang’s comments was “a poor attempt at deflection.”
“Your silence is condoning this, and it’s concerning for me,” Townsend said.
Wells said he has built many homes for Chinese people and has eaten Chinese food in the area. Townsend asked Wells if he would condemn Rodriguez’s comments.
“It’s not up to me to be making comments,” Wells said. “He has to stand on his own two feet on what his comments were.”
Wells said, in the end, that he “doesn’t condone it,” after Townsend asked again if Wells would condemn the comments.
Townsend asked Rodriguez why he “decided to conveniently be absent from this meeting today in-person.”
Rodriguez did not respond to that comment, but he said at last week’s meeting that he was sick, but not with the coronavirus.