Take note, state lawmakers: You’re about to hear from 120 people in the form of emails, phone calls and letters, many of whom, if not all, will urge you to support current legislation backed by the Black Alliance of Thurston County.
That’s the group that formed following the shooting of two black men by a white police officer in west Olympia in May 2015. That shooting and others like it throughout the country touched off demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Locally, Karen Johnson co-founded the Black Alliance of Thurston County.
Johnson brought her legislative goals to the First United Methodist Church in Olympia on Sunday, the second week of the church’s Legislative Academy. The church offered something similar years ago before bringing back the series this year, church member Marcy LaViollette said.
Former state Sen. Karen Fraser kicked it off Jan. 29 with “Legislature 101,” followed by Johnson’s appearance Sunday. The meetings are free and open to the public and will take place every Sunday through April 9. The gatherings are at 10 a.m. in the basement of the church.
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The audience, largely supportive and attentive to Johnson’s cause, came to hear her speak about legislative bills that the Black Alliance supports and opposes. She also talked with humor and passion about how she became involved and was galvanized by the west Olympia shooting. She also spoke of her introduction to the sometimes frustrating legislative process.
“What they taught us in ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ about how a bill becomes a law is not true,” she told the audience, eliciting laughter by referencing the Saturday morning public service cartoons.
Although there were moments of humor, Johnson said she remained unwavering with respect to her central goal: To change an element of state law that would remove “the de facto immunity for criminal liability.”
“This is about the law, not law enforcement,” she said. “This is about a statute that grants law officers immunity from prosecution when they unjustifiably kill people.”
The state law she was referring to pertains to the use of deadly force. Citing Amnesty International data, Johnson said Washington is one of the worst states when it comes to the application of justifiable homicide.
She also spoke about bills the Black Alliance opposes, such as Senate Bill 5280, which, according to a handout at the meeting, would make “threatening or killing a police officer a hate crime.”
“This is not about hating cops,” said Johnson about her own efforts. “I used to be a hospital administrator for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and police and fire reported to me. I had their back and they had mine.”
Johnson emphasized that it’s about changing the law.
“We want a force of law that is greater than the law of force,” she said.
Upcoming topics and dates for the Legislative Academy: Feb. 12, immigrant/refugee rights; Feb. 19, health care; Feb. 26, housing/homelessness; March 5, mental health; and March 12, reproductive rights.