The shooting of two young black skateboarders by an Olympia police officer in May raised basic questions for our community that are still unanswered more than two months later. A team of police from different agencies has completed its inquiry into a report of a beer theft at a Safeway. It ended in a confrontation between the two men and a police officer who shot and wounded them.
Law enforcement has been waiting for lab results before handing over all details to the Thurston County prosecutor for possible charges. Waiting for answers about who might be prosecuted, and for what, is hard for all of us, but especially hard for African- Americans in our community.
The questions raised by this shooting go beyond issues of police conduct. The complacency of our mostly white community and its identity as an inclusive, liberal enclave have been shaken.
We sat down recently with three elders in South Sound’s African-American community to talk about the shooting, the fears that it awakened and their hope about what might come out of this.
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“Most people will agree that the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” said Merritt Long, who grew up in Alabama and served as Washington state Lottery director and in other prominent government posts for many decades before retiring. He said he’s heard a strong sentiment that the two suspects would not have been shot if they were white.
“It was a shock to the community, but it was not a shock to me,” added Barbara Clarkson, who was raised in Louisiana, studied education and criminology at the University of Washington, taught in public schools for a number of years and now serves as a trustee for South Puget Sound Community College. “I think it was a matter of time.’’
Clarkson said she’s seen or been made aware of questionable incidents over the years in the way Olympia officers handled incidents involving racial minorities. “It should not have happened,” she said.
Nat Jackson, who grew up in Louisiana and worked on civil rights issues with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said he has talked to the young men’s families. “Something went terribly wrong,” he said. “Something is wrong with that (shooting). I can’t imagine how it could have happened.”
There is no clear evidence yet that the officer acted overtly as a result of the suspects’ race. All three acknowledged that the results of the investigation need to be known before judgments are made. But they also want the larger community to know how isolated or undervalued a black person can feel at times.
Clarkson said African- Americans still experience something she calls “the illusion of inclusion.” Many blacks and other minorities get into prominent jobs or appear to be included on councils and boards, but Clarkson said, “People perceive they are welcome. Sometimes they are not welcome. They are tolerated.’’
And when racist comments or incidents happen, she’s witnessed “white silence.”
It’s a phenomenon that came up, Clarkson said, during a panel discussion with students at Olympia High School. African-American kids reported being teased and taunted about their race regularly in school hallways, but white kids claimed they were “only joking” and “didn’t mean anything by it.”
One white girl at the discussion acknowledged she’d never spoken up when she heard racial comments. She discovered with embarrassment, but then conviction, that she needed to speak up next time and every time she heard students using disparaging language in a hall.
That’s a message for all of us. Those of us who are white don’t often realize what a privilege it is to never have to think about our race. And it’s that complacency that makes it too easy to be blind to the “illusion of inclusion” that Clarkson cites. It’s easy for us to think we’ve gotten beyond that without ever really learning what it’s like to be black in our community.
Jackson, Long and Clarkson all shared the opinion that “we haven’t come as far as we think” on racial equality.
The same is true of policing. Certainly we should explore as a community the need to equip officers with body cameras, to get them training in de-escalation of confrontations, to build police relationships with citizens and to have police staffs that are more diverse.
To take the next steps we need to walk together. For white Olympians, that means speaking up each time we hear or see racial prejudice. And it means reaching out, and putting more effort into learning what it’s like to be black or brown in a mostly white community.
No matter how the investigation of the police shooting turns out, the underlying and urgent challenge remains, and that is to become the inclusive community we think we are.
Editor’s note: This has been updated to correct where Nat Jackson, a former Olympia businessman who now works as a wellness coach and motivational speaker, grew up.