The shooting of two young black men by a white police officer was the catalyst for the formation of The Black Alliance, a new advocacy group for black people in Thurston County.
The Alliance is already working with Olympia’s police chief to build better relations between police and the black community.
But Karen Johnson and fellow Alliance founder Thelma Jackson also have a very large vision that takes in African Americans’ welfare in schools and opportunities in the state and local economy. One key to that is breaking what Johnson called a “school to prison” pipeline that lands too many African Americans behind bars.
The group plans a “founding celebration” of the Alliance on Saturday, Nov. 21, at the Risen Faith Fellowship, 2129 Fourth Ave. in Olympia, from 1 to 4 p.m.
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They are reaching out to blacks in the South Sound community to join their effort. But as Johnson put it in a flier: “All people of good will are welcome.”
Johnson is a strategic planner for the state Department of Social and Health Services. She holds a doctorate in urban studies, worked as a health care administrator and also served as a missionary before joining state government.
Thelma Jackson is an educator who served for 20 years on the North Thurston School Board and has been a voice since the late 1980s for state school reforms that focus on each student finding success. Like Johnson, Jackson holds a doctorate in educational leadership and change; she recently has worked with a Tacoma-based black education roundtable.
Johnson and Jackson say an advocacy group similar to the Black Alliance existed years ago. It was called the African American alliance, but it drew recent immigrants from Africa, which isn’t what they have in mind.
The goal, according to Jackson, is to focus on “black folk – descendants of slaves.”
That shared historical experience and the struggle to overcome its legacy is what unifies the black community. But the strength that comes from unity can be hard to sustain in a county where only about 3 percent of the population is black.
In the aftermath of last spring’s police shooting, Jackson, Johnson and elders in the black community realized none of them knew the family of the two men who had been shot after allegedly stealing beer and attempting to assault the police officer with a skateboard.
Thurston County prosecutors have since filed felony charges against the two men who were shot, even though one was left unable to walk. The Olympia officer who shot them was not charged, and was cleared by an investigation by police from other Thurston County agencies. An internal Olympia Police Department review determined that Donald followed agency policy.
The Black Alliance’s goals include rebuilding the black community’s network of connections with one another. They also aim to persuade the state Legislature to change the state law governing police shootings, which requires evidence of malice to support a charge against an officer. The Alliance also wants to push for deployment of body and dashboard cameras and training for officers – both to de-escalate incidents and to reduce bias.
Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts already is exploring options for training his officers about what’s called “implicit bias” – a culturally ingrained reaction that social scientists have measured in people’s subconscious reactions to people of other races. Whether that was a factor in the May shooting is not clear because many details of the altercation remain unknown, Johnson says.
The Black Alliance is a welcome and necessary resource for our community, which aspires to be open and inclusive. We need their leadership to ensure that we make those aspirations a reality.
CONTACTS: To reach the new advocacy group for Thurston County African Americans, send an email to BlackAllianceThurstonCounty@gmail.com.