It’s a year since the May 21, 2015, Olympia police shootings. While the specific experience of the two half-brothers facing criminal charges and associated demonstrations are of some interest, the conversation should be deeper than that.
Those young men’s actions weren’t the carefully planned strategy of civil rights activists. We shouldn’t lay the mantle of complex racial realities on their thin shoulders. The demographics of the players — the happenstance that the young men are black and the officer is white — simply resonate with our national consciousness.
Nor should their specific narrative be fodder for those who deny any problem with racism in our community and country. We can and should take this opportunity to come to grips with the extent that largely unconscious racism is rampant among us.
Any honest conversation about race will reveal that to be true. Olympia’s generally liberal self-narrative has allowed us to deny this reality and, in the aftermath of these shootings, to scapegoat the police department which ironically (or fortuitously) has the most equity-minded chief in its history.
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Olympia has responded: with courageous conversations on race co-sponsored by the Black Alliance and OPD, with Unity in the Community’s forums, with race conversations at local high schools and more.
Hundreds of diverse people attended the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations forums. That committee was charged with hearing voices of under-represented and minority groups on policing practices, to bridge understanding between OPD and the public. Four forums were held: a primarily African-American focus, Latino-Hispanic focus, homeless/indigent focus and youth focus. The fifth forum explained privacy concerns and other practical realities of implementing police body-worn cameras.
The committee’s report to the council is on the city’s website, with summaries and the full text of the community’s input. Engaging these quieter voices was a responsible, unusual step for a city government.
Time will tell how the council and OPD absorb and respond to voices of people who are seldom heard.
The Dispute Resolution Center recognized Olympia High School Principal Matt Grant, GRuB outreach coordinator and Ad Hoc Committee member Kerensa Mabwa, and Chief Ronnie Roberts for their courageous peacemaker roles stemming from the catalyzing event of this shooting.
Many other thoughtful people in the broader community have worked hard, digging deeper and reflecting on the issues of race and community responsibility. We do not have to succumb to easy dichotomies — either the young men are to be supported in all ways or you are racist; either the police are to be supported in all ways or you are foolish.
Honestly facing race is hard, but necessary. Our population is inevitably changing. Despite today’s toxic political campaign environment, or maybe because of it, we, as citizens controlling our own destiny and consciousness, have a responsibility to grasp this opportunity to genuinely connect on questions of race and to evolve our common human experience.
Reiko Callner served as co-chairwoman of Olympia’s former Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations.