Demanding accountability for the death of Yvonne McDonald

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” -- Dr. Martin Luther King

I spoke at my first City Council meeting recently. This is because I only very recently learned about a pressing issue in our community: justice for Yvonne McDonald.

Yvonne McDonald was found unconscious by a streetsweeper on the morning of Aug. 7, 2018, and died later that day. I am writing this as we come up upon the anniversary of the event — or, as her family calls it, Yvonne’s one-year “angelversary.” Yvonne’s family has been hard at work trying to garner public support and attention in order to find out what happened to their beloved family member. The family is still searching for answers and organizing in order to hold the police department and city government accountable for finding answers.

I was particularly drawn to Yvonne’s story because, for one, I knew members of her family, and also, when I heard them speak to the City Council, I could not help but feel their anguish. I watched as many of the council disregarded Yvonne’s family and their message. It was heartbreaking.

I learned some interesting facts about the case: First, though Yvonne was found partially clothed, a male police officer was initially dispatched to the scene. Second, Yvonne’s family wasn’t aware of her toxicology report results until they were made public in The Olympian.

The family was plainly struggling to get answers from people in positions of authority, not knowing where to turn. No one was telling them where to get updates on Yvonne’s case or how to stay involved in the justice proceedings or even what was happening on the bureaucratic end — things no family should have to figure out for themselves. This case seemed permeated with racism; it’s clear to me that my family would not be treated the same way in the same circumstances.

I watched a family who was grieving hold back tears while the people who were supposed to be representing them and helping them looked on expressionlessly and, later, even silenced them and had them escorted out of the chambers.

Yvonne’s case is not unique. In cities across the country, families, particularly non-white ones, are left searching for their own answers, trying to navigate a complex system full of red tape, and as they channel their grief into action, they are regarded as angry, irrational, and troublesome. This is a harmful stereotype and is especially applied to black women.

This harmful stereotype, paired with the difficulty of understanding the government and justice systems, results in further anguish for the family rather than the justice they seek for their loved ones.

The media is not innocent in this. The media dictates what gets talked about, who gets talked about, and is influenced by who the government is listening to. It’s an awful cycle, because the media is also one of the only vehicles to fix these problems and convey true justice — its responsibility is to draw attention to the stories that need it.

There is also the responsibility for leaders in our government to empathize with these stories. I was relieved to see a few of the council members do that a few weeks ago, but as far as I know, none have taken actions to support the family and help them achieve justice for Yvonne.

As “the people,” we have an obligation to hold these important, powerful entities accountable. We put ourselves in danger when we do not commit to justice for all.

Gracie Anderson is a student at Pacific Lutheran University who was born and raised in Olympia. She helped organize the Youth Call for Climate Action Rally at the state Capitol in 2018. Reach her at gracienanderson@gmail.com.