OLYMPIA –– The City of Olympia began its four-meeting town hall series on racial justice yesterday. With the heightening energy surrounding recent events that highlight the intentions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, the meeting is designed to allow Black voices to bring their perspectives to the table. Hosted by moderator Kelly Purce Braseth, three members of the Black Community offered their stories and suggestions for what can be done to increase racial justice in our communities.
“I want to thank you for your trust when we came up with this crazy idea,” said Braseth. “This is a hard topic and our panelists bring their expertise and their honesty to the table.”
Dr. Thelma Jackson, the first panelist introduced, served under numerous leadership capacities over the years, such as being president of Washington State School Directors’ Association, five-term president of the North Thurston School Board, and Chair of the State Advisory Council.
Larry Jefferson, who served as a public defendant of King and Thurston counties since 1996, was deemed an Attorney of the Year, won the Daniel Bigelow Award, served as president of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and is a devoted father of two.
David Owens, an advocate for those seeking vindication for violations of their civil rights, works at a civil rights firm, representing clients in Washington, California, Wisconsin and Illinois, is a lecturer in law at the University of Chicago, teaches in the school’s pro-bono wrongful conviction clinic, and represents juveniles given life sentences as well as claimants and proceedings before the Illinois Torture Inquiry Commission.
All three panelists have worked hard to earn an esteemed education in the university setting.
A primary focus of the meeting centered on acknowledging that such inequalities exist in our society, something brought up by each of the panelists.
“We’ve been complaining for the last 400 years about the inequities, the injustice, the disparities, but for a number of reasons,” said Dr. Jackson. “[The] fact that we are such a racial society, [and] structural inequalities are so intricately entwined in the ... fabric of what we call the American Way … [are things we] no longer pay attention to.”
Systemic racism is described as an insidious kind of societal disease that is integrated (often unintentionally) into the very institutions of our nation.
“Until we as a society admit that there is a cancer – one, we call it a cancer and two, we treat it as one, [though] one that was ignored for a while … and it turns out, like cancer, getting to the root cause of it is like chemo therapy,” said Owens. “It hurts, and it is not going to be fun ... [the] long-term solution is that were never going to be able to address these fundamental issues until we agree that these are fundamental issues … We know the goal is this: kill cancer.”
Racial injustice can present itself as a subject that seems relatively straightforward, yet so many intricacies occur below the surface that one must actively search for to find.
“I like you to imagine an iceberg floating in the sea,” offered Jefferson. “Imagine a criminal law is at the tip of that ice berg, but what you don’t see with criminal law is underneath the water, is the systemic racism in all areas of our society –– education, employment, health care, the wealth gap, all those things are below the water. So what we have with criminal law is that’s where we have the enforcement arm for systemic racism.”
According to the panelists and city officials, there has to be intentional, wide-spread and sustainable action made to ensure that racial justice is improved within the legal system. The city council listened to the main concerns of those attending the meeting via video and asked what we can really do to make a difference. The first step, according to Dr. Jackson, lies in the individual. Having a personal understanding of how we define the relevant terms that surround questions of social justice today.
“We need to really start that conversation with a basic conversation of definition,” said Jackson, “because it means different things to different people.”
These include salient terms like “defunding the police” and “public safety.” This is because it becomes more difficult to have constructive conversations if people are operating on two different meanings of the same word. Terminology, speakers said, remains important in conversations surrounding racial justice.
Another aspect of personal responsibility that the panelists offered revolves around understanding the history that led to the current state of our nation.
“One really big fundamental difficult issue when you’re trying to resolve problems in society is they cannot be solved if you don’t acknowledge what they are … [and] where they came from,” said Jackson.
This can be as simple as spending time reading about American history, the history of slavery, or about the multifold development of civil rights movements in the past. It has often been said that if we don’t know our history then we are destined to repeat it.
“Go to the bookstore, read some books,” offered Jefferson. “Racism is real, and it’s a ‘we’ thing.”
A lot of the discussion was dedicated to parsing out the panelists’ experiences with law enforcement and making suggestions for ways to help the police become a force that more people will be responsive to. They want people who currently mistrust the police to instead be able to look positively upon them.
“The militaristic aspect of policing has come into play, the whole appearance of police, the use of force, and all of these things that have evolved over time,” said Jackson, “and all of the money that’s thrown towards police and criminal justice in the industry.”
The modern role of the police officer has been expanded to fit growing expectations surrounding broad societal issues not specifically regarding the enforcement side of law, like the complexities of mental health. This has placed pressure on police departments to have so many responsibilities that it can be difficult to keep up.
“I agree that … we use the police for too many things,” said Jefferson. “I want to get police to wear fireman armor, everybody’s excited when a fireman shows up ... that’s where we need to get police.”
The allocation of funds also plays a huge role in how institutions like the police department functions. One suggestion that was made by multiple panelists involves a scaling down of police funds to be placed in the community to try and prevent crime at its root. The panelists emphasized that they value the role of the police department and that arrests do need to happen, but that the underfunding of communities themselves could lead to less of a need for police response in the first place.
“The concept is simply stop spending millions and millions of dollars in militarizing the police and start spending it in communities … [to] reduce crime, [and] make communities safe,” said Owens. “When economic things happen, that drives crime up. These are not policing issues.”
This idea extends to the homelessness crisis as well.
“A supermajority of homeless have mental issues,” continued Owens. “The people who should be taking care of them are not criminal justice [responders] ... it should be a community response that addresses the underlying issue. We need to reduce the scope of that. Defunding the police is not about abolishing the police department.”
Panelists and city officials found common ground during Thursday’s discussion. For example, if people listen to one another with compassion and respect while holding one another accountable if someone exudes racism or hate, a lot of progress can be made toward bettering local communities and a better nation.
“We all need to have humility because these are challenging topics,” said Owens. “We should extend beyond considering ourselves non-racist into becoming actively and vehemently anti-racist. Don’t just sit by complicitly and expect that this solves itself.”
This meeting, being the first of four and only 90 minutes long, was only a start to conversations of race in the legal and judicial system. Forgoing racism is a lifelong process involving daily progress and work with officials on the local level.
“We can begin to talk about what are we saying that we need to do differently … what policies do we need to impart, and only through dialogue and better understanding of one another is that going to happen,” explained Dr. Jackson. “Individually, do what you can do, collectively, do what you can do, but collectively, we can begin to make these changes.”