At 1:15 a.m. early Thursday, May 21 on the westside of Olympia, Washington, white police officer, Ryan Donald, shot two young black unarmed men, step-brothers, Andre Thompson, aged 24, and Bryson Chaplin, aged 21. These two Olympia residents are in serious condition at nearby hospitals in Tacoma and Seattle. Fortunately, they are expected to live.
According to the local newspaper, The Olympian, of May 22, 2015 the two brothers had been skateboarding at a local park before going to a Safeway supermarket nearby. They picked up some beer and were stopped by an employee of Safeway inside the store but near the entrance and past the cash registers. When challenged, they dropped the beer and took off shortly before 1 a.m. last Thursday. Safeway employees then called the Olympia Police Department. Police officer Ryan Donald responded and found Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin a few minutes later, about a half mile north of Safeway and near the brothers’ home. According to police reports, Police Officer Donald got out of his police car a little before 1:15 a.m. and was attacked by one of the brothers with a skateboard. Donald shot one of them and they fled into a nearby wooded area. When they re-emerged, the police officer, Donald shot the other brother multiple times.
Neither brother was armed. Olympia police officer Donald was not injured.
The first shooting seems unjustified. Remember we are talking about suspects in an alleged shoplifting incident of which Safeway had photos. Officer Donald did not have to get out of his police car.
The second shooting that took place a few moments later appears to be a case of attempted murder. Donald cannot claim that he was in imminent danger when he fired the second time. He has not made a statement yet.
Police officer Ryan Donald, age 35, had served tours of duty as part of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan and also had worked for the U.S. Border Patrol before becoming an Olympia police officer. As one Olympia resident said at a rally on the day of the shooting, Ryan Donald had served in institutions where hunting “men of color” was the norm. There is an important issue of police officers who return from U.S. wars abroad and a militarized border, and then have a mindset that the local residents are dangerous or “the enemy” and shoot if there is the slightest perceived threat.
Many people I know in Olympia, Washington, which is a small liberal city of 50,000, say the police killings of Sean Bell, John Williams, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Akil Gurley, Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, Walter Scott , and most recently, Freddie Gray, and Daniel Covarrubias in Lakewood, Washington were terrible and horrible but police shootings couldn’t happen in Olympia; that we are so liberal. It is a mistaken Olympia exceptionalism.
Police shootings, especially of blacks, can happen anywhere in the United States. Racism exists in Olympia just as it does throughout the rest of the nation. We are not living in a post-racial society.
There is a small but growing African-American population in Olympia. According to the 2010 census, two percent of Olympia is black, five percent self-identify as two or more races, 80 percent are white and the remaining 13 percent are Latino/a, Asian-American or Native American.
African-Americans are more likely than whites to be stopped by the police, to be followed and racially profiled in stores and when walking, to be disciplined and tracked in the schools away from four year college, and to face racial discrimination in renting and buying homes in Olympia. So racism in Olympia is about far more than the police shooting of two unarmed young black men who were suspects in a shoplifting case.
I have lived in Olympia for 27 years and know numerous young white people who have shop-lifted beer from that particular Safeway, which is about a mile from my house. Of course, none were shot. If caught, most were let go after a warning or received a citation to appear in court.
This is also not the first case of major police brutality in this city. In 1989, a healthy, Danny Spencer who was high on LSD, was arrested, hogtied and brutally beaten by two Olympia police officers. Similar to the case of Freddie Gray, he was taken to the police station rather than to a hospital and died. In 2002, Stephen Edwards was repeatedly tasered after shoplifting a steak from a supermarket in downtown Olympia and died. In 2008, Jose Ramirez was killed by a former Olympian police officer, Paul Bakala, who was also involved in the killing of Stephen Edwards, six years earlier. In all of these cases, police from Olympia and surrounding communities investigated the shooting and found no wrongdoing.
For the recent shooting of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, Olympia police chief Ronnie Roberts announced that the “critical incident team” is to be led by the Thurston County Sheriffs Department and will include police from the two surrounding cities as well as the State Patrol. This is an old boys’ network of the police investigating themselves. There should be an independent investigation by representatives from groups like the NAACP and the ACLU in Washington State investigating this latest police shooting.
Resistance and public opinion in Olympia
On a few hours notice, a small group of people organized a rally and march from the westside of Olympia to the Olympia police station in downtown on the same day of the shooting. Mobilization was mainly through Facebook. Approximately 800 people—mostly young and primarily white but not totally so—took over one of the main streets in Olympia and by chanting “Black Lives Matter,” made a powerful statement against the police shooting and in support for the two victims, Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson.
With the real possibility of a major physical confrontation with right-wing and pro-police individuals and the likelihood of creating divisions within the progressive community, a planned march the next day to Police Officer Ryan Donald’s home by the Olympia group, Abolish Cops and Borders was called was cancelled.
The local newspaper, The Olympian, has attempted to reduce the support for Andre Thompson and Bryce Chaplin and minimize criticisms of the police, printed in the lead article on May 23 the minor arrest records of the two brothers. This information is irrelevant.
Some Olympia residents have stated that before there are protests, we should wait for the investigation to be completed. This denies the fact that even the police admit that both Chaplin and Thompson were unarmed at the time of the shooting. In addition, similar to their responses to many of the recent police shootings of African-American men, many residents of Olympia, as elsewhere, are quick to voice fear or disapproval of militant protests despite the frequent murders by law enforcement of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and others. Fortunately, there are many others who are determined to stand up for racial justice.
A recently formed group in Olympia, called ”Olympia for All”, announced they are running two candidates, Rafael Ruiz and Ray Guerra, for the Olympia City Council and a third candidate, Marco Rossi, for mayor. All three candidates have stated that accountability of the police would be a major part of their platform. So will their commitment to be part of a movement for an inclusive Olympia? This includes promoting a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to affordable housing. This is a hopeful development.
The challenge in Olympia as in many other places is to build an ongoing campaign, and a broad social movement from the justified anger at this horrible police shooting in Olympia of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson. We need democratic, radical, inclusive and principled organizations that can sustain themselves, and where Black people play a major role in a movement against institutional racism and for economic and social justice. All groups need to make racial justice and equality a part of their mission and activities.
Mobilizing, solely through Facebook is insufficient. Mobilizing digitally, even if more broadly than through Facebook, is important and necessary but it cannot substitute for real conversation and education, and in organizing and developing ongoing campaigns for winning meaningful demands to improve people’s lives. Don’t stop.
It is a difficult time in Olympia as it is in other places. There are many, many politically conscious people here of all ages with a willingness to do something, but there are not a lot of anti-racist and active groups and organizations. From of this tragedy is an opportunity to have serious conversations in our community about racism, how Black lives matter, and in what ways we can build a social movement that can effectively challenge white racism and all forms of inequality.
Peter Bohmer is faculty in Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and activist since1967 in movements for fundamental social change.
Also, published in Counter Punch, submitted to WIP by the author.