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Black activists organize to demand an end to police brutality and systemic racism

From protest to movement

Some activists wince at the word “protest.” It doesn’t convey the magnitude of public outcry that has taken place in Olympia.

For the last couple of months, multiple people and organizations have held demonstrations across Thurston County, mostly in Olympia. But because organizers face violent threats, leaders are difficult to find. Washington Community Action Network (CAN), Olympia SURJ: Showing up for Racial Justice, Justice for Yvonne McDonald and Olympia Black Lives Matter Community Council are a few of the organizations that have held or been affiliated with demonstrations and rallies since George Floyd’s murder.

“It’s a movement, uprising, it’s a revolution,” said Ty Brown, a community organizer with Washington CAN. “Call it what it is. In the beginning it was a protest, but movements last longer than 20 days and this has been lasting longer than 20 days. A protest is something that dies out quickly.”

In Olympia, the city council banned the Olympia Police Department from using chemical munitions, except when three or more people are committing “criminal mischief.” City council members and the mayor signed onto a letter that opposes the presence of armed vigilantes in Thurston County. The city council is also working to create a Human Rights Commission to advise the council on policy issues.

These actions are the result of more public pressure and input than ever before, as Olympians demonstrate in the streets, demanding large structural changes, more police accountability and an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

“You can’t have a conversation about the police without having a conversation about housing…”

It’s these changes that Brown and others hope to fight for with their new organization Black Leaders in Action & Solidarity in Thurston County, or BLAST. Brown and other activists formed the organization in June, when they reached out to “every Black leader” they knew in Olympia.

“The purpose of BLAST is to give space for Black voices to be heard, lifted up and elevated to come together and work on the same fight toward justice,” Brown said. “There is injustice in every instance in our Black lives—in our housing, in our policing, in our jobs, in everything. It’s all tied together. So bringing everyone from different backgrounds and different organizations together at a Black leaders’ table—nothing could be more powerful than that.”

On Sunday, June 7, BLAST met with a group of about 25 elected officials from city, county and state levels to read and discuss a list of demands the group had developed.

The list is nine pages long, with seven main asks. There is an outline of how BLAST wants to accomplish each, including calls for multiple Olympia Police Department officers to be fired.

The goals of the demands are for the city and county governments to divest from the criminal justice system, to provide for more city and police accountability, to increase tenant rights by enacting a Good Cause Eviction Bill and Non Possessory Bill, to investigate ties between public officials and armed militias and to create a “Reconciliation and Oversight Board” in the City of Olympia (what the Olympia City Council calls a “Human Rights Commission”).

When asked if there was a specific demand BLAST wanted elected officials to focus on first, Brown and another BLAST member, Talauna Reed, said there wasn’t one facet that took priority.

“People are like ‘you guys are all over the place,’ but that’s our reality,” Reed said. “Racism is all over the place. We’re coming from all these different angles and not giving them a choice. You have to address it. It all centers around the decision makers and their ability to make changes and not pass the buck.”

Reed acknowledged that the demands are wide-reaching, but neither she nor Brown believe public pressure will let up until all their demands are met.

“You can’t have a conversation about the police without having a conversation about housing,” Brown said. “The police have been set up to be a part of every system and situation in our worlds. You can’t get evicted without the police coming to your door.”

Olympia has been so “white washed,” Brown said, that there isn’t a space for Black people to comfortably fit in. This is part of what BLAST activists want to change.

“You always feel like you’re a ‘black person’ when you go somewhere, whether it’s intended or unintentional,” Brown said. “I like to call Olympia a place that has underlying racism. It’s so quiet you have to question yourself, like ‘Wait, was that there?’ … Olympia is always a place that’s so progressive. ‘We fight racism!’ They say it so loudly and proudly, but how could you fight for something that you don’t even acknowledge exists in your own town?”

“The clearest message in Olympia right now is that no one is going to back down,” Brown said.

A longer version of this article was posted on Olympia Police Accountability Project. It was edited for Works in Progress and reprinted with permission. Beat: Olympia Police Accountability Project aims to clarify the demands of protesters, examine current allegations against officers and explore how the city can increase police accountability.

Three Olympia city council members attended the meeting with BLAST, including Renata Rollins. Rollins was the first councilmember to release a statement calling to demilitarize, disarm and defund the Olympia Police Department. Rollins told Beat: Olympia Police Accountability Project that this is the main call-to-action she has heard both locally and nationally.

The first step, she said, is examining the city’s contract with the Olympia Police Guild, the union that represents the Olympia police officers.

The city’s current contract with the Olympia Police Guild expired in December 2019. City Manager Jay Burney confirmed that the city continues to operate under the old contract while negotiating a new one.

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