One of the groups that formed in the wake of last May’s police shooting of two African-American men on Olympia’s Westside is the Black Alliance of Thurston County
On May 26, Dr. Karen Johnson was invited to spoke out in front of Olympia city council about the shootings. She explains why she accepted the invitation. “Since our subconscious controls 96% – 98% of our perceptions and our behaviors, and since we live in a country where it was once lawful to enslave, lynch, beat and kill Black men simply because they are Black, we can only wonder whether Officer Donald’s behaviors and perceptions would have been the same if he had encountered two young white males. It is time to have the public dialogue since this behavior has been occurring across the nation. Perhaps this is an opportunity for us to be a national leader by looking at unconscious bias as a first step to bring healing through racial reconciliation in our community.”
In August, she and a group of African American community leaders formed the Black Alliance of Thurston County to take action and be a catalyst for change. Their strategy equity goals include:
advocate for fair and just treatment across all government and corporate systems; and
empower Black people.
Their purpose is to bring people together to understand and dismantle institutional and structural racism, to build power among the disenfranchised, to work for systemic change and to call for legislative reform, including greater diversity in the legislature. They envision Black people achieving optimal excellence and prosperity.
The Black Alliance of Thurston County has already taken steps to make sure Thurston County is a welcoming community for Black people and to decrease racial bias—especially in policing.
On November 21, the Black Alliance hosted its founding celebration at Olympia’s Risen Faith Fellowship Church. People from all ages, ethnicities and income levels who attended included elected officials from both the city of Olympia and Thurston County, and representatives of both the Lacey and Olympia police departments.
The prevailing theme of the meeting was change, with speakers taking the stage to talk about the way relationships between people in the community could change, changes that need to occur in police departments, and legislative changes that will be presented to lawmakers in 2016.
Co-founder Nat Jackson mentioned that he has been asked why the Black Alliance? “Why not the Black Alliance? We want our children to have the opportunity to excel,” said Jackson.
Dr. Thelma Jackson, one of the Black Alliance’s co-founders, said, “A lot has started happening in Thurston County that we need to stop, step back and take a look at.”
Among those things: racial disparity in education, a state law that allows large numbers of juveniles to be incarcerated, and the state statute regarding police officers using deadly force.
Co-founder Barbara Clarkson encouraged those at the meeting to connect with their community by volunteering or becoming members of civic organizations. “We as a community need to connect with each other.”
Rosalund Jenkins, another co-founder, spoke of the Black Alliance’s commitment to support the Olympia Police Department. “We invite all people of goodwill to join us in our work to support ongoing implicit and explicit bias training, to advocate for the development of a fair and impartial policing culture in the Olympia Police Department and jointly host community conversations addressing racism, racial bias and institutional and structural racism.”
The Black Alliance won’t work alone to improve the lives of Blacks in Thurston County, said Dr. Karen Johnson, co-founder and leader of the group. To achieve change on a large scale, the group will need to continue working with the Prosecutor’s Office, local police departments and lawmakers.
During the meeting, Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts was invited to the stage to talk about the impact the Black Alliance has had on his department.
He said that he met with Johnson shortly after the May 21 shooting to talk about the incident and to discuss ways the Police Department could better represent the community. At that meeting, Johnson brought up the concept of implicit bias—bias that impacts people’s actions on an unconscious level.
Roberts said Johnson has held him accountable to that conversation, and as a result, Olympia police officers will soon be receiving implicit bias training. Training dollars have been added to the city’s proposed budget for next year.
Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim also took the stage to talk about the state statute for use of force. He explained that law enforcement officers cannot be prosecuted for illegal use of force if they acted without malice and in good faith—they believed they were making the correct decision, and a reasonable person in the same position would have done the same thing.
The Black Alliance of Thurston County issued a press release on September 2 calling Thurston County Jon Tunheim’s decision to not charge Officer Donald as “lawful, yet unjust.”
Johnson said the Black Alliance will make recommendations to the Legislature about how the use of force statute could be improved.
“The standard is imprecise, immeasurable, and impossible to prove. Now is the time to set precise and provable legal standards when dealing with human life. It’s time for us to speak up and step up to change this law and other laws, statutes, polices, procedures and practices until it becomes self-evident… to all …that all people – including Black people – are indeed created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights: the opportunity to live an abundant life, liberty without oppression, and the opportunity to pursue happiness.”
Johnson says David Dahmer’s September 3, 2015, article, “The Harsh Truth About Progressive Cities: National anti-racist educator Tim Wise dissects what we can no longer conceal” is a must-read for leaders in Thurston County.
According to Tim Wise, one of the nation’s most prominent anti-racist essayists, educators, activists, and pioneers, cities and towns need “leadership that’s willing to acknowledge the problems both historically and contemporaneously and naming institutional and systemic and structural racism as one of those issues. We need to talk about ways that we have done things from schools to policing to housing policy to economic development policy that have perpetuated, not necessarily on purpose, racial injustice. That’s going to really require getting as many of the stakeholders…as possible involved in that conversation… And black folks and people of color are going to need to be very prominent in the conversation to figure out what really needs to be done.”
On December 10, the Olympia Police Department and Black Alliance of Thurston County are jointly hosting a community conversation café from 6-9 p.m. at the South Sound Manor in Tumwater. Johnson said that at the meeting, participants will gather to begin to “unpack the myths around living in a post-racial society.”
Johnson says that she and the founders of the Black Alliance of Thurston County did not seek this role, yet accepted it because their “foremothers and forefathers have shed too much blood to get us where we are… we must take up the mantle for this generation and the generations yet unborn.”
For more information about the Black Alliance of Thurston County, email BlackAllianceThurstonCounty@gmail.com