What is the role of rural communities in this era of social change and upheaval, much of which is unfolding in major urban centers? We experienced the first escalating protest here in Jefferson …
What is the role of rural communities in this era of social change and upheaval, much of which is unfolding in major urban centers? We experienced the first escalating protest here in Jefferson County last Friday (June 12) following George Floyd’s murder. Who would’ve guessed that we’d see this in Chimacum? And what can we learn from it?
A peaceful march was scheduled for Friday, in Chimacum, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter strike and silent march in Seattle. It departed from Finnriver, but was not sponsored by Finnriver itself. I was present for the opening statements, which included a land blessing from Makah tribal member Sabrina McQuillen Hill and a statement from Sheriff Joe Nole.
While some folks did not appreciate having the sheriff present, he had been invited by the organizers to talk about his willingness to learn and for dialogue. With tensions around the country running high around the role of law enforcement, some participants were inspired to take over the roadways as a demonstration of their outrage over police brutality and of their rights to assemble and to free speech.
And this is where the very divided and volatile state of our nation came into play. While some motorists waved and cheered and showed support to the marchers, there were many who yelled offensive racial slurs, revved engines, and swerved toward participants. One truck bumped into a protestor before aggressively driving off.
By the time this was unfolding, I was following the social media streams, which were, frankly, somewhere between disturbing and horrific.
Pundits who were displeased by the protesters stated, “Run them over,” “They don’t deserve to live,” and “They are asking to be killed.” It is disappointing that so many people feel it is appropriate to threaten their neighbors for taking to the streets — a revered tradition in our democracy and one I hope is afforded to all.
Things only became more heightened when the Washington State Patrol drove by and did not stop when flagged down by protesters. Whether due to misunderstanding signals or feeling unwanted or unwelcome given the purpose of the protest, the State Patrol did not stop initially, which agitated protesters who were feeling unsafe due to hostility from motorists. By the time the sheriff arrived on the scene, protesters were close to their ending point and law enforcement did not see a need to intervene.
I am going over this timeline to clarify misinformation that has been perpetuated that inaccurately portrays both the intent of the event and the involvement of Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. I am pleased that the sheriff and organizers have been in close contact over the weekend to better understand what happened and how it can be handled differently in the future.
So, what did we learn this weekend? We learned that, when requested, law enforcement needs to respond to the needs of protesters exercising their civil rights. We learned that this will be challenging, because there are protestors that want nothing to do with law enforcement right now, and others who do. We came to see that law enforcement is in the tough position of determining, at a moment’s notice, when their intervention will be helpful, and when it will escalate tensions.
We learned, again, what we have long known to be true — that meaningful relationships build trust, which allows for difficult conversations, and that these may lead to greater understanding.
We are in a critical moment of civil unrest and demands for change due to the historic, disproportionate killing of people of color by law enforcement. County leadership is looking at the ways in which our institution has contributed to systemic racism. I take seriously the need to look at our past culpability and address our current and future policy and budgetary decisions as they relate to the healing of centuries old wrongdoing. How the sheriff, an independently elected official with oversight of his department, will seize this moment in history is yet to be seen. But he is bringing to the table a willingness to learn and listen and change.
My greatest hope is that we can build on the relationships we have — as neighbors, as fellow parents from school sports sidelines, colleagues and church friends — to have conversations. Real conversations; not about over-simplified sound bites or good guys vs. bad guys. But instead to be talking about what are the needs of the community that are and aren’t being met?
Are we asking law enforcement to respond to things they don’t have sufficient training in? Are there professionals who could better de-escalate mental health crises? How do we put a value on the ability to call 911 whenever we feel threatened, or come upon a terrible scene?
And how do we express gratitude to the first responders who witness truly horrific suffering, who have to communicate this to family members? Are they getting the mental health support they need to deal with the trauma of their profession?
What other needs aren’t being funded that could prevent some of this suffering?
Our country and its wealth were built on the lands and backs of black, brown and indigenous people. And yet that wealth has largely landed in the hands of the white and privileged.
I suspect (and hope) that we are just at the beginning of a long series of conversations — in town hall meetings, within our homes and churches, with our children and parents, and within our own internal conscience — to seek understanding of how we have fallen so short of our dream to be a fair and just democracy for all.
It is unclear the role of predominantly white, rural communities like ours can play in healing our country’s deepest and ugliest wounds. But quarantine due to coronavirus has given us an opportunity for re-evaluation and learning, for the time to seek, ask and listen to diverse voices. I know that we will argue and stumble, feel powerless and feel righteous, and realize that we didn’t know what we didn’t know until after the fact. This is what happened that Friday in Chimacum, and there will be more of it to come, whether here or afar.
So, will you join the tough conversations? Will you take a stance in righting the wrongs of our country’s founding, 400 years old now and still being played out on our streets? I hope so. I’ll meet you in a commitment to make the most of the crises we are in, the awkward silence, in the unknowing and discomfort.
We have to start somewhere. Why not in Chimacum on a rainy June day?
(Kate Dean represents District 1 on the Board of County Commissioners)