Politics. Police. Protests

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Artful poster with names of Black people killed by police

Trying to make sense of current national news and social media posts with local life on Whidbey Island—how do we navigate in the wake of George Floyd’s death, protests, polarized politics, a pandemic, and perplexing times in which we find ourselves?

This week we visit with Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, Island County Sheriff Rick Felici, local islanders, and Diane Jhueck of POWER. What follows is a spectrum of thought.

“I just want to be sure people understand how important this moment is!” says Helen Price Johnson, who was the first woman elected as Island County Commissioner. Having served on the board the past 12 years, she is running this year for state senator. “We have generations of inequities in our community. Certainly racial inequality is paramount. We need to make sure we are listening and taking action to help correct and do all we can to move forward.”

Helen Price Johnson in a 2012 July 4th parade.

Speaking about our local law enforcement, Commissioner Johnson says, “I believe that the Sheriff’s goal is to work with the community. I wholeheartedly support the work we’ve done to improve our jail. De-escalation training is now part of the local process for law enforcement, offered through Human Services. We’ve created a strong partnership there.

 

“I am talking with (Langley) Mayor Tim Callison about creating a town hall meeting and how we’re using our CARES Act funding for outreach. Many people are experiencing crisis. People may be suffering with fear and anxiety, suffering from isolation and loneliness. They can reach out to Human Services professionals. We started that kind of work before (the pandemic). Our opioid outreach worker helps get people connected with substance abuse treatment before entering the criminal justice system. We have placed a mental health worker in our district court so people can have an alternative to incarceration. We are ahead of the curve on this issue. Not all the way there.”

While headlines focus on police abuse of force, our county sheriff weighs in with another perspective, one that reflects life on Whidbey.

Island County Sheriff Rick Felici believes in working with the community. Photo courtesy of Island County

Island County Sheriff Rick Felici, a career law officer with Island County, served as Chief Criminal Deputy before being elected Island County Sheriff in November 2018.

Asked about de-escalation, one of the tools sheriffs’ deputies use on a regular basis, Sheriff Felici said, “De-escalation happens with almost every single call. It involves a whole bunch of tools, depending on the situation. We are blessed with a community that is pretty rational overall. We don’t deal with violent crime with the same frequency as they do in the city. That’s what makes me love rural living. Crime is a percentage game.”

On training officers: “To be super fair, there’s work we can do. We try to train every quarter on the use of force. Vascular neck restraint, to my knowledge, was used only twice in the past. It was used to disorient (the person arrested) and enabled officers to handcuff (the individual). We don’t encounter much use of force regionally. If I were a betting man, Washington State will move to ban neck restraints.

Read more about our county officers’ defense training in last week’s  The South Whidbey Record by writer Jessie Stensland.

On bias: “We all have inherent biases. The key is being aware of them. In my career (Sheriff Felicci has served 26 years with Island County Sheriffs, beginning as a patrol deputy) there was only one officer with an obvious bias. He was a jerk and didn’t stay long. It’s important to realize we’re focusing on the negative (in our current media coverage). There’s a lot of good in our profession. For the past six years in Island County we have collaborated with Human Services and have an outreach worker on our staff. We have an embedded mental health worker who works with us. Polarization is the root of the problem. We do need to have hard conversations. What if we did stop and think? We are inundated with conflicting messages and so much information. It is hard when police are labeled as negative. We go round and round. Our evolution has been a marathon, not a sprint.”

Langley Police Chief Don Lauer, Chief Kevin Dresker from Oak Harbor, and Marshal Shawn Warwick from Coupeville, were contacted for comment and did not respond by press time.

Public Demonstrations

South Islanders enjoy exercising their constitutional right to free speech. Every Saturday from 10 to 11 a.m. a group of a dozen or more folks holding signs at the corner of Bayview Road and Highway 525 voice their opinion. The group has been gathering for twenty years or more. Cynthia Kaul and her husband Keith Anderson are locals who have gathered there in years past.

Cynthia Kaul with her message at POWERs gathering June 21st

“Some of the older people with Standing for Peace began speaking out during the first Bush war, and Keith and I have been there with them for about 15 years,” Cynthia wrote in a recent email. “We oppose war and obscene defense spending, and support directing much more of our common wealth to the common good and social justice. So, joining in support of Black Lives Matter has been a natural connection, and one we feel acutely as people of privilege, wanting to learn more.”

In a later email, Cynthia suggested we share a video made by a local man, a Viet Nam war veteran: “I wanted to share this video of a fellow who occasionally writes songs and plays for our choir, Stephen Merritt. I don’t know if it informs your story, but I thought the message might  resonate with you: Take Back Our Flag.”

Heather Dee Fraser Dübendorf and her daughter and their family dog take part in June 21 POWER gathering

Last weekend Heather Dee Fraser Dübendorf spoke her truth at a weekend demonstration. In an email this week she wrote: “Yes. I carried a WWJD? sign because, as a person who believes in Jesus and his teachings, I know that if he were here today, he would be protesting too. The more I research and educate myself on the reasons behind the BLM movement, the more I understand why it is so important and why change is so necessary.”

A long-time Standing for Peace member is Bob Gray, who held a hand-made sign with the word Resistance. A zigzag line representing the symbol for electrical resistance is painted on the front. This weekend he was demonstrating for resistance to the president’s plan to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which made headlines this week.

“I am unhappy with the way the country is going and want to nudge it on a more compassionate path,” he said. “Our president’s attacking healthcare when the country is in an emergency—where’s the compassion? I want people to take action. Register to vote. Passively agreeing is not the same as actively working the ballot box.”

Bob Gray wants us to resist the powers who would eliminate affordable healthcare.

In the wake of social distancing and the coronavirus pandemic, Gloria Koll, who has been a part of Standing for Peace since 1972, said the group took a two month break and resumed last month  following George Floyd’s murder May 25 and the BLM protests.

“We started meeting again in honor of BLM,” she said. “Most of the people you see here come faithfully. We ask people to hold a sign that aligns with their conscience. All the voices that get out are important. Civility First. The Quakers.”

Another group that has gained importance and followers is People of Whidbey Elegantly Resisting or POWER, which began meeting Sundays on Cascade Avenue in Langley following President Trump’s inauguration speech in 2017. They’ve been meeting ever since. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and BLM protests nationwide, one of POWER’s spokeswomen, Diane Jhueck, talked about its purpose and mission.

“The Women’s March, the March for Science. The next big meeting was the impeachment rally,” Diane said in a phone call. “POWER formed to track the pending slide into authoritarianism after Trump’s election, with a focus on specific markers: restriction of the media, extension of coercive power, targeting of specific groups of people, such as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), differently abled, women, LGBTQI.”

Diane said one of her first jobs in the 1980s with the Peace and Justice League was opposing South African apartheid.

“My issue was women and apartheid,’ she said. “How does one become an activist in such a climate? It was the women who met around the village well, saying, this isn’t right. Eventually they took action. A woman’s march. Risking their lives to do it. What happens on Cascade Avenue is we have a village well. We talk about tactics and what we can do.”

POWER’s members have grown to more than 730.

“My entire adult life I have stood up to the fact we have an unjust structure built on the backs of Blacks and Native Americans,” Diane said. “A criminal cabal has taken over our country. We expose the average person to what’s really going on. POWER records what’s happening right now. Now we’re pulling the scab off the wound and looking at the horrible things. Still don’t have the ability to fix them yet. POWER is standing here saying this is not OK. When something’s going on people join us. We have four options of what people can do. My position is do whatever you can do. Running street protests. Fund the fighters’ group. We have a group of about 700. If all participated, at $20 each, that’s a chunk of money.

“My other standard as an organizer is that we shouldn’t duplicate efforts. POWER does not run ‘fill in the survey,’ ‘sign this petition’ on its Facebook page. We don’t allow a lot of dialogue. It’s more of a library. A record of what is occurring under the Trump administration. Indivisible Whidbey offers a lot of training and courses. I consider them our partner. We support their rallies.”

Diane suggested looking at these groups and individuals working to promote equality and justice: Bridging the Race, founded by Jabari Gaddis-Diggs, Sarah Griggs, Angelique Fuqua, and Crystal Finney who live on Whidbey Island and want to create conversation about race and other important topics; Stand Together 2, coordinated by Pamela Fick; and Kenesha Lewin, Youth and Cultural Programs Coordinator with South Whidbey Community Center. Kenesha is organizing the community around issues of race on South Whidbey.

Speaking up about rights and civility, another group of thinkers and defenders of free speech set up a tent along Cascade Avenue to speak their mind June 18. They created the Civil Discourse Safe Zone.

“We do refer to ourselves as PISSANTs,” said Teresa McElhinny, who with her husband Robert, members Clyde Bock and Jamie Kellogg formed the group. “The acronym stands for People Intentionally Sanctioning Sensible A-political Non-polarizing Truth. You can also believe concurrently with BLM that the majority of police officers are good people worthy of respect. Including guys like Officer Waldis “Jay” Johnson who died May 31st, six days after George Floyd did. He’d been on life support for three years after getting shot in the head in the line of duty. As I see it, Officer Johnson was equally deserving of a nationwide memorial service.

We also believe that Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best is a Black Life that Matters, if we are not picking and choosing which ones do and which ones don’t.

“When we met June 18, we had so many happy honks and thumbs up and yelling encouraging words out their car windows, along with maybe eight or nine pedestrians who stopped to chat for a while. A couple of folks indicated they wanted to be emailed info. regarding upcoming events or discussion groups. We talked to both the Langley mayor and his wife, as well as a city council member. One Black woman came over and engaged us in a lengthy discussion. Clyde asked her what sorts of steps she thought were necessary for the police to pursue moving forward. We agreed with her assessment for less funds on military SWAT gear, weaponry, and vehicles, which could be channeled to more social services, like drug rehab and mental illness. She agreed with us that the perpetrators of looting and vandalism needed to be punished for their crimes, and called out. Everyone we talked to agreed that our local South Whidbey constabulary are by and large not a part of the problem, and some name them as friends of theirs. Overall we left with a much more positive mindset than we had going in concerning how we would be received.

“Our group has also protested the decision to release career criminals from jails and prisons to protect them from COVID-19, even after prosecutors warned they would re-offend. Which they did, resulting in the hit-and-run death of a beloved Whidbey Island man, David Harder, as well as the murder of another individual in North Seattle.”

Learn more about PISSANTs, which meet Thursdays at 2 by emailing rtjmc@hotmail.com

Perhaps the answer, as Bob Dylan sings, is blowin’ in the wind.

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