Across the country and the world, in the midst of a global pandemic, people are taking the streets to protest police brutality — including the streets of Orcas, Friday Harbor and Lopez.
A cross adorned with flowers stands on the lawn of the San Juan County Courthouse, where more than 150 islanders gathered on June 1 to honor one of the latest victims of police brutality — George Floyd. Similar gatherings with hundreds of participants have occurred on the Village Green in Eastsound and in Lopez Village.
“We are dealing with two pandemics — COVID-19 and police brutality. The vaccine for the second one is the people,” San Juan islander Ray Jackson told the Journal. Jackson also addressed the crowd at the June 1 gathering.
Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man who died after a police officer held him down with a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The May incident was recorded by witnesses and caused national outrage and protests after video footage went viral.
By Friday, June 5, additional crosses erected on the courthouse lawn, each marked with names of other Black Americans who have lost their lives at the hands of police officers. An estimated 500-600 people gathered around the crosses in the lawn, spilling out across the street for a silent Black Lives Matter silent march.
The Black Lives Matter movement formed in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a community watch member in Florida, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a Black 17-year-old who was returning home from the store armed only with a bag of Skittles. The movement has now gone global with the mission to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.
Police reform — including going as far as to defund and potentially abolish police entirely — is one of Black Lives Matter’s primary focuses. Activists are reviewing police budgets to see where their funds are going. For example, the Seattle Police Department had a budget of more than $400 million in 2020, according to KUOW. Seattle activist JB Clark, who attended the Friday Harbor march on June 5 said communities can then see what items can be eliminated then where that money can be reappropriated throughout the community to help prevent crime in the first place, Clark said.
“America seems pretty married to policing,” Clark said. “But it’s killing an entire race of people.”
Clark added that police in the United States originated with slave hunters. Worldwide, Clark continued, there are a variety of alternative law enforcement models, if people would be open to other methods.
“I saw a sign that said ‘I’m 66 years old and I’m tired of protesting this bullshit,’” Clark said, noting how long people have been protesting for civil rights. He said his biggest fear is that the current energy and motivation for change will die down.
Local LEOs response
“We don’t have the problem as the mainland, and part of the reason for that is because our local police department has a relationship with the people,” Jackson said.
Jackson is advocating for police departments to get to know the people they’ve sworn to serve and protect.
“If you know your people, your neighbors, your less likely to kill them,” Jackson said.
“I was as upset as all of you when I saw the images,” San Juan County Deputy Eric Peter told the crowd on June 1. “I have been in this business for 25 years. I became a cop to help people, not to have anyone victimized.”
San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs was also present at the protests.
“It was really, really hard I just ached watching George Floyd lose his life over a[n allegedly] counterfeit $20,” Krebs told the Journal.
If one of the local deputies behaved in a racist manner or had racist posts on social media, Krebs noted the disciplinary response would range from counseling and or a penalty such as being suspended for a period of time, to being terminated. Both actions violate the San Juan County employee handbook, he added.
“Someone who would post anything racist is not someone I would want carrying a gun or working in this community,” Krebs said.
The department is small enough, he added, that it holds staff meetings every other week to discuss local, regional and national issues. With racism within police forces a hot national topic now, Krebs added, that the staff has been discussing what their own biases might be and how to address them.
Learning from history
Norm Stamper, former Seattle chief of police, author of “To Protect and Serve” and a resident of Orcas Island, has been advocating for police reform for decades. Three key changes needed, according to Stamper, are ending the drug war, setting a national standard for police training, and create a police force that worked in partnership with citizens. While some incremental changes have been made, it has been at glacial speed, he said.
“My reaction to people who say look at how far we have come is that they are looking at it from an entirely different experience than that of a young black man,” Stamper said.
Black families are afraid to have children because they don’t want them to become prey to police, Stamper added. Those who do have children, often teach them how to behave so that police are not called, and even further, how to behave if they do engage with the police so that they are not killed. The talk has been going on for generations in black communities, he explained.
“It’s imperative that white people understand there are two different Americas,” Stamper said.
He noted there are plenty of wonderful officers who treat their communities with compassion and the utmost respect.
“But, too many of them don’t see Black people,” Stamper continued. “Too many of them have the attitude that they, the cop, not you the citizen, are in charge. That they alone will make the decisions that affect community members’ lives.”
He said on some level the behavior is deliberate.
“It’s nearly impossible to get middle-class white males to understand why middle-class women, for example, are concerned about patriarchy and domestic violence,” Stamper said.
According to a June 4 article, Perry Bacon Jr. on ABC News’ statics website FiveThirtyEight titled, “How police see issues of race and policing,” 88 percent of law enforcement members in the United States are men and 12 percent are women. Seventy-two percent of officers in the country are non-Hispanic white, he wrote.
Stamper added that most cops won’t admit they are afraid of black men, and that “the darker the skin, the deeper the fear.”
“If you pull back the layers of anger, you will find fear,” he said. “That’s where you get white supremacy.”
Policing in America has its origins backing slavery and protecting slave owners, according to Stamper.
Bacon Jr. wrote in his article that in an extensive 2016 survey of 8,000 sworn officers, 67 percent of respondents said they thought the deaths of Black people in encounters with police were isolated incidents — 31 percent said the deaths were part of a larger pattern.
“The public, by comparison, had almost exactly the opposite reactions — only 39 percent of Americans said the police killings of black Americans were isolated incidents while 60 percent said they were part of a broader pattern,” Bacon Jr. wrote.
Until the institution has real reform and begins working in truly equal partnership with citizens, there will continue to be a disconnect, Stamper said, and America will continue to see police brutality, which will continue to be met with protests and riots.
De-escalation, especially in times of crisis, is extremely important, Krebs said.
The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office recently held a course for its deputies lead by Ellis Amdur, a crisis intervention trainer. Amdur’s specialty is de-escalation in instances related to drug and mental illness, according to Krebs.
“We all learned a lot and we wanted to reschedule him, but then the pandemic hit,” Krebs said.
The sheriff hopes to reschedule Amdur’s return for sometime next year. There was also a training scheduled on domestic violence de-escalation.
“One thing we are very good at is slowing things down,” Krebs said, crediting the small community as well as his officers.
De-escalation and crisis training are vital to a successful police force, Stamper said, but are inadequate in addressing the entire problem. Body cameras are similarly beneficial, yet equally inadequate.
“Until we change the structure — to do the very hard work — we will continue to see cities burning and police wreaking havoc on their own communities,” he said.
That structural change needs to be a citizen-police partnership, Stamper explained, where both a community’s law enforcement and citizens share the power, have joint decision making and are co-planning and preparing.
He said that if a police force is para-military, it will be authoritarian. In a free and democratic society, however, citizens can stand up and say, “You are not my parent, you are not in charge of me.”
The militarization of the police force has its roots in the drug war, according to Stamper, which is one of the reasons he advocates ending it.
“Police always have to be one step ahead of the bad guy,” Krebs said, noting he is against militarization of the police department and that the goal is for everyone — citizens and police — to be able to make it home at the end of the day.
“The country is on fire right now,” Stamper said. “We need to ask ourselves what are we doing, what might we do differently. The sooner we have that discussion the better.”