Many white people believe we are an inclusive community and that we universally love our police department. However, that is not a view shared by close to 40% of our residents.
One of the top two national stories of the year is the awakening of the Black Lives Matter movement in reaction to the deaths of several Black people at the hands of white police officers. I have criticized some of our elected leaders for their lack of foresight regarding the changing dynamics of our city, and recognition of emerging Black leadership that wants a say in the community.
This foot-dragging on inclusion of differing points of view is frustrating to people of color. Some city elected officials are “situationally obtuse,” while others actually know what they are saying and doing and simply value re-election more than candid conversation about the challenges our community is facing in race relations.
A good example is the July 3 edition of the Federal Way Mirror newspaper — specifically two front page headlines (one above the other) and a Mayor’s Memo.
One headline said “Protest held over fatal police shooting.” It was about Malik Williams, a paraplegic Black man who was shot by seven Federal Way police officers last December, with 84 bullet casings accounted for, and the family still had not been given enough information to know why he died. They believe it was the color of his skin.
The second headline was, “FWPD to hire more officers with grant.” It reported that the city council would vote on hiring six more police officers with a $750,000 grant and that after the grant expired in three years, the taxpayers would be responsible for each officer’s full salary. Hiring six more officers when crime is down?
If the mayor and council are serious about including the voices of all our citizens, then now is the time to plan what the police department of the future could look like, prior to adding more officers. The root causes of our problems will only get worse and more expensive in the next three years.
In the same edition of the Mirror was a taxpayer-paid Mayor’s Memo from Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, telling everyone how wonderful the police department is.
If you’re a person of color, what message did you get from those two headlines and the memo? “More police officers, I better be careful going to the store?”
And if the mayor and council already believe the police are wonderful, would they be open to another point of view? This was after the city paid over $600,000 to another Black man, Josiah Hunter, for a “use of force” lawsuit the city lost.
Police Chief Andy Hwang made an announcement effective June 24 that police would stop using the neck hold that they used in the Hunter case.
But the city didn’t tell anyone that they had actually downgraded when that hold could be used several months earlier after they lost that expensive judgment, according to city staff.
Many agencies were already heading toward discontinuance of any type of neck hold because of the bad publicity in the Eric Garner and George Floyd cases.
In the same Mayor’s Memo, where he said how wonderful the police department was, Ferrell, seemingly forgetting the point of the march was to protest police killing Black people, thanked people of color for not causing any trouble with their protest, as had happened in other cities.
Josiah Hunter lived, Malik Williams did not.
If you’re not white, what message did you get? Did it feel a little condescending? Did it sound like your input would be welcome?
At a June council meeting, many residents who support the Black Lives Matter movement requested recognition including flying the BLM flag. Even with three council members of color, it appeared to be a 4-3 split on how far to go in support of the movement for fear of offending police or their supporters — or maybe it was 3-3-1, with one council member wanting to be on both sides.
Ferrell unfortunately made a point of saying he had not agreed to fly the Black Lives Matter flag, and there wasn’t a majority of the council in support of flying the flag either. The council finally passed a motion with the least troublesome language that all seven could agree on. A banner on the council Facebook page that said “Black Lives Matter,” although some council members didn’t want the logo included. No explanation of why, no context, no acknowledgement of the systemic racism Black people have been subjected to — just a banner with the phrase.
Ferrell did fly the Juneteenth flag, which is a step. But that is not what was requested. In this era of changing public attitudes toward police and recognition of how people of color have been treated, it didn’t feel like our multiracial residents had been given the respect they had earned and deserved.
In the Mayor’s Memo, Ferrell talked about “being one.” Although there was no risk in flying the Juneteenth flag, there was a political risk in flying the Black Lives Matter flag, from supporters of police, because BLM has political momentum. And Ferrell knew that.
I keep hoping that the mayor and council will rise to the occasion and recognize the opportunity they have to truly build a community that includes all voices. But that would mean making some tough choices and changing priorities away from hiring more police to focusing on ensuring every officer has a body camera, solving homelessness, hiring mental heath specialists and funding programs to help minority youth.
We have a long way to go to be that inclusive city we think we are. But listening to people who are different than we are would be a good start. Black lives should matter to all of us, and our leaders should be willing to say so, particularly when there is political risk. The flag they requested should have gone up. You nurture racism when you don’t stand up to it.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.