Aug.12, 2017, Charlottesville, Virginia: A white supremacist rally in support of keeping Confederate statues turns ugly. A young woman, there to oppose the racists views embodied in the Confederacy’s support of slavery, is killed by a car driven into a crowd of people by a white supremacist. President Donald Trump, in a shocking statement, blames both sides. His support is welcomed by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis as he gives evil and bigotry a haven against tolerance and equality. Trump retreats temporarily, then later returns to his acceptance of hatred in blaming both sides. Racism does not have two sides. It has one, and it has no place in a country whose core values are equality regardless of skin color.
Aug. 12, 2017, Federal Way: Our Celebration of Diversity is cancelled. Seattle is thousands of miles from Charlottesville, but a Charlottesville-style march occurred there the next day providing another lighting rod for hate to raise its ugly head. Many elected officials from both sides of the aisle chastised the president for his comments. But where was the outrage and support for Charlottesville from our local leaders? Where was our voice, the voice to lead and unite us? We were celebrating the upcoming opening of the Performing Arts and Event Center.
Many thought Barack Obama’s second election as president signaled that we, as a nation, had finally started to put racism behind us. Baby boomers were observers of the civil rights movement and learned of murders and hatred from afar as we saw the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. lead a nation to look in a mirror and change by demanding equal rights for all.
Television brought the tragic and ugly events of Charlottesville into our living rooms and forced us to reopen a dialog we thought closed. In our moment of shock and disbelief we needed a leader to reassure us, all of us, that hatred and racism would not be tolerated, but condemned. Bigotry over race does not deserve explanation. It is wrong and should be condemned without allowance for its length of time in our history.
Our president betrayed his leadership role of uniting us.
Sadly, our local leaders missed a rare opportunity to step into the breach and show us the way. They recently passed a resolution against safe injection sites, even though they were no threat. Where was the resolution of community unity and condemnation of President Trump’s insult to members of our city?
White supremacy groups liked Trump’s comments, and when asked by the press about whether he liked such group’s support he left the room without answering the question. The silence was deafening.
Michelle Obama said it best, “The presidency doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.”
In that moment, the United States lost its moral authority to serve as the inspirational leader for how governments worldwide should conduct themselves.
Charlottesville may be closer to Federal Way than you think. The vast majority of our population is neither bigoted nor racist. But its existence is real and demands attention from our leadership. Recall the public meetings on a moratorium on apartments or the murders from last year. Everyone, City Hall included, thought more police was the answer. If you’re not white, those meetings held a different message for you. The subtle undercurrent of racial divide behind a caste of low-income housing or section-eight eligibility was only muted by the courage of a young African-American female who spoke about life in her world.
At its opening, the PAEC was promoted as a place that would unite the community, bring people together and elevate the quality of life. It will do none of those things for poor people who can’t afford a ticket and who are disproportionately minority. The PAEC will succeed and the community benefit only when the faces in the crowd truly reflect the demographics of our community,which the dedication crowd didn’t.
Community leaders need to reevaluate what is the highest priority in Federal Way’s future. It’s not the PAEC, and it’s not more police officers.
What is the highest priority for Federal Way?
Charlottesville can help point the way, and the report of the Violence Prevention Committee with its emphasis on support services provides a path. Our most important asset is the kaleidoscope of people who live here, and the most important challenge confronting this city right now is making sure racism never secures a toehold as we emphasize cultivating a cross culture of understanding. All cultures.
Our diversity celebration wasn’t cancelled because of bigotry. The idea came up this past spring in the Diversity Commission after the budget had already been approved. The volunteer members of the commission tried to put it on themselves and ran out of time. In a town of 100 different languages where 60 percent of the students in school are on a free- or reduced-meal plan, it is inconceivable that the mayor and City Council didn’t step forward and provide the staffing and resources to make the event happen. It should have been an annual event for several years by now.
Federal Way wants a better image. Then think of the image a celebration of our diversity could have presented to the world on Aug. 12 in contrast to Charlottesville and Seattle! But it was cancelled. There is no blame for that below the elected level. City staff and volunteer commission members can only do so much without a true commitment of resources and recognition of the event’s importance. Let’s get it right next year, and Aug. 12 might be a good date.
Our city is one of the most diverse in the state. Build on the success of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Korean celebrations. Learn from Highline College, the most diverse college in the state, about its efforts in sharing students’ histories of dress, food and culture. Learn from our own school district about the inclusive and nurturing steps they are taking with discussions and mentoring students of all races. All means all. It isn’t just a phrase.
Don’t let the silence of our leaders choose their side, but do remind them of their responsibility.
Until all feel they have a seat at the table, we have much work to do. We grow when we learn from each other, and we are better for that knowledge. Let us celebrate the wonders of this shared community of differing cultures and stand as a beacon against the re-emergence of bigotry and hatred. That is the highest priority in Federal Way.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former Auburn mayor and retired public official. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.