Community leaders from civil justice action groups called on a public forum on Thursday, July 19 to get answers from Whatcom County Prosecutorial candidates James Erb and Eric Richey.
Junga Subedar, a community lawyer for the Whatcom Civil Rights Project and forum facilitator, began the People’s Forum by reading out some ground rules.
The rules called for all present to engage in positive and specific dialogue, but rule number one was chief: “Concerns of people of color and impacted communities are centered,” Subedar said.
The questions brought attention to concerns regarding racial prejudice in the justice system and the criminalization of homelessness in Whatcom County.
Talia London, representing Red Line Salish Sea, asked the first question. She wanted the candidates’ positions on the give and take between people’s first amendment right to free speech and the process of law and order.
She also asked if they would continue to prosecute the ongoing Interstate 5 case from 2017, in which protestors blocking I-5 were accused of causing a non-fatal car accident. Both candidates gave impassioned defense of the First Amendment and neither answered clearly whether they would continue to prosecute the ongoing I-5 case.
The forum was then called upon to grade the candidates’ answers on a scale from A to F. Some of the audience took issue with the grading system and began to call out and question the appropriateness of grading.
“We want a clear reaction from the panel about how they view the answers given by the candidates,” Subedar said.
Some of the audience were unsatisfied, calling the practice negative. About 15 people walked out of the forum.
Terrence Morris, who represents Black Lives Matter, said when people walked out it told him they were not interested in hearing the concerns of people of color. He said he and other people of impacted communities feel that same “F-you” every day when leaders and the systems they represent turn their backs on the needs and concerns of the marginalized.
Gaby Salazar, a Latina audience member, said it’s common to see white people who are privileged with a dependable showing at any community event, even one called by impacted minority communities, get up and leave when they don’t like something.
“[People of color] can’t leave, or there would be no people there to represent us,” Salazar said.
When asked how they would respond to dangerous hate groups, such as the Proud Boys and the newly-minted Watcom chapter of the national hate group Atomwaffen, neither candidate had a firm grasp on the growing prevalence of violent hate groups active in Whatcom.
Subedar designed the forum with the goal of educating the candidates on the issues that impacted communities face. That function was fulfilled in exchanges between the panel and candidates where they shared experiences and knowledge.
Erb pledged to reduce Whatcom’s incarceration rate by 50 percent, in line with the ACLU’s goal, while Richey agreed to reduce it by 30 percent, a goal he said he finds more realistic. Both pledged to release all non-violent offenders who are currently in Whatcom County Jail because they could not post bail.
Based upon the grading, the forum preferred Erb by a slight margin, a C average over Richey’s D. The coalition leaders were unimpressed by the performance of either candidate, but were glad to have the opportunity to field the concerns of their communities to the candidates face to face.