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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Thousands gather for solidarity rally in Maritime Heritage Park

Bellingham residents assembled to listen to speeches from people of color in the community

Demonstrators hold up signs while listening to speakers at Maritime Heritage Park// Photo by Claudia Cooper

By Izzie Lund

Demonstrators gathered in Maritime Heritage Park on Saturday, June 6 to attend a solidarity rally to support people of color after George Floyd, a Black man, was suffocated by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. 

The Bellingham Herald estimated that there were anywhere from 5,000-7,000 demonstrators present. 

The rally ran from 3-6:30 p.m. and featured 15 speeches from people of color in the Bellingham community. 

Vernon Johnson, a political science professor at Western, gave the first speech of the rally. He said that racism is a problem because toxic, white institutions are still upheld in the U.S. He compared 2020 to 1968, the year that the civil rights movement gained momentum. 

He went on to say that President Trump has pushed the country into a state of trauma through his racist actions.

“We must take up the battle to dismantle systemic racism in all of our institutions from education to health care to banking and financial services and, of course, to the very institutions of government itself,” Johnson said. 

Ceci Lopez, a Fairhaven professor who spoke at the event, said Americans live in a paradigm of domination and that it is time to break out of it. She called for people to look into how they have internalized that domination, and what they can do to let others in and relate to one another. 

She also advocated for the city of Bellingham to examine how accessible and equal its policies and budgets are. 

Terrence Adams, a member of the Lummi Nation, drummed, sang and asked the crowd to chant “Peace, love and prayer” in support of the people of color incarcerated at the Whatcom County Jail. Adams also called to end plea bargains, which Adams said prevented people from finding work and housing. 

Members of the Lummi Nation are discriminated against in Bellingham, Adams said. Adams said that Lummi Nation members do not receive the same treatment as others do when they leave the reservation to come into Bellingham 

Deidre Smith, a speaker at the event, called on the community to speak out. 

“When you are neutral about a situation like Black Lives Matter, you become complicit in that very situation,” Smith said. “[When] you become silent, it’s just the same as participating in the people who are propagating the racism.” 

Smith described the death of George Floyd as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and condemned police brutality, which has a systemic history of targeting Black people. 

“I can tell you why they had to die. They [victims of police brutality] were walking along a white line in the road while Black,” Smith said. “Ahmaud Arbery, you wanna know how he died? Jogging while Black. It’s gotta stop.” 

Jade Jordan, a dancer, performed an interpretive dance to “Rise Up” by Andra Day following Smith’s speech. It ended with Jordan holding a sign that said, “White people brought racism to this country. You fix it.” 

Abdul Malik Ford, a senator for the College of Business and Economics at Western, urged the crowd to continue their activism beyond social media and attending the rally. 

“I challenge all of you to sign petitions, to write your legislators, to vote for people who care,” Ford said. “Ask the important questions, the right questions. Question your institutions, your leaders, your workplace, your organizations.” 

He called on the crowd to not allow the Black community to be “reduced down to a hashtag,” and asked the crowd to reflect if this was the first time they had shown up to support Black Lives Matter. 

“Justice is beautiful. Justice is not easy. It’s tough. But it’s a lifelong battle for me, and it’s a lifelong battle for us,” he said as he finished his speech.

Megan Scott, a speaker, urged the crowd to analyze their privilege.

“I am not here today to not bother you. Change is uncomfortable,” Scott said. “It is distressing, and it never comes at what you consider the ‘right time.’”

She told the crowd to keep pushing for change and to not burn out after a week. Posting on social media is not enough, Scott said, adding that white allies need to make sure their support is not performative. 

She told the crowd to honor Black men, women, gender non-conforming and trans people. She also addressed police brutality. 

“At the end of the day, he can take his badge off,” Scott said. “I cannot take this off. Being a cop is an occupation. My Blackness is me.”

Australia Hernandez spoke next, advocating for farmworkers’ rights while standing with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nick Lewis, a veteran and council member for the Lummi Nation, told the crowd about how, after his military service abroad, he was arrested for a crime he said he didn’t commit.

He said that he spent a few weeks in jail and that his attorney told him to plead guilty even though he didn’t commit the crime.

Lewis said his arrest inspired him to become a probation officer so he could better understand the criminal justice system, which led to his position on council.

Lewis said the criminal justice system was broken and advocated for systemic change. He also said that he does not have a problem with the police as a whole, but he does have a problem with racist police officers and the system that is designed to fail.

He said it felt good to come to the rally and see allies because the voices of First Nations people are often not loud enough. 

“This is a time where we can all become educated, regardless of the color of our skin,” Lewis said. “As Native people, we have been fighting a failed system since 1492. And we’re still here today fighting.” 

Lewis urged the crowd to vote in November.

Organizer Terrence “TeeJay” Morris addresses the crowd during a rally in Maritime Heritage Park on Saturday, June 6. // Photo by Izzie Lund

Taryn Harris, a fourth-year student at Western, told the crowd that she struggles to fit in because she is half white and half Black. She encouraged the crowd to build bridges between different communities, and closed her speech by singing “Praise Before My Bellingham” by Bryan and Katie Torwalt. 

Janae Payne, a fourth-year student at Western, told the story of her mother, who died last July  of an autoimmune disease. She said that her mother struggled for years to become a teacher, and had only been a teacher for three years when she died. 

“Her life taught me that systemic oppression isn’t only in law enforcement, but it’s everywhere we go,” Payne said. 

Payne told the crowd that if they supported Black Lives Matter, they also had to support Indigenous and Black LGBTQ+ communities. She called for white allies to listen and use their privilege to amplify Black voices. 

Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu told the crowd that standing up for equal rights was true American freedom. 

“I join you and millions of Americans across the country in condemning racism in the strongest possible terms,” Sidhu said.

He asked the crowd to imagine the outcome if there had been no video of George Floyd’s murder, and pushed them not to think of police brutality as “a few bad apples.” He said that police unions condone violent behavior and oppose reform. 

Sidhu asked the crowd to vote in November and fight for “liberty and justice for all.”

Chanan Suarez, an Iraq War veteran, said that the system was sick and needed to be changed. He called for people to build movements to enact that change.

He also said to remember that the Stonewall Riots started off as a riot against police brutality, and to acknowledge that part of our history. 

Kristina Michele, a speaker, said that she was six years old when Rodney King was beaten by police in California. She said that she wondered if that was ever going to happen to her one day. 

“I get to live with that fear every minute of every day,” Michele said. “Every time I pass a police car, my first thought is, ‘Is today the day?’ And what will they say about me? How will they make it my fault and how will they condemn me as a thug?”

Michele then broke down the numbers of incarceration, saying that Black people are incarcerated at higher rates than any other racial group. She advocated for defunding the police and reinvesting that money into communities.

She concluded her speech by urging the crowd to listen to “My Shot” from the musical Hamilton

One of the last speakers, who was identified by first name at the rally but had intended to speak anonymously, said that she moved to Bellingham a few years ago. 

“My experiences here, just living in Bellingham, have been the most discriminating that I have ever experienced in my 25 years of life,” she said. 

She said that she is the only person of color living in her apartment complex, and one time she had the police called on her while she was outside walking her pet and talking to her family on the phone in Spanish. She said the police asked her if she was from the U.S. and made her prove that she lived there by having her open her apartment door.

She also said that the police were called on her twice while taking out the garbage at her job. She said a former boss called her a monkey to her face, and that coworkers claimed her name was too ethnic for them to pronounce.

The Bellingham Police Department did not respond when the Western Front reached out to verify her story. 

“Anybody who has the audacity to say that racism does not exist in this community is a goddamn liar,” she said. 

The rally finished with a speech from Terrence “Teejay” Morris, one of the organizers who claimed that he was getting hate messages on Facebook because he did not restrict the speeches to Black voices only. 

“There is no Black rights if Native rights don’t happen, or Latino rights, or Asian,” Morris said. “It is either equality or nothing.” 

Over 5,000 peaceful protestors gathered in the park for the rally //Photo by Claudia Cooper

When the speeches were over, the crowd sang along to “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers. Some demonstrators left and others stayed to dance to the “Cupid Shuffle” in order to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday on June 19 that remembers the end of slavery. 

As demonstrators began to leave, the Bellingham Police Department tweeted: “Bellingham community, if you are driving near Maritime Heritage park, please be cautious. There are many pedestrians who are walking to and from the peaceful rally. Watch the crosswalks, please. Be patient, be kind.”

The police department later tweeted a statement from chief of police David Doll thanking the demonstrators for showing up peacefully.

The rally is one of the demonstrations that has happened in Bellingham since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. A vigil was held at Bellingham Public Library on May 29 and there was a march in Elizabeth Park on May 30. 

Before the rally, organizers for the event told demonstrators to wear masks and socially distance as much as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

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