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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

March to defund police seeks structural change

Sunday’s protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter unites communities including LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous people and people of color to honor the legacy of the Stonewall Riots

Protestors hold up signs and rainbow flags to commemorate the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, widely regarded as the beginning of Pride celebrations in the United States. The protesters are marching in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Protestors hold up signs and rainbow flags to commemorate the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, widely regarded as the beginning of Pride celebrations in the United States. The protesters are marching in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. //Teya Heidenreich

By Teya Heidenreich

A crowd of marchers walked the streets of downtown Bellingham on Sunday, June 28, to demand reduced police funding, intersectional queer rights and recognition that Black lives matter on the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

The “Stonewall was a Riot: March to Defund the Police” event, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, started at 3 p.m. at Maritime Heritage Park. Marchers chanted and waved signs. Speakers protested police abuse of power and called for structural change. 

People of all ages gathered in the park with signs carrying messages like “Defund the police. Invest in community,” “End militarization of police,” “The first Pride was a riot” and “Black lives > white fragility.” Rainbow flags, legwarmers, signs and masks were scattered throughout the crowd.

A group of multiracial queer and transgender people planned the march, said Colton Lanning, leader of Western’s chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America. Lanning introduced the first speaker of the event. Young Democratic Socialists of America hosted the march along with the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center and others listed on the event’s Facebook page.

Celia Baker is the co-chair for Whatcom Democratic Socialists of America, which started the event. 

“We know that queer and trans liberation is aligned with BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] liberation and that the system of policing suppresses all of our freedom,” she said. 

Baker said the Whatcom Democratic Socialists of America reached out to Black- and Indigenous-led organizations, proposing a celebration of the half-century that has passed since the Stonewall riots. She said her organization endorses police abolition.

“We want to be able to provide people with some direction,” she said. “Move them out of a place of uncertainty and fear into action and demands for real material change in our community.” 

From the park, the crowd flooded onto West Holly Street chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “No justice! No peace!” Later the crowd responded to chants of “Say her name!” with the names of Black and Indigenous people and people of color who have been victims of police violence.  

These included Breonna Taylor, a first responder killed in her home when St. Louis police entered on a ‘no-knock’ warrant, and Charleena Lyles, a pregnant woman who called Seattle police to report a burglary in her apartment and was shot and killed by the responding officers. 

The march stopped in front of Fairhaven Station for more chants and an eight minutes and 46 seconds moment of silence, the amount of time George Floyd, a Black man, was fatally pinned down by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. The march finished at Bellingham City Hall, where activists gave speeches on the front steps. 

Although the march was peaceful, The Bellingham Herald reported that a small group of people tore down and burned flags on the steps of City Hall and spray-painted the building, causing an estimated $3,000 in damage. A city spokesperson told the Herald that the damage was done after most of the protesters left. 

Bellingham resident Tamora Kimmitt said she attended the march because she thinks the police should not be responsible for all their current tasks. Instead, she believes they should be defunded and focus less on responsibilities that don’t require police presence and could be taken over by other entities. Possible tasks to be reassigned to others include creating crime reports about previous crimes or responding to mental health situations. Kimmitt said more money should be put into social services and invested in Black communities.

“[Police are] responsible for a lot of things that don’t require a person with a gun to show up,” Kimmitt said. “People who are trained in social work and to direct people to community resources can help a lot of people.”

The speakers included Felicia Santana, who was introduced as a local organizer with Socialist Alternatives; X’welwelat’se (William John), an elder from the Lummi Nation; Ashanti Monts-Treviska, a Deaf, Black woman who ran for city council; and Zora Carter, a transgender woman from the Westbank First Nation, an Okanagan Nation community.

Carter said she’d had negative experiences with the Bellingham Police Department, starting with questioning her for walking home in her own neighborhood and questioning her reason for using a cane during cancer treatment.

Carter called for justice for citizens against police brutality and funding for community-based programs like housing security, education and health. 

Baker and Kimmitt both said that they think people misunderstand what calls to defund the police mean, but talking with skeptics generally makes them more receptive to the idea. 

Kimmitt said people think defunding the police means there should not be any police, but that it helps to talk to people about defunding certain areas of police work to fund other organizations.

Russ Dzialo, a Republican candidate for state representative in the 40th district of Washington state that includes the part of Whatcom County surrounding Bellingham, said in an email that in general, law enforcement agencies in the county have not had issues with racial bias and extreme use of force. 

He gave the example of a police pursuit by Bellingham Police Department officers after an armed robbery. The pursuit resulted in a shootout where officers hit the suspect in the leg, hitting his femoral artery, then administered first aid and saved the suspect’s life.

This anecdote referenced a story shared by Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo in a Facebook Live video facilitated by Kris Halterman, who hosts a conservative talk radio show on KGMI. The video was titled “Re-imagining Public Safety thru [sic] Law Enforcement and Mental Health.” 

“We’ve got to do more in terms of mental illness, substance abuse and provide alternatives to the criminal justice system,” Elfo said in the video.

Elfo stated in the video that he believed law enforcement should have more funding, not less. Elfo, the Whatcom County sheriff since 2003, said funding would allow them to be able to recruit, train and retain the best people.

“Law enforcement has a responsibility to build positive relationships with their community,” Dzialo said in an email.

Santana, a speaker at the march, introduced herself as a bisexual, socialist Latina and talked about how systems in the United States oppress minorities.

“Donald Trump is not some standalone comic book villain with some tragic backstory. He is the product of a dying empire,” Santana shouted, her voice seeming to break with emotion. She said this empire was centuries of capitalism and exploitation that does not serve queer people and people of color. 

Santana said the Bellingham City Council should demilitarize the community by disarming the police, cutting their funding in half and instead funding the liberation of queer people and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees.

Music blasted from a speaker as marchers arrived at city hall, starting with Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” The music continued to play as they left the event. 


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