Local advocacy groups protested the City of Bellingham’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration on Monday, claiming the city was celebrating King’s life without upholding his teachings.
Members of local advocacy groups including Community to Community Development, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Latino Advocacy, the Racial Justice Coalition and Red Line Salish Sea attended the protest, which was officially organized by Keep Bellingham Families Working.
A few dozen protesters gathered outside the Mount Baker Theatre while the city’s scheduled events took place inside. They claimed the progressive spirit of Bellingham’s celebration contradicted the city’s policies toward marginalized communities. A main point of contention was the city’s refusal to pass a sweeping sanctuary city ordinance in February of last year.
“Dr. King, I think he would be outside with us as opposed to inside,” said Seth Mangold, an activist with Keep Bellingham Families Working. “He was all about the action, as opposed to just nice words and ‘kumbaya’ good feelings.”
Protesters expressed the belief that King’s legacy is not something that can be co-opted by policymakers.
Bellingham City Councilmember Terry Bornemann said he understands Community to Community Development is unhappy with the lack of official sanctuary city status in Bellingham. However, Bornemann said he disagrees that the city’s refusal to officially label Bellingham a sanctuary city reflects the city not committing to a progressive position.
Bornemann interpreted the protest as a disagreement about the city's choice of official language around the ordinance.
Bornemann said Community to Community Development had given him the impression the official sanctuary city status wasn’t essential as long as all other provisions of the ordinance were met.
“If she had said then that the label was important, I would have continued fighting for it,” Bornemann said.
Brenda Bentley, visual coordinator for Community to Community Development, said her group’s dissatisfaction with the ordinance extends beyond the lack of official sanctuary status. Other key points that were proposed but not realized in the final ordinance were a civilian oversight commission for police and the formal end to all cooperation between Bellingham police and federal immigration control.
“The City Council is not protecting our community. Walk the talk. If you are together against hate then lets show that. Put it in law. Put it in ordinance. Make it real, because just saying you are protecting people when it is not actually a law does not make those people feel safe,” Bentley said.
Whatcom County resident Peter Holcomb came out for this particular event despite not being formally involved in any advocacy groups.
“I’ve been bothered for quite a few years about the domestication of Martin Luther King,” Holcomb said. He had constructed a sign that morning which read, “Do not tame the people’s wild prophet.”
This is the third year that various advocacy groups have attempted to “expose the city’s misuse of Dr. King’s birthday and messaging for their own benefit,” according to a flyer for the event.
President of HomesNOW! Not Later, Jim Peterson, protests with Keep Bellingham Families Working every week. HomesNOW! is a local homeless advocacy group that constructs tiny homes for people experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County.
“I’m pretty cynical when it comes to the city right now, because I’ve been fighting them since June of last year, and basically, I could talk to this flag pole and get more answers,” Peterson said.
Keep Bellingham Families Working hosts weekly vigils in front of the Bellingham City Hall every Monday.
Laurel Messenger contributed to this story.