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A circle of listeners slowly gathered around Vernon Johnson outside the Bellingham Public Library on Friday, May 29. Snaps and sounds of agreement rippled through the small, socially-distanced crowd as Johnson, holding a “Disarm Hate” poster, urged young people to vote.
“Get the fascist out of the White House!” Johnson exclaimed.
40 feet away, a growing pile of flowers and signs calling for justice covered the sidewalk. Masked attendees looked at the colorful display, paying their respects and mourning another death of an unarmed Black American by police.
A candlelight vigil was held outside the Bellingham Public Library on May 29, followed by a march through downtown the next day for George Floyd, a Black man who died after being detained by police in Minneapolis on May 25. The vigil joined numerous demonstrations, protests and gatherings across the country as tensions and frustrations about police brutality and racial violence against Black Americans escalated.
Floyd, who was detained after being accused of forgery, died after a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 56 seconds while Floyd repeated “I can’t breathe,” which was documented on police body cameras and bystander and security-camera videos. All four officers involved have been fired; four days after the incident, Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on his neck, was charged with third-degree murder after national outcry. On June 3, his charge was increased to second-degree murder and the other three officers involved have been charged with abetting the murder.
Floyd’s name joins a long list of Black people who have been killed by police in the United States. Following his death, demonstrations and protests were organized across the country, with demonstrators chanting “No justice, no peace,” “Black lives matter” and “End police brutality,” according to national reporting by the Associated Press. Protests have also been held in international cities, including London and Berlin, according to NPR.
Ceci Lopez, assistant professor and director of the Law, Diversity and Justice Center at Fairhaven College, said that the past week has brought urgency to conversations about systems of oppression and the history of systemic and institutionalized inequities. Understanding the way those systems operate is essential to begin the process to change them, Lopez said.
“Those systems of oppression live within a paradigm of domination,” Lopez said. “Eventually we're going to have to recognize that as long as we continue to operate within this paradigm, it's almost impossible to change those systems of oppression and inequity.”
The Bellingham vigil attracted a large crowd. Jenea McDonald, a Bellingham local and student at the University of Southern California, said it was encouraging to see a large number of non-Black people come to support the vigil.
Bellingham is moving in the right direction, but still has lots of work to do, McDonald said. McDonald, who went through the Bellingham Public Schools, noted that she never had a Black teacher. A lack of representation in public spaces makes it difficult to have conversations about Black and civil rights, McDonald said.
“A lot of people here, because it is a small, liberal town, like to pretend like everything is dealt with,” McDonald said. “Being able to have a more diverse group of people talk about these issues, whether it’s in local politics or at the high school, is really important.”
According to census demographic data, Bellingham is 82.5% white and 1.6% Black. This population data sheds light on the lack of, and important need for, more diverse representation, as McDonald said that Bellingham is majority white and needs to work harder for more diversification in representation.
Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood was among the attendees at the vigil. Fleetwood left flowers, read signs and listened to some of the speeches. Fleetwood recognized the need for ongoing change.
“We have to change conditions. These sorts of trends cannot continue,” Fleetwood said. “It's going to be a question of what it takes and how we do it. But we have to be continuously vigilant in the effort.”
People gathered in the library parking lot, wearing masks and keeping a 6-foot distance from others. The mood was somber, and many people remained quiet.
Johnson, a political science professor at Western, said it’s getting harder to spread messages of encouragement when nothing ever seems to change.
Johnson started listing the names of Black men who have been killed in recent years as a result of police action. Freddie Gray: “Baltimore, five years ago.” Philando Castile: “Minneapolis, his girlfriend videotaped it from the car, he told [the police] he had a gun, but they still killed him.” Eric Garner: “The original ‘I can’t breathe’ guy.”
In all of these cases, Johnson said, the police were never held accountable for their actions.
“As a Black person, it’s hard to keep watching that and internalizing that,” Johnson said. “As an educator, it’s hard for me to keep preaching messages of hope because sometimes it just seems like whatever happens doesn’t make any difference. We sit on the edge of our seats waiting for the delivery of justice.”
Lopez, the Fairhaven professor, said the United States is at a crossroads and facing a key moment, one that might result in lasting change. Like all pivotal historical moments, she said, decisions made now will influence the conversations and actions surrounding inequality in the future.
“We cannot be blind to the realities of inequality in this country, so we are forced to choose,” Lopez said. “Either we agree that inequality is OK, or we recognize that inequality is really unsustainable and that we need to shift.”
The organizers of the vigil and march spoke to the Front about why the events were important, but asked not to be named out of concern for their safety. The events in Minneapolis are not isolated nor are they unique, one said, and police brutality and racism have a presence and impact all across the country.
“This is not an issue unique to Minneapolis; this is not an issue unique to any one place. This is an issue that exists everywhere. Racism exists all over this country and this is an issue that affects all of us,” said one of the organizers, who is also a student at Western.
The organizer shared experiences of being profiled and watched by police in Bellingham and how she feels “terrified” by them watching her.
“The things they did in Minneapolis they can do here, too, and that terrifies me. I do not want to die at the hands of a cop,” the organizer said.
Bellingham Police Chief David Doll released a statement on Facebook on May 30 in response to George Floyd’s death and the ongoing protests around the country. Doll expressed sadness and denounced the actions of the police officers involved, calling their actions an “excessive and unnecessary” use of force. Doll said that the event has been a big step back in the ongoing work of police to develop community trust and support.
Doll went on to list the actions the Bellingham Police Department has taken to be transparent and gain community trust, including being the first Washington department to require the use of body cams, exceeding state-required hours for officer training in crisis intervention and de-escalation, and ongoing training about implicit bias and responding to hate crimes.
“Our profession comes with challenge as well as honor, and with that comes great responsibility,” Doll said. “A responsibility, in this case, to act swiftly and decisively to hold accountable those in our ranks who did not act honorably. I am proud of the work Bellingham Police officers do every day; that pride resonates from the culture we have built over the past century – a framework passed down and built upon by every officer who protects and serves our community.”
The Instagram account @bellinghamylf, which calls itself the Bellingham chapter of the Youth Liberation Front, claimed responsibility for setting up the vigil. The account also coordinated and advertised for Saturday’s 3 p.m. march, where several hundred protesters gathered around Elizabeth Park in the Columbia neighborhood in anticipation of marching through Bellingham.
During interviews conducted at the park, several protesters expressed the belief that things are coming to a tipping point.
“We’ve been sitting around for a long time watching things happen and it doesn’t make a change. There’s a lot of attention now and this is the time,” said one Bellingham woman who came to the protest with her significant other. “Hopefully this is it.”
When the couple was asked whether they had any specific concerns regarding the Bellingham Police Department, the woman’s partner said that, between the person he went to school with who’s on the BPD and the conversations that he has had with several BPD officers, he knows there are good people.
“An important point is that it’s not individual versus individual; it’s a collective system that has proven to be corrupt,” he said.
One protestor who came to Saturday’s march from Ferndale with two of her friends said they attended because they are tired of their people being ignored and killed in the streets without officers paying for their actions. Like the couple, the trio believe now is a turning point.
“I feel like people are sick and fed up with stuff,” one protestor said. “I feel like this is the start of something big.”
The Ferndale protestor did not have specific concerns with BPD, but did note that she hasn’t seen much diversity within the force, so she will be watching to see how they react to these attempts in social change.
Around 3:30 p.m., the march volunteers gathered everyone’s attention to announce that they would be marching from the park to the George Floyd vigil, and then to Trader Joe’s, where they said they would be providing shuttles from there to Seattle for people who were interested in joining the protests in the city. It is unclear how many Bellingham protesters took shuttles to join the protests in Seattle. They also asked people of color and individuals with disabilities to make their way to the front.
The march went on to take over the streets of the Lettered Neighborhood, where chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go” rallied throughout the crowd, and were met with support from residents cheering from their houses.
During this time, the organizer spoke with the Front on the importance of working with multiple local organizations that offer community support. She said that she operates independently and stated that working with one organization alone inhibits the ability to offer diverse solutions for the diverse issues within the community.
“We need multiple solutions on the table, and right now everybody is in complete solidarity that murder is not okay. Plain and simple. People are being murdered in the streets, so we’re all standing together on that,” the organizer said.
The march, which made its way down Dupont Street to the library with that chant “Two four six eight, stop the violence, stop the hate” reached its destination without incident. The protesters marched straight toward oncoming traffic with a small procession of cars involved in the protest behind them. Many oncoming cars made u-turns or quickly got out of the way, however, some cars stopped for the protesters, honked their horns and raised their fists or thumbs up in support of the protest. People on bikes rode ahead of the protest to direct traffic away from the protest and to slow traffic. City buses pulled over completely until the march passed through.
“We will not have racist police in Bellingham! We will tell them right now at their door! No racist police!” the organizer said while leading the applauding crowd to Trader Joe’s, marching past city hall, the courthouse and the police station. The demonstrators were not met with police presence, even while they marched through high-profile streets with four lanes and a high traffic volume.
Even after arriving at Trader Joe’s, the protests remained peaceful, aside from a brief altercation that broke out between a car and one protester when the car attempted to pull into the parking lot and the protester kicked the car's back bumper.
The protest, still in the several hundreds, continued down the center of James street then onto N State street. toward the Bellingham Public Library. Once back at the memorial, organizers and speakers stood on the steps to give speeches.
The organizer, who expressed appreciation to the library for allowing space for the memorial, brought up why they were marching there, its significance to her and the community.
“I want to make sure that the memorial stands up, because it is representative of all the issues, and holds the pain that our community is in right now,” the organizer said.
To move forward, the Bellingham community as well as the county, state and country will need to develop new systems to overhaul the old ones, Lopez said. This will take work and a recognition of the systems of oppression that benefit some and harm others. If the change necessary is thought of in terms of partnership, people need to reflect on their positions within society, acknowledge the privilege that comes with that for some, and show up for partners who do not experience the same privilege as you, Lopez said.
“So to move away from [the paradigm of oppression], we need to figure out how we are going to engage with a new paradigm, a new paradigm of partnership, a new paradigm of bridging and building and creating a society of belonging,” Lopez said.