Above: Karen Johnson of Olympia is spearheading the Black Alliance of Thurston County.
by Janine Unsoeld
Many individuals and community groups are working harder than ever on issues and conversations about race, racism and police issues ever since the Olympia police officer involved shooting of two young African American men on May 21.
An Olympia Police Department shooting review board issued its conclusion earlier this week that no policies had been violated by Officer Ryan Donald during the incident. Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts reviewed the board’s decision and concurred.
The Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office is pursuing assault charges against the men, Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin. Subject to change, their pre-trial date is scheduled for November 4.
Along with over 30 other community members, Dr. Karen Johnson, Olympia, spoke out in front of the Olympia city council about the shooting on May 26.
“I was invited to come to that meeting to speak about these issues from my perspective. So, I accepted the invitation. I went to listen to what others had to say and spoke my truth.”
Johnson read the poem, “The Cold Within,” by James Patrick Kinney, and said that she fundamentally believed that she was there to speak because of unconscious bias on the part of Officer Donald. She referred to a book published in 1952 called, “The Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison, which talks about the phenomena of not seeing or hearing people of color.
“….We, in this city, have an opportunity…. In the words of a book by Dr. King, ‘Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?’ I would encourage us to go ‘community.’ Build a place where people are heard, valued, and respected, and then it doesn’t matter what the color of our skin and we can really live out the content of our character,” concluded Johnson.
Later, she and a group of African American community leaders formed the Black Alliance of Thurston County.
The Black Alliance of Thurston County has met with Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts several times since the officer involved shooting and issued a press release on September 2 calling Thurston County Jon Tunheim’s decision to not charge the police officer as “lawful, yet unjust.”
Drawn by her faith to a life of service, Johnson is also president of the Olympia Capital Centennial Rotary Club, whose vision is to reduce homelessness in Thurston County by 50 percent by 2020 and to put a book in every child’s hand.
The Rotary motto is to put service above self and Johnson lives out that motto. The Rotary group has given substantial financial support to the Family Support Center, SafePlace, South Sound Reading, Madison Elementary School for after school enrichment programs, and more.
For her day job, Johnson is employed as a strategic initiatives executive for Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services.
“Chief Roberts asked me, probably towards the end of July, to set up a meeting with Black leaders of Olympia and Thurston County to discuss plans for holding community conversations about race and racism, more than just within the police department. In that meeting, we also talked about addressing implicit and explicit bias and the use of body and dash cameras,” she said.
“Fundamentally, while body and dash cameras will be helpful to record excessive use of force, cameras alone won’t solve the problem. Case in point, in July 2015, we watched Eric Garner get beaten to death…and the Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the officer. Recordings alone won’t stop the behavior. We have to deal with the unconscious bias that automatically and unconsciously results in the merciless beating, unjustifiably shooting and killing of Black and brown boys and men at a higher rate than white boys and men.”
Asked whether or not the Black Alliance is commenting on Officer Donald’s actions, Johnson said the Black Alliance officially informed Chief Roberts that the comment he made after the shooting, that race was not an issue, was not helpful.
“Since our subconscious controls 96% - 98% of our perceptions and our behaviors, and since we live in a country where it was once lawful to enslave, lynch, beat and kill Black men simply because they are Black, we can only wonder whether Officer Donald’s behaviors and perceptions would have been the same if he had encountered two young white males. It is time to have the public dialogue since this behavior has been occurring across the nation,” Johnson explained.
“We’ve had several conversations with Chief Roberts about addressing implicit and explicit bias among the police officers….We envision police officers and community members participating in fair and implicit bias training. We will use the information we learn from these trainings to frame community conversations around unconscious bias, institutional and structural racism and concrete steps police officers can take to systematically ensure that their behavior results in Black and brown people receiving ‘guardian’ instead of ‘warrior’ treatment from police officers, ” said Johnson.
In a May press conference, the Thurston County Prosecutor Attorney Jon Tunheim stated that police officers cannot be prosecuted for excessive use of force under Washington State law when they operate in “good faith and without malice.”
In a statement issued on September 2, the Black Alliance called the standard imprecise, immeasurable, and impossible to prove.
Johnson said the Black Alliance will work to change the state law.
“Now is the time to set precise and provable legal standards when dealing with human life. It’s time for us to speak up and step up to change this law and other laws, statutes, policies, procedures and practices until it becomes self-evident…to all…that all people are indeed created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights: the opportunity to live an abundant life, liberty without oppression, and the opportunity to pursue happiness.”
Asked about the internal review process by the Olympia police department, Johnson said, “We plan to question the whole police review process, especially as it relates to deadly force. The recent internal review process led by the Olympia police department basically requires law enforcement officers to sit in judgment of each other. This does not provide the public with true police accountability. It is time to change the relevant laws, rules, and civil service procedures governing police conduct. It is time for independent oversight and review of police conduct in cases where excessive use of force may have occurred.”
Little Hollywood noted that Johnson has not attended any meeting of the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Policing and Community Relations.
“There are many voices and many groups addressing the issues they see as important. The Ad Hoc group has its charge and we have defined our charge. We will connect with them when it makes sense to do so,” she said.
“Soon, we will hold a community meeting to talk about why we formed, what we are about, what we seek to achieve, and invite others to partner with us to take action and be a catalyst for change. The May 21 incident may have been the catalyst that brought the Black Alliance of Thurston County together…but it is not what keeps us together.
“….Just look at any statistic…educational achievement, suspension and discipline rates, incarceration rates, home ownership, employment, health disparities, board rooms…Black people are either disproportionately, adversely impacted or severely underrepresented or non-existent. So, although all lives do indeed matter, this is a situation that we believe is our responsibility is to change…to be that village that helps Black people achieve optimal excellence and prosperity.
“Now is the time and Thurston County is the place…We’re not doing this work for show, for the press, or for personal ambition. We’re doing this work because our foremothers and forefathers have shed too much blood to get us where we are…We must take up the mantle for this generation and the generations yet unborn,” said Johnson.
As for next steps, Johnson said, “We’ll be meeting with Chief Roberts to discuss the internal review process, to define the parameters of a deadly use of force citizen advisory board, connect with the facilitator who will be conducting the fair and impartial trainings and to schedule our police and community forums around race and racism.”
“It is time for the people of Thurston County to help the Olympia police department achieve its mission: to consistently earn the trust of the residents and visitors to our community. The department will need ongoing investments in training, technology, and solid community partnerships. The Black Alliance of Thurston County stands ready to support them in this important work.”
The Black Alliance of Thurston County is committed to building trust and promoting fair and impartial policing in Thurston County. They support courageous and respectful conversations between communities and law enforcement about race, ethnicity, and income status.
For more information about the Black Alliance of Thurston County, email Dr. Karen Johnson at BlackAllianceThurstonCounty@gmail.com
Above: Karen Johnson carries the United States Constitution with her at all times. Here, she is reading the 13th Amendment.
The Cold Within by James Patrick Kinney
Six humans trapped by happenstance
In bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood
Or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs
The first man held his back
For of the faces round the fire
He noticed one was black.
The next man looking ‘cross the way
Saw one not of his church
And couldn’t bring himself to give
The fire his stick of birch.
The third one sat in tattered clothes.
He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his log be put to use
To warm the idle rich?
The rich man just sat back and thought
Of the wealth he had in store
And how to keep what he had earned
From the lazy shiftless poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge
As the fire passed from his sight.
For all he saw in his stick of wood
Was a chance to spite the white.
The last man of this forlorn group
Did nought except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave
Was how he played the game.
Their logs held tight in death’s still hands
Was proof of human sin.
They didn’t die from the cold without
They died from the cold within.