OPINION: July Cheers & Jeers

This month’s Cheers & Jeers is a little different in that we only have one of each, but since nothing in 2020 is even close to “normal,” we’re hoping our readers will forgive us.

Our first and only Cheers goes out to every person currently pushing back against systemic racism, police brutality against people of color and a deeply flawed judicial system that imprisons Black and brown people at far greater rates than their white counterparts.

Whether you are physically putting your body on the line like the Black Lives Matters protesters in Portland, who have withstood over-the-top violence from unidentified federal forces and have been shot with pieces of metal and rubber bullets, tear-gassed and beaten with batons simply for exercising their First Amendment rights (see related column “Constitutional crisis in Portland” in today’s Post-Record); coordinating family friendly Black Lives Matter rallies and marches like the ones we’ve seen in Camas and Washougal; contributing to organizations and groups that promote racial equity and justice; lobbying your local, state and federal officials to pass legislation that will prevent the next death of a Black person in police custody; or starting the larger conversation about race and injustice like many local business owners (see related story, “Pitching in on Black Lives Matter movement,” in today’s Post-Record), you deserve a Cheers for refusing to allow this life-and-death issue to fade away and, once again, get swept under the rug. Thank you for speaking out and for not backing down.

On that same subject, our July Jeers is reserved for the members of the Washougal City Council who felt the need to twist the knife in a little deeper with a completely unnecessary resolution stating the council will not listen to the concerns of the “Defund the Police” movement “regardless of the meaning of the term.”

The councilors’ likely intention was to show support for Washougal’s police officers and new police chief, but the implications — that elected officials have shut the door on a conversation that never even began — should concern any Washougal resident who still believes public officials are there to listen to their citizens and thoughtfully deliberate what is best for their community based on the most current facts and information.

As evidenced by community members who have marched with their children through the streets of Washougal in support of the Black Lives Matter movement; the local business owners bringing the BLM conversation to their restaurants, clinics and brewpubs; and the bravery of Washougal High’s only Black teacher publicly sharing her own experiences with racism in Washougal, there is a local desire to explore the issues surrounding systemic racism in Washougal.

But we cannot dig into systemic racism without tackling the issue police use of force against people of color.

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America journal in August 2019: “Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.”

The study showed one out of every 1,000 Black men in this country will be killed by police. That is 2.5 times the rate of white men killed by police.

We have a problem with racism and police brutality against people of color in this country. Our local leaders should, at the very least, be willing to listen to citizens who want to help change those facts.

The city councilors — with the exception of Alex Yost, who cast the lone “nay” vote on the pro-cops resolution — should have at least tried to understand the “Defund the Police” movement before rejecting it outright. After all, defunding programs is nothing new. Our society has collectively voted for politicians who have defunded public education, mental health care, early childcare programs, colleges and universities, public media, affordable housing, food assistance while simultaneously increasing military, police and prison spending.

People who understand that police and prison spending has outpaced and overshadowed social programs known to prevent crime know it makes sense that what most “Defund the Police” advocates are calling for is a reimagining of what police should do in our communities. These advocates are asking some tough but necessary questions:

Do we need to spend so much on policing when we could fund programs that actually help lift people out of poverty, provide affordable housing and reduce crime rates?

Should we be spending so much of our cities’ budget on police instead of allocating resources to mental health professionals who could take on the mental health crisis calls that so often result in police killing mentally ill citizens?

Do the Washougal council members who voted so quickly to shut down any discussion of reallocating police resources know that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by a police officer?

We don’t know what these Washougal officials understand about the Defund the Police movement — or what they might know about studies showing these types of resource reallocations can help a community cut its crime rates and lift up its most vulnerable citizens — because they passed a resolution shutting down that very conversation.

The Washougal councilors who thought up and fought for the city’s anti-Defund the Police resolution seemed to be arguing that local officials can’t make a difference when it comes to mental health or other social programs that could benefit the city’s vulnerable populations, help reduce crime rates and prevent they city from experiencing the type of police use of force seen in other areas. We would argue that these initiatives must begin at the local level. The Clark County Crisis Services program, for instance, has a team of mental health professionals and certified peer counselors trained to respond to crisis situations.

Is it so impossible to imagine Washougal joining with this county resource and maybe even reallocating some funds currently reserved for the police department to help send trained mental health experts — instead of armed police officers — to all local 911 calls involving a non-violent person experiencing a mental health crisis?

We don’t know because the majority of the Washougal City Council is, apparently, not even willing to discuss it. They only thing they can say is that reallocating resources away from the police department is not even on the table, no matter what local citizens might want. Jeers to that.

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