Black Activists in Olympia Form ‘Blast,’ Submit Demands to City, County, State
By Katie Hayes
Published June 30, 2020
Some activists wince at the word “protest.” It doesn’t convey the magnitude of public outcry that has taken place in Olympia over the last month.
“It’s a movement, uprising, it’s a revolution,” said Ty Brown, a community organizer with Washington Community Action Network. “Call it what it is. In the beginning it was a protest, but movements last longer than 20 days and this has been lasting longer than 20 days. A protest is something that dies out quickly.”
In Olympia — which has seen nightly demonstrations — the city council banned the Olympia Police Department from using chemical agents to disperse crowds. City councilors and the mayor signed onto a letter that opposes the presence of armed vigilantes in Thurston County. The city council is working to create a Human Rights Commission to advise the council on policy issues.
These actions are the result of more public pressure and input than ever before. Still, though, Olympians demonstrate in the streets, demanding large structural changes for more police accountability and to end police brutality and systematic racism.
It’s these changes that Brown and others hope to fight with their new organization Black Leaders in Action & Solidarity in Thurston County, or BLAST. Already, the group of 10 Black activists has brought their list of demands before city, county and state elected officials.
The current movement stems from the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer in late May. When the police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe.” Three other officers stood by and watched while Floyd was killed in the street. People around the world saw Floyd plead for his life in a video that was taken by a bystander.
It sparked international outrage and more than a month of demonstrations across the country. People in every state continue to take to the streets with calls to defund or abolish the police. Minneapolis vowed to defund and dismantle its police department, and replace it with a new system of public safety. Los Angeles will not increase its police budget. New York City will make cuts to its police budget.
Protesters in Seattle have demanded a 50% cut to the police department’s budget, while Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan responded with a proposal to cut $20 million through the end of this year. It amounts to about a 5% reduction.
Nationally, the House just approved the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” which would address a wide range of issues at the federal, state and local levels around policing practices and law enforcement accountability. That bill now heads to the Senate.
BLAST hopes to use this momentum and public outrage to make changes that activists argue will make Olympia more equitable for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC).
“The purpose of BLAST is to give space for Black voices to be heard, lifted up and elevated to come together and work on the same fight toward justice,” Brown said. “There is injustice in every instance in our Black lives — in our housing, in our policing, in our jobs, in everything. It’s all tied together. So bringing everyone from different backgrounds and different organizations together at a Black leaders’ table, nothing could be more powerful than that.”
Brown and the other activists formed BLAST earlier this month, when they reached out to “every Black leader” they knew in Olympia and invited them to the same meeting. To date, the group has been the most formal in bringing its demands before elected officials.
On Sunday, June 7, BLAST met with a group of about 25 elected officials to read and discuss demands, Brown said.
The primary goals of the demands are to divest from the criminal justice system, more city and police accountability, increase tenant rights by enacting a Good Cause Eviction Bill and Non Possessory Bill, investigations into ties between public officials and armed militias and a “Reconciliation and Oversight Board” in the City of Olympia (what the Olympia City Council calls a “Human Rights Commission”).
The group has outlined the specifics of how they want these demands accomplished in a nine-page document. There are calls to action for city, county and state elected officials.
Even with some clarity from the newly-formed group, however, the city of Olympia is scrambling to respond to nightly demonstrations during a global pandemic. City councilors and the manager have received hundreds of emails and heard hours of public comment with demands that range from “defund the police” to actions the city council could immediately implement, such as banning the police from using chemical agents.
The Olympia City Council is also working to create a Human Rights Commission that will advise the council on policy issues. The General Government Committee will scope this work at its next meeting in July, with the help of city staff.
At this time, there isn’t one cohesive message from all activist groups in Olympia. Even BLAST has only distributed the full list of demands to those who attended the group’s meeting in the last week.
“The clearest message in Olympia right now is that no one is going to back down,” Brown said. “Whether it’s this group or that group or whatever, as long as they’re out here doing the work, that’s all that matters. Once the streets get empty then Olympia City Council is going to feel better about themselves. So we can’t let the streets get quiet.”
If Olympia has a united message, Brown said, it is to “end racism and defund the police.”
For the last month, multiple people and organizations have held demonstrations across Thurston County, mostly in Olympia. But because organizers face violent threats, leaders are difficult to find.
Washington CAN, Olympia SURJ: Showing up for Racial Justice, Justice for Yvonne McDonald and Olympia Black Lives Matter Community Council are a few of the organizations that have held or been affiliated with demonstrations and rallies over the last month. Some people have organized rallies on their own, like Jasmyn Pereira.
Pereira isn’t affiliated with BLAST, but organized two rallies on her own in June. When she saw people beginning to protest in Seattle and Portland, she decided to organize a rally in Olympia.
“Everyone was so concerned about the stores getting broken into — everything else except why people are mad,” Pereira said. “What brought them here again. People like to pretend protesting and rioting is not part of American history, when that’s the only way things have ever gotten done.”
The purpose of both rallies she organized was to be where people could not ignore demonstrators, Pereira said. Some of the people she speaks with, she said, don’t understand the racism BIPOC experience in Olympia, because it’s easy for them to ignore it.
“It’s too easy for cities like this and surrounding towns to think it is a non-issue,” said Pereira, who is biracial. “Well, you don’t have to see it. You don’t have to look at it. Just because it happens on a smaller scale, or a more hush-hush level, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
Both of the rallies Pereira organized involved blocking traffic and being where she and others were impossible to miss. The first one she organized took place at Capital Mall and eventually migrated to downtown Olympia. The second one she organized began in Tumwater and ended at the Capitol building.
“If you’re mad that we’re holding up traffic, we’re madder,” Pereira said. “We wouldn’t be out here if people were doing what they are supposed to, which is holding the police accountable, holding each other accountable.”
Talauna Reed has also been heavily involved with efforts to increase police accountability and fight systematic racism in Olympia. She is part of multiple organizations including BLAST, Olympia SURJ, and Justice for Yvonne McDonald, which she started.
Earlier this month, she spoke at a rally organized by Washington CAN and Olympia SURJ. She made a call to action for white members of the community to “break white silence” and urged them to stand “between racism and people of color.”
Reed stressed the importance of white activists supporting Black organizers and following their lead during this movement.
Reed is the niece of Yvonne McDonald, a Black woman who died in Olympia in 2018 under suspicious circumstances. Reed formed the group “Justice for Yvonne McDonald” and is currently in a legal battle with Thurston County to obtain Yvonne McDonald’s autopsy report. She alleges that the Olympia Police Department mishandled her aunt’s case.
Since Yvonne McDonald’s death, Reed has spoken at numerous city council meetings over the last two years. Her requests range from asking the city council to appoint a police auditor, to a one-on-one meeting with Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby. Neither has happened, but Selby said the city council is looking at scoping the police auditor role at the next General Government Committee meeting in July.
During their interview for this story, both Brown and Reed said it isn’t safe for them to call the police. Just two weeks ago, a man used a racist slur and threatened to shoot Brown.
“I had to call the police, but I also had to tell the police I wouldn’t be there when they got there,” Brown said. “I’m not going to stand and wait for two fears to come directly in my direction.”
Since Floyd’s murder, two different incidents from Olympia law enforcement have received public scrutiny, with people arguing that these showcase a culture of white supremacy within the department.
On Monday, June 1, a Black woman wrote on Facebook that a white female Olympia Corrections Officer said “I can put a knee on her” while she was under arrest at a demonstration outside city hall the night before.
Olympia City Manager Jay Burney said the investigation into the comment is complete, and that an “independent outside attorney” is reviewing that investigation. Burney said Friday he expects to hear the results of the investigation soon.
Then on Friday, June 5, a photo surfaced on social media of a white female Olympia Police Department officer with a group of armed, mostly white men from the Three Percenters, a far-right militia group.
Selby and interim Olympia Police Chief Aaron Jelcick released statements in response to the photo. Selby wrote in a statement on Facebook, “I find this behavior to be abhorrent and unequivocally unacceptable.”
“I share the community’s concern that this image does not promote the values held by the Olympia Police Department and the City of Olympia,” Jelcick’s statement reads in part. “I am disappointed and frustrated that the photo was taken at all, but particularly at this sensitive time in our city and nation.”
The Olympia Police Guild responded with its own statement.
“The Olympia Police Guild does not believe in any way the officer took part in anything promoting racism/white power, and the officer was unaware of any hand gestures made while the photo was taken,” the statement from the Olympia Police Guild that was published in The Olympian reads in part. “This officer’s record of service with the Olympia Police Department reflects their deep commitment to fair and impartial policing and the nondiscriminatory treatment of all citizens.”
Burney said Friday that the conduct of the officer is still under investigation.
After the initial public outcry following Floyd’s murder, the Olympia City Council and city manager faced criticism for not issuing statements before people began demonstrating in the streets. When Burney did issue a statement, he expressed horror at the murder of Floyd, while also condeming property damage to downtown Olympia.
People who spoke during the first city council meeting following the initial demonstrations were quick to call the city’s response “tonedeaf.”
“The destruction of property is in no way equal or of any concern compared to the death of people at the hands of the government,” said Thurston County Democrats Chair Victor Minjares. “Those two things should never be in the same statement and the fact that that happened here with the oversight of the city council, I found very distressing. … You disgrace the memories of the African American people who died at the hands of the government by bringing up the malefactors who decided to destroy property.”
Burney has since apologized for his initial the statement.
Minjares is a civil private practice attorney in Olympia. In 2018, he ran against Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim on a campaign of criminal justice reform. It was the first time Tunheim, who is currently in his third term, had a challenger for Thurston County Prosecutor.
In an interview with Beat: Olympia Police Accountability Project, Minjares said he does not believe the city’s response has improved since he first spoke at the Olympia City Council meeting. At this point, he believes Selby should step down, he said.
“She, like many of our representatives, is unaware of the extent to which false information is being used to discredit protesters,” Minjares said. “She cannot help herself but to think that if someone spray paints ‘BLM’ on her house it’s a protester and not someone who is taking advantage of the situation to create havoc. … Her mind cannot accept the possibility that there are elements in the police department that support white supremacy.”
Public scrutiny in Olympia has largely focused on Selby, who made national headlines this month when she said vandalism to her house was “like domestic terrorism.” Security footage published in The Olympian shows a white individual spray-painting “racist” and “BLM” on the house. She issued a public apology on her Facebook page.
Selby has received criticism from activists involved with BLAST for saying she wants to hear from BIPOC in Olympia, but not attending the group’s meeting with city, county and state elected officials. Selby told Beat: Olympia Police Accountability Project she was out of town during BLAST’s meeting and did not have a response to any of the demands, because she was not familiar with them.
“Mayor Selby called us and asked us to come to her table, but when we asked her to come to our table, she was out of town,” Brown said. “We can see where the privilege lies and where the power struggle lies.”
Talauana Reed — who has repeatedly spoken at Olympia City Council meetings over the last two years and asked to meet with Selby — has also been critical of the mayor’s lack of response. When asked by email if it was true that Selby had not met with Reed, Selby forwarded the email exchange between herself and Reed.
According to the emails Selby sent, when Reed asked to meet with her one-on-one regarding her aunt’s case, Selby suggested she instead meet with the executive director of SafePlace, a social services organization that helps victims of sexual and domestic violence.
“I love to connect people and thought that Ms. Reed might enjoy meeting another strong advocate for Black women in Olympia,” Selby wrote in an email to Beat: Olympia Police Accountability Project. “Instead, Ms. Reed appeared at public comment the next week and twisted my words and intentions to fit her narrative. I’ve never responded to her again because I don’t trust her intentions and she’s not immediate family to Yvonne McDonald. I’d be willing to meet with Yvonne McDonald’s sisters but they haven’t reached out.”
When asked in an interview how she felt the city was responding to the Black Lives Matter movement in Olympia, Selby said it is difficult to know who the leaders of the movement are.
“There are different groups using those initials and using that hashtag, but there is no one clear defined group and that is where our work is, is to start having those conversations with all the Black and Brown people in our community,” Selby said. “Those are the voices I want to center and elevate in this discussion and right now it seems like a lot of the demonstrations are being white-people forward and we need to put Black and Brown people forward.”
Due to social distancing, the Olympia City Council doesn’t currently meet in person. Instead, meetings are held over Zoom, with an option for people who want to participate in public comment to call in. Councilors and the city manager have been inundated with emails and calls. At one point, city councilors received about an email per minute from constituents.
“Because of the multiple crises we are in, specifically COVID, it’s been really hard to do outreach,” Selby said. “And at the same time, we are responding nightly to demonstrations and activities that are taking a lot of staff bandwidth.”
Selby noted that the Olympia City Councilors are part-time employees for the city, and do not have assigned staff like Seattle City Councilors do. In the council-manager form of government the city of Olympia operates under, the mayor has limited power. The city council creates policies, while the city manager executes those policies. The mayor is the head of the city council for ceremonial purposes.
“People are angry,” Selby said. “They don’t want to hear that we have done a lot already, but they need to hear that we have done a lot already. We have done a lot of work, but there is a saying that ‘culture eats policy for lunch.’ We can have all the best policies in the world, but if the culture of the police department isn’t there then there is a disconnect. So that’s where the real work is going to be, is changing the culture of our police force.”
When asked how she would characterize the culture of the police force, Selby said she had always been a “big supporter of our police,” but noted her statement regarding the photo of the Olympia police officer with a group of Three Percenters, in which she said “I find this behavior to be abhorrent and unequivocally unacceptable.”
“Again, how do you describe those groups?” said Selby, referencing far-right militias. “There’s like dozens of different names that they’re under, so you can’t put all of them in one group either. Some of them adamantly say that they’re not racist and there was a Black individual standing next to (the Olympia police officer).”
During BLAST’s meeting with elected officials earlier this month, the group explained its purpose and what organization or background each member came from, Brown said.
“We each ran through a small snippet of our list of demands and then pretty much asked them what they were going to be doing moving forward,” Brown said.
The list of demands is nine pages long, with seven main asks. There is an outline of how BLAST wants to accomplish each, including calls for multiple Olympia Police Department officers to be fired.
The primary goals of the demands are to divest from the criminal justice system, more city and police accountability, to increase tenant rights by enacting a Good Cause Eviction Bill and Non Possessory Bill, investigations into ties between public officials and armed militias and a “Reconciliation and Oversight Board” in the city of Olympia (what the Olympia City Council calls a “Human Rights Commission”).
The most action that has taken place as of Friday was the discussion. BLAST did, however, recently email out the full list of demands to people who attended the meeting, Brown said. BLAST activists did not share the full list of attendees, despite multiple requests for a list.
Three Olympia City councilors attended the meeting, though, including Renata Rollins, who confirmed the meeting took place. Rollins was the first city councilor to release a statement calling to demilitarize, disarm and defund the Olympia Police Department.
Rollins told Beat: Olympia Police Accountability Project that this is the main call-to-action she has heard both locally and nationally. The first step, she said, is examining the city’s contract with the Olympia Police Guild, the union that represents the Olympia police officers.
The city’s current contract with the Olympia Police Guild expired in December 2019. Burney confirmed that the city is still negotiating a new contract with the Olympia Police Guild, and currently operating under the old one.
Rollins said the Olympia City Council has gotten almost nothing but emails about defunding the police. She believes that people are beginning to reimagine public safety.
“There is nowhere near a concrete action,” Rollins said. “I think the agenda is still being formulated in the community. One of the demands was to investigate the armed militias or vigilantes coming to town. That was something I addressed in that meeting as well, because I was able to let them know we were working on a letter that would be available for all elected officials to sign.”
Thirty-three elected officials in Thurston County signed a letter to “oppose the presence of armed vigilantes patrolling our communities” on June 19. The letter has been the most action the Olympia City Council has taken against vigilantism “in terms of formal action” Rollins said. Staff is still preparing advisement in terms of possible enforcement strategies, she wrote in a text message.
Brown called the letter a “mini success.”
“I mean, it’s a letter,” Brown said. “… What is it going to do? What does it hold? To say ‘we’re against the militias,’ — is that going to stop them from coming? How are they going to guarantee our safety? How are they going to guarantee that (when I come) home at night, I’m going to be safe from getting my skull cracked in? Or that someone is not going to find me hung in a tree and say that it was suicide? How are they going to guarantee that? That’s what we want in our community, not some letter.”
When asked if there was a specific demand BLAST wanted elected officials to focus on first, Brown and Reed said there wasn’t one facet that took priority over the others.
“People are like ‘you guys are all over the place,’ but that’s our reality,” Reed said. “Racism is all over the place. We’re coming from all these different angles and not giving them a choice. You have to address it. It all centers around the decision makers and their ability to make changes and not pass the buck.”
Reed acknowledged that the demands are wide-reaching, but neither she nor Brown believe public pressure will let up until all their demands are met.
“You can’t have a conversation about the police, without having a conversation, like I said, about housing,” Brown said. “The police have been set up to be a part of every system and situation in our worlds. You can’t get evicted without the police coming to your door.”
Olympia has been so “white washed,” Brown said, that there isn’t a space for Black people to comfortably fit in. This is part of what BLAST activists want to change.
“You always feel like you’re a Black person when you go somewhere, whether it’s intended or unintentional,” Brown said. “I like to call Olympia a place that has underlying racism. It’s so quiet you have to question yourself, like ‘Wait, was that there?’ … Olympia is always a place that’s so progressive. ‘We fight racism!’ They say it so loudly and proudly, but how could you fight for something that you don’t even acknowledge exists in your own town?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ty Brown formed BLAST. BLAST was formed collectively by activists. The story has been updated to reflect this.