Group interrupts Bellingham MLK event, calls for policing changes

Video: Protesters disrupt Bellingham MLK celebration

Protesters disrupt Mayor Kelli Linville's speech during the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration at Bellingham City Hall, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016.
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Protesters disrupt Mayor Kelli Linville's speech during the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration at Bellingham City Hall, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016.

Dozens of people with groups that fight for racial justice in Whatcom County held their own Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony outside City Hall on Monday, Jan. 18, to counter the city’s annual celebration inside.

While Kulshan Chorus sang “Freedom is Coming” from the hall’s dual staircases inside, speakers from the Racial Justice Coalition, Community to Community, Whatcom/Skagit Industrial Workers of the World, Latino Advocacy and more spoke to the importance of Martin Luther King’s legacy and played excerpts from his speeches outside.

None of the groups outside had been invited to participate in the city’s official event, said Kim Harris, a spokeswoman for the Racial Justice Coalition.

“We wanted to have an event that represented the showing of people of color in the community,” Harris said. “We wanted to present an alternative to the meeting that was going on inside.”

Soon after the city’s ceremony began, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville began her speech about the day’s theme, “Women’s Civil Rights,” detailing the lives of women in the ’60s, when King was fighting for change.

Her speech was cut short when a handful of people holding signs that read “Predictive policing (does not equal) community policing” and “Stop racial profiling” started banging on five-gallon buckets from the back of the room.

The mayor fell silent, and the crowd inside turned to look at the group.

After a few seconds passed and none of the protesters spoke, but continued to bang their makeshift drums, the mayor said something to the Kulshan Chorus director, who signaled the singers to start “Freedom is Coming” again.

When we feel uncomfortable, we often want to shy away from it, change the subject. It’s important to have the tough conversations.

Cedric Johnson, speaker at city’s MLK Day ceremony

The two groups carried on for a few minutes, the drumming stopping before the chorus finished singing.

When there was quiet, Linville said, “One of the things that I know Martin Luther King would be saying right now is thank God for the freedom of speech.”

A protester shouted over her, and someone yelled, “The people you need to listen to are outside this building.”

Some people in the room shouted at the protesters, then Linville said, “Everyone is welcome to our celebration, and I see signs up in front of me, and I agree with every single one of them.”

Cedric Johnson, the city’s next speaker, said conversations that had been taking place around the country the past year had created tension.

When speaking to friends, co-workers, and strangers, asking “Do black lives matter? Do all lives matter?” it’s easy to feel guilty or uncomfortable, Johnson said.

“When we feel uncomfortable, we often want to shy away from it, change the subject,” Johnson said. “Instead of explaining yourself, go home and think about it. ... It’s important to have the tough conversations.”

That includes, Johnson said, engaging with the folks gathered outside City Hall.

Alternative event

In a news release, the groups outside said part of the reason they held a separate ceremony was to demand an end to city practices they say perpetuate racism, systematize racial profiling and deny the experiences of local people of color.

Omar Jordan, who participated outside City Hall, said the alternative event was meant to remind the community of King’s advocacy for direct action.

“There are a lot of efforts to soften and sanitize his message,” Jordan said.

Russ Whidbee, who read from a speech King gave in protest of the Vietnam War and who works with the Racial Justice Coalition, said many people outside were trying to get people to “potentially admit there might be racial profiling in Bellingham.”

“We don’t want to believe it exists, but we need some reasonable doubt that it might — we need to admit there might be a possibility,” Whidbee said in an interview.

He noted the city’s ceremony was more established and traditional, while the event outside had more of a protest edge to it.

“It’s the world we live in,” he said. “There are two different worlds, and it’s hard to decide which to be a part of.”

We will continue to speak out in whatever way we find necessary.

Rosalinda Guillen, Community to Community Development speaker outside City Hall

While the city’s next speaker, Jamie K. Donaldson, spoke about identity and racial justice inside, the crowd outside chanted, “When racial justice is under attack, stand up, fight back,” and “Aqui estamos y no nos vamos” or “We’re here and we’re not leaving.”

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, a group that fights to empower under-represented people, including farmworkers in this area, spoke to the crowd outside.

“As long as black people in our country continue to be racially profiled, marginalized and shot, farmworkers will never have justice,” she said. “Martin Luther King’s work is not done. ... We will continue to speak out in whatever way we find necessary.”

Inside City Hall, Bellingham City Council member Terry Bornemann, who helps organize the city’s event every year, said that when he first heard there were plans to protest the event, he was frustrated.

“I felt some anger. This is a very special event for me and my family,” said Bornemann, who has children of color. “But I thought, what would Martin say? I think he would say, ‘Throw out your arms, show compassion and try to bring people in.’”

“I look around this room, and I hate to say it, but some of us are getting older,” Bornemann continued. “I look out front, and I see a lot of energy. It’s important to bring young people in and educate them about what Martin Luther King was about.”

Bornemann said he had spoken with some of the people outside before the city’s noon event, and that he felt a lot of people don’t know how the city’s event originated and how controversial some of the speakers had been over the years.

“I am a person of privilege. I’m male. I’m white. I have kids of color, and I’ve seen profiling happen,” Bornemann said. “Many don’t realize our police chief is a man of color — he’s Asian-American — or that our deputy chief is an African-American woman. We are privileged in our community, but we have to continue working to make all of these systems better.”

Racial profiling concerns

In September 2015, local civil rights advocates from the Whatcom Civil Rights Project, Latino Advocacy and other local groups accused Bellingham police of racially profiling a 15-year-old boy during a June traffic stop that eventually landed the teen in a Tacoma immigrant detention center.

In December, the department determined the officer who stopped the teen had acted within department policies when he called U.S. Customs and Border Protection after pulling the teen over for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and learning he was an undocumented immigrant.

Also, in August 2015, the Racial Justice Coalition protested the police department’s announcement that it would purchase predictive policing software that maps when and where certain types of crimes occur. The coalition said the software could legitimize racial profiling, and asked to have input on the transparency of the data collected.

“We were outside today because we weren’t being heard,” Junga Subedar, who works with Community to Community and other groups, said after the Monday events ended. “The city bought predictive policing software without the data collection software we wanted.”

Subedar said she and others had asked the city to compile comprehensive and searchable racial and ethnic data related to arrests and stops made by police officers.

Among the demands to change area policing that were made Monday were the creation of a civilian oversight commission, comprehensive data collection of the type Subedar spoke about, stopping the militarization of police, and mandating implicit bias training for all officers, staff, supervisors, city employees and government contractors.

The name of the Whatcom/Skagit Industrial Workers of the World organization was corrected Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016.