Hands Against Hate
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
HANDS AGAINST HATE: “We want to believe that it can’t happen here. But it is happening here, and it has been for a long time,” Vernon Damani Johnson reported to Bellingham City Council earlier this month. The Western Washington University professor of political science sketched the escalation of local hate crimes and social animus that earlier this month included a racially motivated verbal assault on his colleague, Karen Dade, professor and former associate dean of Western’s Woodring College, at a local grocery store.
“Fortunately, other people who witnessed this circled around her so that she was safe until police arrived,” Johnson explained in a presentation to City Council’s Justice Committee, suggesting that protective encirclement might serve as a metaphor for social change.
“Over the past few years we have seen a gradual deterioration of moral leadership in this country that has allowed for the vilification of citizens and immigrants, and demonization of political opponents along racial lines, while provoking the flames of racial hatred and fear long embedded in the roots and history of our nation,” Johnson and his colleagues wrote in a recent op-ed.
“This type of hatred has additionally wedded itself to decades of failed efforts at the national level to attain any type of meaningful control of gun ownership by Congress or the Supreme Court,” Johnson and his colleagues wrote. “This has set off an era of mass mayhem in a broad spectrum of communities across our country.
“We might have assumed that Bellingham and Whatcom County are long past this sort of hatred and ethnic animosity,” Johnson commented. “However, recent events have proven that we are as susceptible as any other community in the country.”
From Ferndale to Fairhaven, white supremacist and fascist propaganda have been spotted plastered to poles and walls, along parade routes, prompting Ferndale City Council to pass a resolution condemning the rise of racist nationalism.
“From what I’ve heard, they’ll test the waters in small communities,” commented Ferndale City Council member Rebecca Xczar, who sponsored the resolution. “If there’s a response, they’ll come back. So that’s part of this. We’re trying to make a statement saying that we don’t want that setup here. We want everyone to feel safe.”
Bellingham City Council’s Justice Committee is similarly at work revising and strengthening policy to protect the most vulnerable populations from white anger. The meetings have been well-attended by activists, and the atmosphere has been intense.
“The social and political climate that we are witnessing today is not new nationally, and is not new locally here in Whatcom County,” Johnson commented. “In fact, the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force was born 25 years ago when there was a cross-burning incident at a farm worker’s residence in the county. A few hundred of us marched a week or so afterwards when it felt like local authorities were not taking the incident seriously enough. Less than a year later, we witnessed the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. From that time forward, we understood there was a very serious far-right series of movements in this country that did not like the direction that the country was already moving toward. Many were dedicated to trying to overthrow the government if they could, if they could generate enough support for that.”
Whatcom, in fact, is a hotbed for organized bigotry, a nucleus for extreme far-right organizing, much of it centered in animus against the affiliated tribes but certainly fully equipped and funded to spray hatred at other communities of color.
“We’ve seen this drama before,” Johnson said, “and one of the things we know we have to do is not cower in silence but step up early on to say this isn’t the kind of community that we want to be.”
Addressing the Justice Committee this week, state Sen. Liz Lovelett outlined legislative efforts in Olympia to establish a statewide policy supporting Washington state’s economy and immigrants’ role in the workplace—an integral but undersupported labor force that undergirds Whatcom’s farming economy.
“The Keep Washington Working Act is ultimately at the heart a move toward having Washington become a sanctuary state,” the 40th District Democrat summarized. “One of the bigger overarching goals is to make sure that people who are experiencing trauma, violence or criminal activity feel comfortable and safe reporting that out to local law enforcement,” she said.
“This exacerbates and existing issue around trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement regarding personal safety in their home and workplace.
“Especially in light of some of the terrorist acts and hate crimes that we’ve seen of late, it’s more important than ever to make sure that folks in our community receive those protections and feel safe living, working and being in their communities,” Lovelett said.
“I do think there is absolutely room for local jurisdictions to take their own proactive stances,” Lovelett said in support of Council’s interest in strengthening city policies.
“With a lot of the things that have been transpiring in the nation and in our own community locally, we want to take positive and deliberate action in response,” Hannah Stone agreed. Stone chairs Council’s Justice Committee. “Even if there are instances in our community that may not be actionable in terms of prosecution as a formal hate crime, we want to let it be known that the community here is not going to tolerate hate.”