A Yakima forum on race and justice drew a large crowd and elicited emotional tales of discrimination as panelists and audience members sought answers to what many see as the country’s growing crisis of confidence in law enforcement.
Several spoke of the “Race, Justice & Democracy” town hall organized by KCTS 9, Humanities Washington and Heritage University as a safe space to talk about the volatile issue. But it wasn’t without disagreement and pointed questions from the audience and between the four panelists leading the discussion.
“The nation is in an upheaval about this issue as perhaps has not been seen since the 1960s,” panelist and University of Washington associate political science professor Christopher Parker said.
His fellow panelists agreed that the issue — and more specifically police violence against unarmed people of color — is receiving the kind of sustained attention it hasn’t seen in years. Their concerns included whether the outcome would be more equitable treatment of minorities in the justice system and whether a continued erosion of trust could also make life more dangerous for police.
“Police shootings aren’t on the increase, but we’re seeing it a lot more and talking about it a lot more,” said Mark O’Mara, a CNN legal analyst and former defense attorney for George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin. “What is happening, thank God, is more cellphones, security footage and cameras are catching these shootings.”
The results of a KCTS 9/Elway Poll on race relations in Washington state were also a topic of discussion, revealing that most residents believe race relations are fine in their own communities and bad nationally, but with solutions in reach.
Eighty-six percent of respondents said race relations were good in their own communities, but just 43 percent said the same for race relations nationally. Forty-five percent said race relations are getting worse nationally, but 63 percent said they don’t believe the problem is permanent. The poll results were released earlier Thursday.
Panelist Sue Rahr, a former King County sheriff and current executive director of the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, took heat from some panelists and audience members as she took turns defending police departments and acknowledging problems in policing that need to be fixed.
On the issue of county prosecutors in Pasco choosing not to charge the three officers involved in the shooting death of an unarmed Mexican immigrant in February, Rahr said critics have made assumptions without having all the facts.
“This decision did not say that the prosecutor thought what the cops did was good or right, it said it doesn’t meet the threshold of malicious intent,” Rahr said. “That’s an extremely high standard in our state.
“You can argue it’s too high, but then I could ask how many of you would then send your sons and daughters out to be police officers?”
Rahr also talked about how political messaging about being tough on crime and drug use has made some police departments militaristic. The training focus now is starting to shift to a culture of stewardship or guardianship of the community, Rahr said.
Mirta Laura Contreras, directing attorney for the Eastern Washington office of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Granger, said new training and recording technologies are a good step but don’t get to the root of the issue. Contreras said we live under systemic racism that is embedded in the very laws and institutions that make up the justice system.
“What we’re not talking about enough is racism in the institutions,” Contreras said. “There is a privilege granted to certain people whether they want it or not.”
Asked by an audience member to define systemic racism, O’Mara, a white Irish-Catholic, cited examples from his own life going into job interviews, speaking before judges or being pulled over by police while speeding.
“Never in any of those situations did I say, ‘I really wish I was black,’” O’Mara said. “That’s what we’re dealing with. You never walk into a situation as a white and think, ‘Boy, would I fare better if I was black in this circumstance.’”
Even as an attorney, Contreras said she has experienced racism at courthouses when talking with clients. In the 1990s, a bailiff once flashed his sidearm because he didn’t like where Contreras was sitting and told her to leave, she said.
“That’s just an example of what institutional racism is,” Contreras said.
The recorded hour of the forum concluded with a number of the 200 attendees still having questions for the panelists. Moderator Enrique Cerna, KCTS 9’s director of community partnerships, continued to entertain some of those questions even as the cameras were turned off.
Parker said his optimism for the future improvement of race relations comes from the diversity of today’s youth. Academic studies show that children aren’t clinging as much to their parents’ biases, he said, and that should impact the justice system as that generation joins the workforce.
“The only hope we have is now the kids in the system are in a more diverse environment,” Parker said.
The event was live-streamed on the website of KCTS 9, the Seattle-based PBS affiliate, and a recording will be available starting Wednesday at KCTS9.org.
The program will air on KCTS 9 and KYVE 47 Yakima on Oct. 13 at 7 p.m.
The Yakima Herald-Republic, Yakima Community Foundation and the Yakima Bar Association also sponsored the forum.