In his first town hall meeting since the COVID crisis hit more than a year ago, Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson issued a call for community action to battle the rising tide of hate, hate crimes and hate speech. Joining Nelson on the dais were Edmonds Schools Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas, acting Edmonds Chief of Police Michelle Bennett, NAACP Snohomish Chapter Vice President Louis Harris, Edmonds Diversity Commission Member Nikki Glaros, and Diversity Commission Youth Representative Caitlin Chung.
Also present were Edmonds Economic Development Director and Diversity Commission staff liaison Patrick Doherty, Edmonds Youth Commission chair Owen Lee, City Councilmember Luke Distelhorst, and City Council candidate Janelle Cass, who is challenging Distelhorst in the upcoming Aug. 3 primary.
The Monday evening event attracted an estimated 25 attendees and was held outdoors in the main plaza of Edmonds-Woodway High School.
“I’m excited to be holding our first town hall event since being locked down by the COVID pandemic 14 months ago,” Nelson began. “And it’s really appropriate because we’re here on a subject that has impacted our community and our country – and that is hate. Tonight we want to share with you what you can do about acts of hate, how to deal with and report them, but most importantly we’re here to hear from you about things we should be doing proactively, not just responding. It’s about how we can get together and be more connected as a community. The mayor, the school district, the police – we can’t solve it on our own. It has to be a collective effort.”
Nelson went on to cite FBI statistics that say two thirds of hate crimes go unreported and that Washington state ranks third in the nation (behind California and New York) in overall numbers of hate crimes.
“This is unacceptable,” he stressed. “It plagues us everywhere. As a nation and as a community we are becoming desensitized. This is not OK. It is totally intolerable. And we’re here tonight to remind you of that and to show that we want to be proactive and do more.”
Nelson then introduced acting Edmonds Chief of Police Michelle Bennett, who outlined what constitutes hate crime and what is being done to better keep track of hate-related incidents.
“The important thing to keep in mind about hate crimes is that the current statute defines it based on the perception of the victim by the suspect,” she explained. “Someone spray painting something nasty on a wall does not rise to the level of a hate crime unless the suspect did it based his/her perception of the victim.”
As an example, she said that painting a swastika on a wall is not in itself a hate crime, but painting one on a synagogue can be charged as a hate crime because it was directed at a specific person or persons.
Bennett went on to explain that until recently, many hate incidents that did not rise to the level of hate crime went unreported, but that has now changed.
“We now catalog and categorize all case reports of hate-related incidents, and document these in a central repository,” she explained.
Next to speak was Edmonds Schools Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas.
“We currently have 22,000 students enrolled in the Edmonds School District,” he began. “Of these, 53% are students of color. On top of this, there are more than 130 languages spoken in our district. We are becoming more diverse as a school system, and we can expect this trend to continue.”
He went on to explain that the schools teach kids that if they see or hear something, they need to say something, and that this covers all grades, elementary through high school.
“We have to teach kids what’s right and what’s wrong at an early age,” he stressed. “The more training, the more resilient the kids will be, and the more we contribute to promoting a healthy, safe community.”
Louis Harris of the NAACP took the podium next, stressing the importance of creating community and talking about and reporting incidents of hate and racism.
“I want to dispel the myth that racism is no longer a problem,” he explained. “It’s hard to get folks up in arms about things they don’t see every day. We know racism exists, and that for students it correlates with what they’re learning at home and in society. This means transparency is important – the kind of transparency we gain by the kind of comprehensive data collection and reporting referred to by Acting Chief Bennett. It is critical as we move forward to create more inclusive systems.”
Harris was followed by the Diversity Commission’s Nikki Glaros, who spoke about how the commission works with community groups to promote greater understanding and awareness, particularly citing the Diversity Toolkit created by consultant Courtney Wooten, which is primarily designed to help businesses connect with resources.
The session then opened up for audience comments and sharing.
Among the first to speak was Caitlin Chung, youth representative on the Edmonds Diversity Commission, who shared her experience growing up as a member of the AAPI (Asian and Pacific Islander) community and facing both overt and systemic racism in school.
“There were no teachers who looked like me,” she explained. “It was hard growing up with this. A turning point for me was when I helped organize the Highway 99 rally against hate in response to the Atlanta incidents of racial violence against members of the Asian community. I felt empowered, like I was doing something to turn the situation around. I don’t want the rising generation to face the same things I did in school.”
Another attendee asked about the swastikas that were painted on trees in South County Park earlier this year, and how officials responded.
“Part of that response is today’s forum,” said Bennett. “This is one piece of the multi-layered response that the mayor put together. Others include partnering with the school district, collaborating with police responders, implementing educational initiatives related to diversity including a public education social media campaign, involving the street crimes team in this incident, and working on installing game cameras in these areas to keep track of potentially illicit activity.”
Attendee Alison Alfonzo Pence, also a member of the Diversity Commission, asked about how to access the data on hate crimes.
“This has been a challenge,” responded Mayor Nelson. “Up until very recently we simply did not have these data. But that’s now changed, and reports are being kept and categorized.”
Another attendee asked about public education and what’s being done to ensure the public is being informed.
“Up until recently we’ve been too siloed,” Nelson responded. “The police, the city, the schools have been tripping over each other tracking the same data. I’d like to see a more comprehensive approach where we’re not duplicating efforts. Today is the beginning of this proactive collaboration. Up until now we’ve been reactive where silence signaled acceptance – if you don’t talk about it, it will go away. We need to break this mindset.”
“We need to understand what’s out there now,” added Balderas. “Among students and young people there is a lack of understanding of the seriousness of this. Kids are doing copy-cat things like using hand signs and making posts on social media that maybe they’ve seen on TV. They think they’re being funny, but in many cases these are offensive. They need to learn what’s right and what’s wrong, and understand the consequences of their actions. As educators, we need to look at the intent behind these actions – was there malicious intent? It all goes back to the education piece.”
Another education-related point was articulated by Caitlin Chung, who shared that as a student she never had a person of color as a teacher, and her schoolbooks all had white characters.
“I didn’t know who to look up to,” she said. “So I just acted white – I totally dis-embraced my own culture. I feel ashamed of this now – I want the younger generation to feel proud of who they are and where they came from.”
Nikki Glaros underscored this by stressing the importance of kids seeing themselves in teachers and library books. “Representation matters – it’s huge,” she added.
Another attendee asked about the effects of kids spending large amounts of time in the virtual world, where they’re being taught by bots or social media posters – and the parents don’t know what their kids are doing.
Bennett, who taught cyber safety classes for 15 years while with the King County Sheriff’s Department, responded that kids often don’t know when something they’re doing online is criminal.
“A computer is like a pen,” she said. “You can use it to write, or you can use it to stab someone. Kids need to know that what they say online is just as damaging as what you say in person – and just as illegal. They also need to know that it can come back to hurt you later in job applications and college submissions – we search social media whenever we’re considering a hire, and this is now common practice everywhere. A lot of kids just don’t have this information. For example, it’s a fact that 88% of sexting photos end up on porn sites.”
The next comment was from Janelle Cass, who shared her experiences in the Air Force where her gay and lesbian friends were under the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and the damage this caused by forcing them to always suppress themselves. She went on to praise the stepped-up efforts by police to help vulnerable communities feel safe coming into businesses by quickly responding to hate incidents. She then pointed out that the Diversity Toolkit produced by the Diversity Commission contained links to websites that talked about defunding police, and asked how this reconciles with the growing and important role of police in this regard.
After acknowledging that he “wasn’t aware of that,” Mayor Nelson asked Patrick Doherty to respond.
Explaining that the Diversity Toolkit lists numerous resources including websites, books and podcasts, he pointed out that while some of the sites contain links to other sites that contain material about defunding, the primary sites listed in the kit do not.
“We didn’t intend users to go beyond the main page,” he explained.
The final comments came from Owen Lee, Edmonds Youth Commission Chair. Lee asked Acting Chief Bennett about the anti-police sentiment among many young people fueled by the many incidents of police violence around the nation, and what she would do to “combat this” and help young people be more receptive to the role of police in quelling hate and hate crime.
“There’s no way I can combat anything,” responded Bennett. “We as a department can educate about our authentic selves and our true community nature. As Sir Robert Peel (founder of the London Metropolitan Police Service in 1829) said, ‘the public are the police and the police are the public.’
“There are bad actors everywhere, and I have no excuse for those people,” she added. “In my 30 years I’ve never shot or punched anyone. But sometimes we have to use force, and we have to be realistic about police work and what it looks like.”
She then referenced new police legislation (HB 1310) passed by the Washington State Legislature earlier this year, which would limit police use of force, and define the conditions under which police can intervene. She also spoke of enhanced community engagement programs, and partnerships.
“We only use force when necessary to protect someone’s life, we never use more than we have to, and we are trained to de-escalate,” she added. “But policing is unpredictable, and if an encounter turns violent it’s better to have the responder trained in the use of force than to send in someone without this training and potentially put their life at risk. We have to be all things at once – counselor, conciliator, peacemaker, crisis de-escalator, engager and protector when necessary.”
Nelson then offered closing remarks, stressing once again that this is a community effort.
“We can’t do this alone,” he said. “We all need to be eyes and ears, call out when you see things happening, be a good neighbor. Today is the first step, but there will be more as our dialog builds. We have a loving, caring community, and we want to do what’s needed to keep it that way.”
For those who could not attend and/or have additional questions or thoughts to share, these can be submitted as messages on the City’s Facebook page here.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel