“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” reads a monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Observances over the anniversary weekend of the civil rights leader’s birthday help bring focus to social justice issues. (Pixabay photo)

share:

In 2020, a surge of racial justice protests against police brutality and systemic racism swept the U.S. as the nation endured a global pandemic and economic recession. In Whatcom County, community members and organizers gathered at rallies and marches June through October and continued to show up as the City of Bellingham crafted its budget in the fall and winter.

The combination of potent social and political turmoil made many people eager to close the book on 2020 and emerge into a fresh year. Organizers and elected officials agree there is much more work to be done and are approaching the year with a variety of plans and changes in the works.

Some activists are frustrated with the pace, but many report new signs of community support and engagement, and new attention from government.

The year begins strong, with Martin Luther King Jr. Day events through Jan. 18. (Details of major events appear below.) Community members are gathering virtually to reflect on a year of immense action — or in some instances, what they see as inaction by their elected officials — and to talk about what needs to happen next.

Policing and funding

At the height of the protests in summer 2020, organizers demanded the City of Bellingham reallocate funds away from the police and towards social service programs to prevent punitive actions against people in crisis.

By the end of the summer, the Defund Bellingham Police Department Coalition emerged, demanding the City of Bellingham redistribute 50% of the Bellingham Police Department’s (BPD) budget and create an unarmed 911 co-responder program.

Bellingham Educators for Liberatory Action (BELA) formed, advocating for the removal of BPD’s School Resource Officer position.

Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood and Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu hosted four listening sessions and the plan for a Racial Equity Commission (REC) — promoted by organizers Kristina Michele and Shu-Ling Zhao — began to take shape. 

In December, the City of Bellingham unanimously passed an ordinance adopting the 2021-2022 budget with a 5% cut to the BPD’s funds. The department eliminated one officer position, kept its school resource officer and reallocated just over $200,000 to various social services programs.

Whatcom County dedicated $130,000 to create the REC in its budget, and Fleetwood said he would match the contribution through his discretionary budget. Sidhu said he and Fleetwood are working closely with local organizers to continue to develop the commission, with the goal of having it up and running by July 2021.

While the police budget remained largely intact, the city council’s Public Health, Safety and Justice Committee learned more about how an unarmed 911 co-responder program might work, via presentations by programs across the country including Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), in Eugene, Oregon, and the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program in Denver, Colorado.

‘Justice for all’ doesn’t apply

“In 2020, a 500-year-old American problem was finally put in the spotlight. A good majority of people are now able to see that ‘justice for all’ unfortunately doesn’t apply to the BIPOC population,” Michele sad. She and Zhao cited a series of incremental victories in 2020, such as increased voter turnout and more public engagement with local politics and legislation. 

“This may not feel like much of a win, but these are now doors that are open that were once closed,” Zhao said.

In November 2020, Whatcom County passed a resolution recognizing racism as a public health crisis, saying data clearly shows racial disparities in health outcomes. Zhao said the resolution, and the continued work of forming the commission are both victories that stemmed from the organizing over the summer. 

Action through aid

Daija Heyward, organizer and co-founder of the Black Alliance of Whatcom County, said that in 2020 she saw community members and organizers stepping up action outside of local government by contributing to mutual aid. 

In the early throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of mutual aid groups surfaced to facilitate redistribution of funds and resources to community members in need, helping people weather the pandemic’s storm. 

Heyward said the Bellingham Occupied Protest, an encampment of houseless people and organizers on the lawn in front of Bellingham’s City Hall at, is a good example of people showing up for vulnerable people in their community.

Defund BPD Coalition member Brel Froebe said the spirit of the camp at 210 Lottie St., which activists have named Camp 210, has shown what organizers can accomplish together.

“There’s just been this overwhelming support from the community to provide basic needs to people,” Froebe said. “But even more importantly, [I’ve seen] a willingness to really engage with the humanity of our community,” and to not see people who are currently unhoused as inherently different.

New coordination — but slow change

BELA organizer Michelle Goldman said she’s also seen a new level of coordination and care within the county. 

“It’s been really beautiful to witness different organizers and community members coming together from all different areas to advocate for one another,” she said.

Although community members have stepped up, Goldman said she feels some officials have been slow to address racial equity issues raised by the community.

In the months since its formation to advocate for the removal of police officers in schools, BELA distributed a Police Presence in Schools document, met repeatedly with Bellingham School District leaders and urged the district and the city to eliminate the School Resource Officer. Despite those efforts, the position remains in place.

While the district has hired an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Director, Goldman said only time will tell if the new position will help facilitate district-wide change.

“It feels to me like they’re putting a lot of pressure on [the new director] to support the work that should be done across the district and across all leadership roles,” Goldman said. 

Missing follow-up

Defund BPD Coalition’s Froebe agrees. “[We saw] tremendous, exponential growth and engagement at city council and county council meetings,” Froebe said. “But the things that people are saying at these [meetings], like wanting systemic change in regard to racism and wanting reprioritization of funds, [are] just not being listened to.”

Monica Koller, owner of Connecting Community and facilitator for Respecting Ethnic and Cultural Heritage (REACH), said while she was excited to participate in the summer’s listening sessions, she has not yet heard back from the organizers about how her comments were being taken into consideration. 

“I specifically talked about the lack of trust that people, especially BIPOC people experience when engaging in such conversations because a lot of the time there isn’t a follow-up,” Koller said. “There’s been a history of that in community, but I thought that this time, with things being as raw as they are, that there would have been a follow-up.” 

Heyward said looking back on 2020, she is most disappointed that even after community members repeatedly urged the City of Bellingham to redistribute funds away from the BPD at protests, listening sessions and public hearings, only one officer position was eliminated. 

“It’s just really frustrating to see that we have these elected officials who are allowing us to give our voices and participate in these meetings, and then to see so little action,” Heyward said. 

Mayor Fleetwood acknowledged 2020 had been a difficult year for the city, and stressed that elected officials are prepared to continue working on racial justice in the new year.

“We heard the voices of people who felt the city and county were not acting quickly enough to tie aspiration to action,” Fleetwood said. “I can say without equivocation that, despite any concerns some may have perceived, we are passionately intent and committed to making real progress on issues of race and justice and equity.”

Education in equity

Along with organizing around racial justice, many community members are helping facilitate ongoing education about equity issues in the U.S. Mary Vermillion, community relations manager for the Whatcom County Library System, said reading this year’s Whatcom Reads book selection, “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan, is great way to continue the discussion around racial justice. 

Whatcom Reads encourages community members to read the book and engage in community-wide discussions. The book tells the story of an enslaved 11-year-old boy named George Washington Black who is selected to be the manservant of his master’s brother, a naturalist, explorer, inventor —and abolitionist.

“The book had already been selected in part because we know there are important and ongoing conversations happening regarding social justice and social equity,” Vermillion said. “It seems like it’s this perfect time for our community to be reading this one book together because it’s definitely a catalyst for conversations.”

Throughout 2021, Whatcom Reads will host events around the book’s themes of race, belonging and illustration of the natural world. Vermillion said this year’s programming strives to elevate the voices of Black artists, writers and organizers.

Looking to the future

REC’s Michele said that in 2021 and beyond, she wants to see more Black people, Indigenous people and people of color hired in government institutions across the country.

“I spent the entire summer ‘on-call’ for any and all local government representatives who wanted to have a discussion about racial inequality,” Michele said. “While their hearts are in the right place, they were unwittingly contributing to the cycle of poverty by not even thinking to compensate me for my time and expertise for a problem that they cannot solve without the BIPOC community.” 

Sidhu said he also strives to get more people of color across the county engaged in local politics, and “to join the mainstream politics in our community. [I want them to] take me as an example and see that I’ve been able to break through the ceiling.”

Heyward said she’s looking forward to seeing organizing around racial justice continue and grow. As well as working toward change, she said she also wants to continue building community through the Black Alliance of Whatcom County serving as a space for Black people to connect — part of the reason she and entrepreneur and activist Mo Green created the alliance. 

“It’s really helped me feel like I can keep going,” Heyward said. “When you have this little community to escape to, it was really just that extra push to get me further along and organizing.” 

She said she hopes by the spring and summer, COVID-19 will be under control so she and other organizers can host events for Black people and other marginalized communities. 

Despite being fearful that the momentum activists built over the summer will fade as more time goes by, Koller is hopeful that as more marginalized people’s voices are elevated, the city and county will continue to make meaningful changes toward racial equity.

“There are a lot of powerful voices in our community, and every single person has a story,” Koller said. “I’m just hoping that we can connect more through sharing stories more.”

MLK Day Events 

  • Jan. 14-16 and 18: Whatcom Human Rights Task Force (WHRTF) holds its 23rd annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Conference. Participants meet virtually in a variety of workshops to discuss and learn more about issues raised at local protests over the summer. 
  • Jan. 18: City of Bellingham hosts a virtual celebration from Noon to 1 p.m. featuring music by Kulshan Chorus, blessing by Lummi tribal member Darrell Hillaire and Children of the Setting Sun, and remarks by Bellingham author and celebration founder Clyde Ford.
  • Jan. 18: Western Washington University, Whatcom Community College, Northwest Indian College and Bellingham Technical College host a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Special Event Awakening the Legacy at 1 p.m. The event features keynote speaker Ijeoma Oluo, WWU alumna and New York Times bestselling author of “So You Want to Talk About Race.”
  • Jan. 18: Racial Unity Now Lynden will host Pastor Charles Presley at Race, Faith, and Reconciliation: an MLK-Day Zoom Event at 7 p.m.