Another Police Shootings of African-Americans!
It Can Happen Anywhere in the United States Including Olympia, WA. It Did Happen Here!
by Peter Bohmer, submitted June 15, 2015; revised version of original article that was printed here May 26, 2015
Another Police Shootings of African-Americans!
It Can Happen Anywhere in the United States Including Olympia, WA. It Did Happen Here!
by Peter Bohmer, June 4, 2015
At 1:15 A.M. early Thursday, May 21st, 2015 on the westside of Olympia, Washington, white police officer, Ryan Donald, shot two young Black unarmed brothers, Andre Thompson, aged 24, and Bryson Chaplin, aged 21. These two Olympia residents were initially in serious condition at nearby hospitals in Tacoma and Seattle. Andre Thompson was released from the hospital five day after being shot but has broken ribs and internal injuries. As of June 4th, Bryson Chaplin is still hospitalized and paralyzed from the waist down with a bullet lodged in his spine.
According to the local newspaper, The Olympian, of May 22, 2015 the two brothers had been skateboarding at a local park before going to a Safeway supermarket nearby. They picked up some beer and were stopped by an employee of Safeway inside the store but near the entrance and past the cash registers. When challenged, they dropped the beer and took off shortly before1 A.M., on Thursday, May 21st.. Safeway then called the Olympia police department. Police officer Ryan Donald responded and saw Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin a few minutes later, about ½ a mile north of Safeway and near the brothers’ home. According to initial police reports, Donald got out of his police car a little before 1:15 a.m. and was attacked by one of the brother with a skateboard. Donald then shot one of them. They fled into a nearby wooded area, and when they emerged, the police officer, Donald shot the other brother multiple times. However, according to the lawyer for Chaplin and Thompson, both brothers were shot in the back, (The Olympian, June 4, 2015)
Neither brother was armed. Olympia police officer Ryan Donald was not injured. The initial shooting by Donald seems totally unjustified. Remember we are talking about suspects in an alleged shoplifting incident where Safeway had photos. If Donald feared being attacked, he did not have to get out of his police car and could have waited for back up. If both brothers were shot in the back, this raises further doubt on the initial story that Donald had been attacked with a skateboard. . The second set of shots that took place a few moments after the first is a case of attempted murder. Donald cannot claim that he was in imminent danger when he fired the second time. Officer Donald was given more than five days before he was interviewed by law enforcement and his version of what happened has still not been made public.
Police officer Ryan Donald, age 35, had served tours of duty as part of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan and also had worked for the U.S. Border Patrol before becoming an Olympia police officer. As one Olympia resident said at a rally on the day of the shooting, Ryan Donald had served in institutions where hunting “men of color” was the norm. There is an important issue of police officers who return from U.S. wars abroad and a militarized border, and then have a mindset that the local residents are dangerous or “the enemy” and shoot if there is the slightest perceived threat.
Many white people in Olympia, Washington–a small liberal city of 50,000—told me after the police killings of Sean Bell, John Williams, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Akil Gurley, Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, Walter Scott , and most recently, Freddie Gray, and Daniel Covarrubias in Lakewood, Washington that such horrible police shootings couldn’t happen in Olympia; that we are so liberal. This is a mistaken case of Olympia exceptionalism. Police shootings, especially of Blacks and Black men, can happen anywhere in the United States and Olympia is part of the United States. Racism exists in Olympia just like it does throughout the United States. We are not living in a post-racial society.
There is a small but growing African-American population in Olympia. According to the 2010 census, 2% of Olympia is Black, 5% self-identify as of two or more races, 80% are white and the remaining 13% are Latino/a, Asian-American or Native American. African-Americans are more likely than whites to be stopped by the police, to be followed and racially profiled in stores and when walking, to be disciplined and tracked in the public school system away from attending four year colleges, and to face racial discrimination in renting and buying homes in Olympia. So racism in Olympia is about far more than the police shooting of two unarmed young black men who were suspects for shoplifting. I have lived in Olympia for 27 years and know numerous young white people who have shop-lifted beer from that particular Safeway, which is about a mile from my house. Of course, none were shot. If caught, most were let go after a warning or got a citation to appear in court.
This is also not the first case of major police brutality in Olympia. In 1989, a healthy, Danny Spencer who was high on LSD, was arrested, hogtied and brutally beaten by two Olympia police officers. Similar to the case of Freddie Gray, he was taken to the police station rather than to a hospital and died. In 2002, Stephen Edwards was repeatedly tasered after shoplifting a steak from a supermarket in downtown Olympia and died. Tasers can also kill. In 2008, Jose Ramirez-Jimenez was killed by a former Olympian Police Officer, Paul Bakala, who was also involved in the killing of Stephen Edwards, six years earlier. In all of these cases, police from Olympia and surrounding communities investigated the shooting and found no wrongdoing. For the most recent shooting of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, Olympia police chief Ronnie Roberts announced that this “critical incident team”, led by the Thurston County sheriffs and also including police from the two surrounding cities and the State Police would investigate the shooting. This is an old boys’ network of police investigating themselves. There should be an independent investigation by representatives from groups like the NAACP and the ACLU in Washington State investigating this latest police shooting.
Resistance and Public Opinion in Olympia
On a few hours notice, a small group of people organized a rally and march from the westside of Olympia to the main Olympia police station in downtown on the day of this police shooting, May 21, 2015. Mobilization was mainly through Facebook. About 800 people , mainly young and primarily white but not more so than the population of the city, took over one of the main streets in Olympia, chanting Black Lives Matter, and making a powerful statement by their march against the police shooting and in support of and concern for the two victims, Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson. Many and possibly a majority were students at The Evergreen State College. With the real possibility of a major physical confrontation with right-wing and pro-police individuals, and divisions within the progressive community, another march called for the next day, Friday, May 22, by the Olympia Group, Abolish Cops and Borders (ABAC), to police officer, Ryan Donald’s home was cancelled.
The local newspaper, The Olympian, has attempted to reduce the support for Andre Thompson and Bryce Chaplin and of criticisms of the police by printing in the main article on May 23rd, the minor arrest records of the two brothers. This is totally irrelevant. Some Olympia residents have stated that before there are protests, we should wait for the investigation to be completed. This denies the fact that even the claims made by the police admit that both Chaplin and Thompson were unarmed at the time of their being shot. Similar to their response to the many of the recent police shootings of African-American men, many residents of Olympia like other places in the U.S. are quick to voice fear or disapproval of militant protests while their actions against continuing and frequent murders by law enforcement of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and others are limited or non-existent. Fortunately, there are many others who really want to stand up for racial justice.
The Olympia City Council meets every Tuesday night. On Tuesday, May 26th, there was a rally outside of the City Council, which is next to police headquarters, before, during and after the Council meeting. The City Council chambers were filled with residents with many more watching the proceedings on closed circuit television. The entire two hours was filled with powerful testimony from 40 people, 39 of whom strongly criticized the police shooting. The police Chief Ronnie Roberts was strongly and justifiably criticized for stating in the local newspaper, The Olympian, (May 22, 2015), “There is no indication that race was a factor”. Many residents recounted their experience with racism inside and outside of Olympia and their negative experiences with the police. Residents who lived near where the shooting took place criticized not only the shooting of Thomson and Chaplin but also the reckless endangerment caused by Officer Donald’s firing multiple shots in two bursts of gun fire. in a residential area. A bullet fired by Donald entered a second floor window of a nearby house. It would likely have hit one of the occupants had they not ducked down when hearing the officer’s first set of shots.
I made the following demands to the City Council at their May 26th meeting: 1) for an independent investigation of the May 21st police shooting with evidence shared with the public as soon as it is available; 2) for a civilian review board with teeth that has the power to investigate and discipline the police, and where members of the civilian review board are independent of law enforcement and represent primarily those who are the most likely to be victims of police misconduct; and 3) that there should be no charges against Chaplin and Thompson, they have already suffered greatly. Other demands made to the City Council at the May 26th meeting were that the city should pay for all expenses that Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson incur including medical and lost wages, for the police to carry body cameras, and for a more racially representative city council and government.
Neo–Nazis in Olympia
During the week after the May 21st police shooting of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, there was a very small but almost daily presence of pro-police counter protesters, a few of whom were known white supremacists. The pro-police group was led by a local music band, Black Top Demon. On Saturday, May 30th, a group of openly white supremacist neo-Nazis led by the Volksfront announced a rally and protest in Olympia in support of the Olympia police and against the “Black Lives Matter” Movement. The Volksfront is a tiny group of neo-Nazis, many of whom came out of white supremacist gangs in the Oregon prison system. A multi-racial group of about 200 anti-racist protesters while marching in downtown Olympia on Saturday night, May 30th, saw the 15 neo-Nazis. In the fight that broke out, many of the neo-Nazis were beaten up and retreated to their vehicles, some of whose windows were broken by the anti-racists as the white supremacists fled. The Olympia police (OPD) observed this melee but did not intervene. The Olympia Police department was probably embarrassed by the open support given to them by neo-Nazis and white supremacist. By arresting the anti-racists, the OPD would have again been seen on the They were for good reason on the defensive after the May 21st shooting of two unarmed young Black men.
Both before and after the May 30th action, there was concern about physical attacks by these neo-Nazis on populations whom these hate groups target, Blacks especially, but also Jews, immigrants, people of color, LGBT and anti-racist activists. Hot-lines have been set up that people can call in for help if they feel endangered or spot white supremacists. Within the activist community, there was a difference of opinion on how to deal with the white supremacists. Many, especially older activists, felt that they should be ignored and that fighting these racist skinheads would provoke them to more violence and/or that fighting them is wrong. Those who confronted the white supremacists believed these violent racists should not be allowed to openly gather. Within the group who confronted the white supremacists there was a lot of unity among people who usually do not work together and have had differences on ideology and tactics in the past.. This union in action was positive as was the euphoria coming from defeating and running out of town even if temporary an extremely racist group. What is most important, no matter which position was taken with regards to dealing with the neo-Nazis is that the focus in Olympia remain on challenging mainstream and structural racism and especially the racism of the criminal justice system with a focus on the police shooting of Grayson Chaplin and Andre Thompson.
There was a teach-in at the Evergreen State College in Olympia and the Evergreen campus in Tacoma on Wednesday, May 27th that connected the police shootings in Olympia to the police killing of an unarmed Native-American man, Daniel Covarrubias, in Lakewood, WA, next to Tacoma, on April 21, 2015. At the teach-in, there was a call for developing a long run campaign to deal with racism on and off campus.
In addition, a recently formed group in Olympia, called ”Olympia for All”, announced they were running two candidates, Rafael Ruiz and Ray Guerra for the Olympia City Council and a third candidate, Marco Rossi for mayor. All three candidates said in a press conference, May 25, 2015 and in their platform that accountability of the police and a call for a civilian review board with power would be major parts of their campaign. So will their commitment to be part of a movement for an inclusive Olympia. This includes promoting a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right for all for affordable housing. This is a hopeful development.
The challenge in Olympia as in many other places is to build an ongoing campaign, and a broad social movement that builds on the justified anger at this horrible police shooting in Olympia of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson. We need democratic, radical, inclusive and principled organizations that sustain themselves, where Black people play a major role in a movement against institutional racism and for economic and social justice. All groups need to make racial justice and equality a part of their mission and activities.
Mobilizing, primarily through Facebook is insufficient. Mobilizing, even if more broadly than through Facebook, is important and necessary but it doesn’t substitute for real conversation and education, and organizing and developing ongoing campaigns for and winning meaningful demands that improve people’s lives and don’t stop.
It is a difficult period in Olympia and probably in other places also. There are many, many politically conscious people here of all ages and a willingness to do something but not a lot of anti-racist and active groups and organization. Out of this tragedy, there is an opportunity to have serious conversations about racism, about Black lives matter and on how to build mass movements that can more effectively challenge white racism and all forms of inequality.
Faculty in Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA; and activist since 1967 in movements for fundamental social change.