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Another Police Shooting of African-Americans: This Time in Olympia, WA


At 1:15 A.M. early Thursday, May 21st on the westside of  Olympia, Washington, white police officer, Ryan Donald, shot two young Black unarmed men, step-brothers, Andre Thompson, aged 24, and Bryson Chaplin, aged 21. These two Olympia residents were in serious condition at nearby hospitals in Tacoma and Seattle.  Bryson Chaplin has been released from the hospital. Andre Thomson is still hospitalized but expected to live.

According to the local newspaper, The Olympian, on 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 before 1 A.M., last Thursday.  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 police reports, Police officer Donald got out of his police car a little before 1:15 a.m. and was attacked by one of the brothers 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.

Neither brother was armed.  Olympia police officer Donald was not injured. The initial shooting by Donald seems totally unjustified.  Remember, we are talking about suspects in an alleged shoplifting incident that Safeway had photos of.  Officer Donald did not have to get out of his police car. The second shooting that took place a few moments later appears to be a case of attempted murder. Donald cannot claim that he was in imminent danger when he fired the second time.  More thna five days after the shooting he was finally interviewed by the police but there has been no public statement

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 people I know 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 schools away from four year college, 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 totally so, 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.  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, to police officer, Ryan Donald’s  home was cancelled.

The local newspaper, The Olympian, has attempted to reduce the support for Andre Thompson and Bryson 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 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.

Demands made to the City Council at their May 26th meeting included demands for an independent  investigation of the May 21st police shooting with evidence shared with the public in a timely fashion;  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. There were also demands that should be no charges against Chaplin and Thompson; they have already suffered greatly, and that the city should pay for all expenses they incur including medical and lost wages. There was also a request  for the  police to carry body cameras and for a more racially representative city council and government.

Next Steps
There is a teach-in scheduled at the Evergreen State College in Olympia and the Evergreen campus in Tacoma on Wednesday, May 27th that will connect 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. Ideas for developing a long run campaign to deal with racism on and off campus will be presented.

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 today, May 25, 2015, in a press conference that accountability of the police would be a major part of their platform. 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 here 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 to build mass movements that can more effectively challenge white racism and  all forms of inequality.

Peter Bohmer  teaches  Political Economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and has been an activist since 1967 in movements for fundamental social change.

2 Comments

  1. Al Schmeder May 30, 2015 6:22 am 

    Hi Peter,
    Some of the statements in this article give the impression of a lack of fairness on your part. I’m hoping that you can clarify your position.
    Noting that that of the numerous white people who have shoplifted from that Safeway “none were shot”, you seem to imply that the two young black men were shot because they shoplifted. There are two ways to interpret this. You might simply be saying that the shoplifting was the first event in a causal chain that lead to their being seriously injured, a reasonable if trivial assertion. Or you might be saying that the police officer shot them simply because they were suspected of shoplifting. In most cases of police shooting there is some kind of actual or perceived confrontation that escalates. The responsibility might lie with the officer, with the citizen, or with both. It would be very unusual for an officer to gun down someone in cold blood just because they appear to match the description of a shoplifting suspect. If that is your claim, you would need to refer to evidence that supports it. I’m not saying that it is impossible, I’m just pointing out a principle of logic: the more unusual the claim, the more evidence is required to support it. Without evidence, a declaration that they were shot for shoplifting would only be incendiary.
    You state that “Neither brother was armed.” But that is not a given; in fact it is one of the key questions. According to the police, one of them used his skateboard as a weapon. Someone who uses a skateboard as a weapon is armed. At this point in time, we do not know if the police officer is telling the truth, but that does not give us the right to say that he is lying. We don’t even know yet what Thompson and Chaplin are going to say on the record, if anything. Since we do not know if the attack with the skateboard occurred or not, describing them as unarmed is, again, not justified and incendiary.
    Rather than asserting that the police officer is lying, you might be saying that being attacked with a skateboard is no big deal. I am going to assume that you are not making that argument. If you are, you should make that clear.
    Since we do not yet know the circumstances of the second shooting, we are not justified in saying that it “appears to be a case of attempted murder”. Until we know something about it, it cannot “appear” to be anything.
    In addition to this rush-to-judgment being unhelpful to the movement in the long run, it seems to me that basic human rights require that people not be accused without at least probable cause. Is saying that someone is guilty simply because he is a police officer any more acceptable than saying that someone is guilty simply because he is a member of racial, cultural, or religious minority? Unfortunately, that is not a rhetorical question. There are thinkers who have taken the position that the oppressed are always right and that there is no objective truth. It would be helpful to know if that is your position too.
    It is also unclear why the reader should agree that “Officer Donald did not have to get out of his police car.” Are you asserting that he should have stopped and questioned the two while sitting behind the wheel of his squad car? I hope you realize why that might not be such a good idea. Or do you mean that the police department should have told the caller from Safeway that shoplifting was no big deal and that they were not going to bother trying to find the suspects? It is also possible that whoever called from Safeway said that the thief had thrown the case of beer at the employee. If so, the police might have thought that there had been an assault in the store. I hope you are not saying that they should not have bothered responding to an assault.
    In fact, that brings up another assertion in your article where the question is, in fact, not settled. You say that the brother carrying the case of beer dropped it. However, the surveillance video shows that as he was running out of the store, he turned around toward the female employee who was following him and either threw the case of beer in her direction or dropped it at her feet. It does not look like he actually threw it at her; he was close enough to hit her with it if he had intended to do so. One would want to know what she has to say about the incident before deciding whether the case of beer was thrown or dropped.
    There are many cases of police abuse and overreaction, especially when members of minorities are involved. There are important reforms to fight for. Body cameras should be obligatory for all armed officers. There should be a nationwide standard for reporting of all shootings by police and all killings by police. Taking the position that the police officer is always guilty without seeing the evidence or in spite of the evidence is not going to help garner the broad support that will be needed to make progress in this area.

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