Police Shooting in Olympia, WA; It Can Happen Anywhere

At 1:15 AM on May 21, on the westside of Olympia, Washington, white police officer Ryan Donald shot two young unarmed Black brothers, Andre Thompson, 24, and Bryson Chaplin, 21. These Olympia residents were initially in serious condition at nearby hospitals in Tacoma and Seattle. Thompson was released from the hospital five days after being shot, but still has broken ribs and internal injuries. As of June 4, Chaplin was still hospitalized and paralyzed from the waist down with a bullet lodged in his spine.

According to the local newspaper, the Olympian, on May 22 the two brothers had been skateboarding at a local park before going to a Safeway supermarket nearby. They had picked up some beer, but were stopped by an employee of Safeway inside the store,  near the entrance and past the cash registers. When challenged, they dropped the beer and took off shortly before 1:00 AM. Safeway then called the Olympia police department. Police officer Ryan Donald responded and saw Thompson and Chaplin a few minutes later, about half a mile north of Safeway, near the brothers’ home. According to initial police reports, Donald got out of his police car a little before 1:15 AM and was allegedly attacked by one of the brothers with a skateboard. Donald shot one of the brothers, who then both fled into a nearby wooded area. When they emerged, Donald shot the other brother multiple times. According to the lawyer for Chaplin and Thompson, both brothers were shot in the back (the Olympian, June 4). Neither brother was armed and Donald was not injured, so the initial shooting seemed 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 took place a few moments after the first  and could be considered 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.

Donald, age 35, had served sevral tours of duty as part of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan and had also worked for the U.S. Border Patrol before becoming an Olympia police officer. As one Olympia resident remarked 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 Zam brano- Montes in Pasco, Washington, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray—and Daniel Covarrubias in Lakewood, Washington—that such horrible police shootings couldn’t happen in Olympia because it was a “liberal” city. This is a mistaken case of Olympia exceptionalism. Police shootings, especially of Blacks and Black men, can happen anywhere in the United States. We are not living in a post-racial society.

About More Than A Shooting

There is a small but growing African American population in Olympia. According to the 2010 census, 2 percent of Olympia is Black, 5 percent self-identify as of 2 or more races, 80 percent is white and 13 percent is Latino/a, Asian-American, or Native American. African-Americans are more likely than whites to be stopped by the police, to be racially profiled—in stores and when walking—to be disciplined and tracked in the public school system 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 suspected of shoplifting.

I have lived in Olympia for 27 years and know numerous young white people who have shoplifted beer from that particular Safeway. Of course, none were shot. If caught, most were let go after a warning or 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 tazered after shoplifting a steak from a supermarket in downtown Olympia and he died as a result of being tazered. In 2008, Jose Ramirez-Jimenez was killed by a former Olympian Police Officer, Paul Bakala, who had also been 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 the “critical incident team,” led by the Thurston County sheriffs, as well as police from the two surrounding cities and the state police would investigate the shooting. This is an old boys’ network of police investigating themselves instead of an independent investigation by representatives from groups like the NAACP and the ACLU in Washington State.

  Resistance And Public Opinion

On a few hours notice, a small group of people organized a rally and march to the main Olympia police station on the day of the shooting. Mobilization was through Facebook. About 800 people, mainly young and white (as is the population), took over one of the main streets in Olympia, chanting “Black Lives Matter,” and making a powerful statement against the police shooting and in support of and concern for the two victims. Many—and possibly a majority— were students at Evergreen State College. With the real possibility of a major physical confrontation with right-wing and pro-police individuals, and because of divisions within the progressive community, another march to Donald’s house was called for the next day, by the Olympia Group Abolish Cops and Borders (ABAC). It was cancelled.

The local newspaper, the Olympian, has attempted to reduce the support for Andre Thompson and Chaplin and the criticisms of the police by printing publishing in the lead article in their May 23 issue, the minor arrest records of the two brothers. This is totally irrelevant. Some Olympia residents have argued  that before protesting, we should wait for the investigation to be complete. This denies the fact that even the police admit that both Chaplin and Thompson were unarmed at the time of the shooting.

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 nonexistent. Fortunately, there are many others who want to stand up for racial justice. On May 26, there was a rally outside the Olympia City Council’s weekly meeting. The Council chambers were filled with residents, while many more watched the proceedings on closed circuit television. The entire 2 hours was filled with powerful testimony from 40 people, 39 of whom strongly criticized the police shooting. Police Chief Ronnie Roberts was strongly criticized for stating in the Olympian, (May 22): “There is no indication that race was a factor.”

Many residents recounted their experiences with racism inside and outside Olympia and their negative experiences with the police. Residents who lived near the shooting 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 gunfire in a residential area. One of the bullets went through 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 shots.

I made the following demands to the City Council at their May 26 meeting:

  • For an independent investigation of the May 21 police shooting with evidence shared with the public in a timely fashion
  • For a civilian review board that had the power to investigate and discipline the police, 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
  • For no charges to be made against Chaplin and Thompson
  • For the city to pay for all expenses incurred by Chaplin and Thompson, including medical expenses and lost wages.
  • For the police to carry body cameras
  • For a more racially representative City Council and Government

Neo-Nazis in Olympia

During the week after the May 21 police shooting, there was a very small but almost daily presence of pro-police counter-protesters, a few of whom were known white supremacists. On May 30, a group of openly white supremacists led by a tiny group of neo-Nazis—the Volksfront—announced a rally and protest in support of the Olympia police and against the “Black Lives Matter” Movement.  A multi-racial group of about 200 anti-racists while marching in downtown Olympia on May 30, saw the 15 neo-Nazis and 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 observed this melee but did not intervene. As many members of Volksfront came out of white supremacist gangs in the Oregon prison system, there was concern about physical attacks by these neo-Nazis on populations they are known to hate—Blacks especially, but also Jews, immigrants, people of color, LGBT, and anti-racist activists. Hotlines were set up so that people could call if they felt they were in danger. Within the activist community, there was a large difference of opinion on how to deal with the white supremacists. Many, especially older activists, felt that fighting them would provoke them to more violence and/or that fighting them was wrong. But, no matter which position was taken with regards to dealing with the neo-Nazis, what was ultimately most important was that the focus in Olympia remain on mainstream and structural racism, especially the racism of the criminal justice system.

Next Steps

There was a teach-in at Evergreen State College in Olympia and the Evergreen campus in Tacoma on  May 27 that connected the police shootings in Olympia to the April 21, police killing of an unarmed Native-American, Daniel Covarrubias, in Lakewood, Washington, near Tacoma. 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  “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 that police accountability and a call for a civilian review board would be major parts of their campaign, as would their commitment to be part of a movement for an inclusive Olympia. This would include promoting a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right for all to affordable housing. This is a hopeful development.

The challenge in Olympia, as in other places, is to build an ongoing campaign and a broad social movement that responds to the justified anger at the police shooting in Olympia.

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 through Facebook is important and necessary, but it doesn’t substitute for real conversation, education, and organizing and developing ongoing campaigns and winning meaningful demands that improve people’s lives.

This is a difficult period in Olympia and other places. There are many politically conscious people here with a willingness to do something, but not a lot of active anti-racist groups and organizations. Out of this tragedy, there is an opportunity to have serious conversations about racism, about Black lives, and about how to build mass movements that can more effectively challenge white racism and all forms of inequality.


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