January 17, 2018 Dena Jensen
Dear Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council:
It was very interesting standing out in front of Mount Baker Theater on Martin Luther King Jr. Day during the City of Bellingham’s MLK event. Many of our county’s most effective activists were out there holding signs, conducting interviews, and passing out educational literature to people who were either passing by or going into the event. I saw individuals and group members who were racial justice advocates, immigrant and human rights advocates, farm workers advocates, advocates for indigenous people facing assaults from toxic development projects, advocates for people without homes, and advocates for those who are incarcerated. My interpretation of the main message from activists out along the sidewalk is that, due to the social and environmental justice crises that many oppressed peoples in our community are facing, there is frustration and anger that city and county officials are not engaging with these community members to swiftly address the crises. I cannot think of a better day to express dissent and disrupt comfortable patterns of operation than on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There was a very visible police presence outside at the event but no interaction, friendly or otherwise, that I witnessed while standing for over an hour, not far from officers, with the activists on the street.
I’ll share a couple occurrences that were significant to me. One of our most hardworking community members for restorative justice, Joy Gilfilen, had gone in to witness the presentations at the event and came out in tears saying, “I’m angry that the stuff that matters right now in Whatcom County wasn’t even discussed – when it is the very stuff that King stood for. Real poverty and homelessness, the inhumane treatment of people in the jail, the civil rights violations, the issues of ICE and immigration. This stuff is real in the streets right now…and it’s a whiteout? And instead, you guys – who are doing the hard work standing up just like King did – you were marginalized. That hurts.”
Knowing Joy, she will work to figure out what can be learned by the experience and put it to positive and transformative use. But to me this was so compelling, to see someone who supports a great many grassroots movements here in Whatcom County, and who has worked tirelessly for years to bring about criminal justice reform, dispirited by an event that really should have brought encouragement and fresh fuel not just to some, but to all of those who are currently volunteering nearly all their time to the goals of social, racial, and environmental justice. I can only try to imagine how this feels for some of our non-white and non-male activists who continue to be excluded from equal participation in our society. Just six months ago members of the Whatcom County Council were (astoundingly, to some of us) actually having a discussion as to whether it was true or not that undocumented immigrants in our community are experiencing persecution, one Council Member suggesting that creating an ordinance with effective protections for undocumented immigrants in Whatcom County was a solution looking for a problem, and on Tuesday January 16, 2018, Maru Mora-Villalpando, an advocate for many years for immigrant’s rights here in Whatcom County and elsewhere, who has been charged with no criminal activity, received, according to an article in Crosscut (ICE targets prominent immigration activist for deportation), “a notice that it is initiating deportation proceedings against her.” This sorrowful situation seems to be the essence of why people were standing outside the theater.
The other thing that I wanted to share with you was that toward the latter part of the noon hour, I heard a gentleman yelling things who was coming toward us from the street, behind where we were standing on the sidewalk. I became aware of things he was saying at the point at which he yelled something about how we all were the ones who were oppressing people. (My sign, facing him, said “Civic Leaders Should Not Seek to Discredit Oppressed Voices”). He continued yelling, and I saw him pass Amy Glasser, currently advocating for people without homes with HomesNow. Not Later., down further on the sidewalk. He yelled at Amy that she was causing the oppression, that she did not care about him at all. Amy called to him a few times and then went after him, talking to him and catching up to him near the building, engaging with him while he was still yelling at her for a bit. The police walked out from behind the ticket booth area at the theater and watched. The man gradually quieted while Amy was talking to him and eventually was crying, and Amy was embracing him. She offered for him to come back with all of us on the sidewalk, but I believe he chose to move on.
This willingness to pursue, and face, and engage with the anger and outrage and panic and distress of those who are struggling is what we need from our leaders. We need you leaders going out on the streets, into homeless camps, into our jails, into poverty stricken areas in our county and cities, visiting farm workers’ housing, or on lands and waters still inhabited by indigenous peoples that are threatened by toxic projects and invasive development. We need you to be reaching out to the people facing crises in these places everyday. We need you to connect with these crises in a visceral way and to become engaged in urgent and effective action to stop the suffering.
Thank you to Council Member Brenner for, as I understand it, agreeing to visit the tiny homes built by Homes Now. on the Lummi Reservation. And thank you to Council Member Buchanan for, also from my understanding, agreeing to visit tiny home villages and tent camps down in Seattle to see how they operate and how they are working out there.
Today, I will give you all a head start for planning to show up for next week’s Dignity Vigil on Monday January 22 during the lunch hour and will send you location details (most likely in front of Bellingham City Hall) as soon as they are confirmed.
This letter was sent to these addresses: