Yakima County commissioners drew the ire of the Yakima County NAACP and some members of the Yakima City Council this week over a county proclamation conflating racial segregation with restrictions on those unvaccinated against COVID-19.
Commissioners Amanda McKinney and LaDon Linde declined to formally recognize Juneteenth at their Tuesday meeting — something the city of Yakima, Washington state and the federal government have done — instead reading a proclamation “standing against segregation” based on COVID vaccination status.
Commissioner Ron Anderson, who is on vacation and was not present at the meeting, stressed in an email after initial media reports had been published that, while he had read the “standing against segregation” proclamation, he “had nothing to do with the proclamation issue.” He also offered “apologies to the NAACP and members.”
“It has been tradition to read the one submitted by the NAACP,” he wrote.
The Yakima County NAACP submitted a Juneteenth proclamation to the commissioners, but it was received last Wednesday, two days before this week’s agenda had to be finalized, Commissioner Amanda McKinney said. That didn’t leave time for it to be vetted by commissioners, she said. Besides which the commission was set to read the “standing against segregation” proclamation.
“We already had a proclamation, unrelated but in the same vein,” McKinney said.
It was that “in the same vein” logic, along with the omission of the Juneteenth proclamation, that shocked Reesha Cosby, president of the local NAACP chapter. There is no vein that contains both the injustice of slavery — the ending of which is the reason for the Juneteenth holiday — and the inconvenience of restrictions on people who choose not to be vaccinated, she said. Nor is there any sort of equivalence between those restrictions and racial segregation, which involved unequal access to housing, education and justice, and could not be undone with a voluntary shot in the arm, she said.
“They’re equating the struggles of inequality, segregation and discrimination with the freedom to choose whether or not to get a vaccine that prevents a deadly disease,” Cosby said. “It filled me with sadness and anger.”
While McKinney said in a Thursday interview that she hadn’t intended any sort of slight by declining the submitted Juneteenth proclamation — she hadn’t realized commissioners approved the same one last year, she said — she did not see an issue with her use of the word “segregation” in the proclamation that was read. She also pointed out that the Yakima Canines indoor football team and the Seattle Mariners have established separate sections for vaccinated and unvaccinated fans.
“Segregation in any way is wrong,” McKinney said.
Cosby said she doesn’t necessarily think the use of that word was intended as an insult, but that didn’t change its impact.
“The language was intentional,” she said. “They don’t understand why equating those two things — putting them on the same level — is demeaning and insulting.”
Near the end of Tuesday’s Yakima City Council meeting, which began with the city’s own Juneteenth proclamation, several council members agreed with that sentiment. Councilmember Kay Funk raised the issue by way of motion, moving that the council add to its next meeting agenda “discussion and opportunity to confirm that, quote, vaccination status, unquote, does not have equal protection status under the 14th Amendment or any other federal or state law.”
The motion failed because the majority of the council didn’t see a point in chiming in on the commissioners’ business. But Funk and council members Brad Hill and Soneya Lund spoke out against the “standing against segregation” proclamation.
“I know that we’ve been perturbed over the past couple of years over how the term ‘racism’ is thrown around,” Funk said. “And I don’t usually throw that term around too much. But I will say that anybody who can’t differentiate a government recommendation of vaccination from, say, chattel slavery, there’s something wrong with you.”
Later she added: “I just want to make sure that we all recognize that this is an entirely different thing. It’s not chattel slavery, and it’s an insult to African Americans to make any kind of connection between those two things.”
“I’m not quite sure these days what’s happening across the street,” he said, referencing the commissioners. “But I would agree that it’s a bit of a shocking thing.”
Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19, and marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas — some 2 1/2 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in Southern states.
On Thursday, President Biden signed into law legislation making June 19 a federal holiday, Juneteenth National Independence Day. It is the first new federal holiday since 1983. Texas was first to make Juneteenth a holiday in 1980, and it is observed in many states.
The activist group Yakima Health First plans to protest the commissioners’ “standing against segregation” proclamation Friday in front of the Yakima County Courthouse.
“YHF wants the county commissioners to apologize and take back their Juneteenth proclamation,” organizer Wendy Steere said in a written statement. “Racism is a public health crisis, and our valley needs the commissioners to be focused on the health of our community — not their selfish political agendas. Their Juneteenth proclamation is deeply hurtful and disrespectful.”
The Yakima County NAACP will host a Juneteenth Freedom Ride and Block Party on Saturday. Cosby said she hopes the controversy over the commissioners’ proclamation doesn’t get in the way of the event.
“In the meantime, we’ve got a party to get ready,” she said. “We’ve got a celebration.”