The marble hallways of Washington’s Capitol have long been well stocked with powerful interest groups, from businesses and industry associations, to labor unions and environmentalists.
Now, as state lawmakers gather remotely for the legislative session, a new statewide advocacy group is joining the ranks: the WA Black Lives Matter Alliance.
The alliance has emerged after a year of widespread social justice protests in the wake of killings by police of Black people, such as George Floyd in Minneapolis and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma.
Organized in part by Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, the alliance is looking far beyond police reform. It is now urging legislators to address equity across society.
“It’s a broad push, recognizing that racism is in every facet of our lives,” said Marlon Brown, a steering committee member for the alliance, adding later: “It’s never happened, we’re going to be pushing at all of these at the same time.”
The issue of racial equity is also a part of the national political agenda. President Joe Biden Tuesday signed four executive orders on racial equity issues, including discriminatory housing policies and to end the use of private prisons.
Here in Washington state, the group is seeking a statewide declaration from Gov. Jay Inslee that racism is a public health crisis; an end to Washington’s ban on affirmative action; changes in police tactics and law enforcement accountability; investments in Black arts and culture; and more education funding through a new tax on capital gains.
The group, made up of representatives of organizations from across the state, also wants to prohibit the disclosure of bankruptcies, convictions and evictions on rental applications.
Inslee and Democratic lawmakers — who hold solid majorities in the state House and Senate — have said they would make police reform and other equity issues a priority this year.
Some of those issues may be an uphill climb, like a capital-gains tax, which has lacked the votes to pass in the Senate, and a repeal of the affirmative-action ban, which voters rejected in 2019.
Still, the movement has brought a level of community engagement unlike anything Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, said he has experienced in his previous two years in the Senate.
At the same time, the racial disparities that have surfaced during the coronavirus pandemic mirror already-existing disparities in health care outcomes, housing and economic inequality, said Nguyen.
“All the things we’ve been fighting for, for generations, people are now realizing are actual problems we should be addressing,” Nguyen said, “so if there is one silver lining, and if there’s one way the pandemic can help address these issues, is raising awareness to a level that has never seen before.”
Racism and public health
Last year’s protests led Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County to help jump-start the new statewide alliance, according to Livio De La Cruz. De La Cruz is a member of both the county organization and the new alliance’s steering committee.
Meanwhile, last year’s demonstrations galvanized organizers elsewhere, including the formation of the Tri-Cities Black Lives Matter movement, said Amber Rodriguez, who is involved with that group.
Rodriguez said she is among those hoping Inslee will declare racism a public health crisis, given that the virus has disproportionately impacted communities of color in the state.
“We definitely need to know that Gov. Inslee has our back, and that he will determine racism a public-health crisis because of what we’re going through now,” said Rodriguez, a community organizer and wellness coach who lives in Kennewick.
Last month, the governor rolled out a slate of diversity and equity proposals, including a proposed independent office for investigating deadly force by law enforcement; establishing Juneteenth as a holiday; and funding the state’s new equity office.
In an email, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said the governor’s agenda is “broadly aligned” with proposals being sought by the alliance. Representatives of the governor’s office have met with the alliance and are scheduled to do so again, he added.
“A few organizations have made different proposals for what could be accomplished by the government declaring racism a public health crisis, and those discussions continue,” wrote Faulk.
Police accountability part of agenda
By the time the protests over Floyd and Ellis — who died at the hands of Tacoma police — erupted, conversations over race and equity in Olympia had been simmering.
In 2018, Democratic lawmakers — and later, voters — approved Initiative 940. The initiative made it easier to bring criminal charges against law enforcement officers believed to have used deadly force wrongfully.
The next year, Democratic legislators approved an initiative to overturn Washington’s two-decade-long ban on affirmative action. Voters that November narrowly rejected the change, keeping the ban in place after an opposition campaign led by Chinese immigrants and supported by many Republicans.
Senate Republican Minority Leader John Braun of Centralia said his party doesn’t always agree on the proposals to boost equity and diversity, but GOP lawmakers share some of the same basic goals.
On police accountability, Braun said he favors the concept behind Democratic-sponsored Senate Bill 5051, which would expand the criteria by which law enforcement officers could be decertified to include the use of excessive force.
People shouldn’t be more at risk of arrest or subjected to brutality based on their race or ethnicity or other differences, said Braun.
While he hasn’t yet studied the details of the bill, Braun said law enforcement officers should get the training they need, but “we also believe that bad actors should be removed.”
This year, Democratic legislators have also sponsored a slew of legislation on police reforms. They include House Bill 1054, which would prohibit police tactics like chokeholds and neck restraints, as well as tear gas, no-knock warrants and the use of military gear.
Other bills, like SB 5227, would require institutions of higher education to include an annual program on anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion for students. Senate Bill 5228 requires among other things that public medical schools create a health equity curriculum for their students.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, is sponsoring Senate Bill 5129, which would repeal civil infractions barring the purchase or possession of tobacco products or vapor products by minors. That is intended lessen interactions that minors have with the legal system.
Another Saldaña proposal, Senate Bill 5141, is geared toward boosting equity and community engagement on environmental justice at several state agencies, such as the state Departments of Health, Ecology and Agriculture.
Racial inequities are “everywhere, it’s not just police reform,” said Saldaña, the other co-chair of the Senate Members of Color Caucus. “It’s in how we do our child welfare, it’s how we address our budget, it’s who gets in our Department of Corrections facilities and how they get out.”