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Heating Up

Racial tensions grow from Ferguson to Spokane as protesters, parents and students demand justice

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Caleb Walsh illustration
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

"It's a high-stress, low-trust environment," says Johnetta Elzie, a protester awaiting the grand jury decision this week related to a white Ferguson police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager. What's shocking is that her words, quoted in USA Today, precisely describe the feeling 1,860 miles away from Ferguson, in Spokane's Davenport Hotel last Saturday.

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Seated in the hotel's Early Bird Room, black parents and students shared the pain of injustices they are subjected to in Spokane schools. Like Elzie in Ferguson, a panel of parents and students did not show up for cheap talk. Instead, they demanded substantive action from school officials to move beyond token programs and data that masks disproportionalities to shore up inequity in academics, school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Although the parents and students sat through more than an hour of principals, administrators and the sheriff showcasing their attempts to address racial inequities in education and incarceration rates here in Spokane, four of the six officials left the building before hearing even 10 minutes of the parent/student response.

Their courageous voices on Saturday reminded me of Brown vs. Board of Education and the era of hard-won civil rights legislation led by the NAACP in the 1950s. Parents dared to hold the school district accountable to measurable results, and students demanded swift and equitable action.

It was no mistake that the panel discussion ended only a few hours before the local NAACP's annual banquet, where Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu challenged school officials to heed parents' concerns. He then encouraged parents to boycott schools and organize collective protests if the district does not comply with equitable programs and proportional data within six to 12 months.

From Ferguson to Spokane and beyond, the struggle to eliminate race-based targeting is resounding in our nation. On campus at Eastern Washington University last week, more than 150 students participated in campus protests, issuing a call for a Blackout Monday and marching on campus to stand against a recently printed article in the campus newspaper minimizing police murders of young black men in America. In response to the black student protests, white students posted a flood of anonymous attacks online, including "Wish slavery was still legal" and "Black Life Matters? No it doesn't." The EWU Black Student Union announced a public forum and demanded that university administration denounce malicious harassment and require courses for all students that provide fundamental education regarding race, power and privilege.

As we wait to hear the grand jury verdict in the Ferguson case, expected later this week, families in Spokane wait to hear what the city will do in response to their call for civil rights and equitable education. In Cheney, students have made demands of EWU. With no chief diversity officer on campus, is EWU equipped to handle this rise in racial tensions? With no civil rights office or racial equity ombudsman, is the city of Spokane prepared to handle the clash between the school district and families of color?

History suggests that high-tension and low-trust environments either give birth to powerful movements of change or devastating divisions in communities. It's your call, Spokane. ♦

Rachel Dolezal, formerly of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d'Alene, is an award-winning artist and activist who teaches courses in art, Africana history and culture at area universities.