All Politics is Local

Clark County Council chair denies systemic racism

Updated 5:30 p.m. Friday

A leader with the League of United Latin American Citizens said Friday that the organization will “make every effort to join in the recall of Councilor Eileen Quiring” after the chair of the Clark County Council said Wednesday that she does not believe that systemic racism exists in the county.

“I had to hear it for myself and when I did, my jaw dropped,” said Diana Perez, LULAC Washington state director. “We can no longer afford to have that type of mentality in public office if we are to make change. Councilor Eileen Quiring has shown extreme ignorance and disregard for Black and brown people living in Clark County. Through her expressive racist statement, Quiring is choosing what side of history to stand on.”

Quring’s comment came as the council approved, in a 4-1 vote during the weekly council time meeting, a letter supporting Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins’ decision to ban “Thin Blue Line” flag stickers, pins and other decorations from sheriff’s office vehicles, offices and staff uniforms. Atkins discussed the decision Saturday during a virtual Juneteenth celebration hosted by the Vancouver NAACP chapter.

The council’s letter to the local NAACP said that the displays are not appropriate for public property. Councilors mentioned Wednesday that the county Fleet Department, not the Sheriff’s Office, purchases the patrol vehicles.

The letter also said the symbols act as barriers to productive discussions around eradicating racism.

“The county council is committed to taking meaningful action to eliminate hate, bigotry, and racism in our county,” the letter reads. “As a county government, we must lead by example.”

Quiring called the sheriff’s decision “disturbing.”

“I think it’s horrible when people are discriminated against, and I feel empathy for those people, too,” Quiring said. “That does not mean that we have to set aside the people who defend the laws that we write, that we place. I do not agree with this letter. I will not sign it, because I do not agree that we have systemic racism in our county. Period.”

Sindy Benavidez, the organization’s national CEO, also released a statement about Quiring’s comments on Friday. She listed several examples of systemic racism, including lack of proportionate representation in corporate and government boards.

“In some ways, exclusion and discrimination has become more sophisticated than outright lynchings and signs saying ‘No Mexicans Allowed,’ but make no mistake about it, systemic racism raises it ugly head every day,” Benavidez said. “For too long, Latinos have been intentionally excluded through laws that criminalize us and prevent our children from reaching their highest potential.

Systemic racism is alive and it is up to all of us to acknowledge it and call it by its name.”

Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of Southwest Washington League of Latin American Citizens Council, listed a number of examples of systemic racism in the county.

Examples included the fact that minority communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to disparities in healthcare, food and housing. He also referenced the Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists 11 hate groups in Clark County.

“She is disconnected from her community. To my eyes, she’s reflective of the old guard of Clark County that was a very conservative group of people,” Hamilton Rosales said. “By saying what she said, she’s basically just showing her white privilege in not recognizing the systemic injustice in policies that she helped to create.”

NAACP Vancouver President Bridgette Fahnbulleh referenced a report from the state Attorney General’s Office last year that found that Vancouver Public School disproportionately disciplines students of color. She also mentioned housing discrimination and treatment by police, among other factors.

“I was really embarrassed for Clark County. It seems like the nation and the world are moving forward with the idea of Black Lives Matter, and we’re not moving forward,” Fahnbulleh said.

“It’s like saying, ‘I don’t believe apples exist.’ I don’t know what to do with that.”

Fahnbulleh encouraged Quiring and those who agree with her to research issues of systemic racism.

“Turn off Fox News, go down to your local library and ask the librarian for a book about systemic racism,” Fahnbulleh said.

Karen Morrison, a Black woman who lives near Esther Short Park, said she was disturbed Friday when a group of people carrying “Blue Lives Matter” flags marched near her home. She said some

of the marchers carried guns and played a Dixie air horn.

“I just have a feeling that if it were a black man with a gun strapped over his shoulder he wouldn’t be allowed to do that,” Morrison said. “I’m angry.”

Quiring’s comments came in a lengthy, sometimes heated discussion about race, policing and the various interpretations of the “Thin Blue Line” flag after Quiring asked Councilor Temple Lentz what she believes the phrase “Thin Blue Line” means.

Below is a partial transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity. The council time meeting is also available on the county website, where the discussion about the letter begins around 25:25.

Transcript:

Quiring: Councilor Lentz, what do you understand the decal, the “Thin Blue Line,” to mean?
Lentz: I think that what I think it means is immaterial.
Quiring: I’m sorry. I’m sorry. No. It is not immaterial. It is material because you are offering this letter for the council to sign, and I want to know what you believe the “Thin Blue Line” decal means, please.
Lentz: OK, I think that it has come to mean, to a large and undervalued section of our community, distrust of law enforcement. I think that, regardless of what anyone claims that the original meaning was, that meaning has been distorted and it means different things.
For publicly owned property to bear an insignia that has nothing to do with the public agency that owns it, especially when that insignia is divisive and means different things to different people, is utterly inappropriate.
Quiring: Would you please recite what the original meaning of the decal is. You said it’s moved from the original meaning. I would like to hear what you believe the original meaning was.
Lentz: I think that what has been put forward as the original meaning by those who are clinging to it now, was that it was to represent, it was to honor, and they should be honored, the lives lost in service in law enforcement. The “Thin Blue Line” is often articulated as a thin blue line between order and anarchy. That is a problematic statement.
Quiring: Perhaps the “Thin Blue Line” actually means the line, the thin line, between law and order and not anarchy, but illegal activities, whatever they are, whether it’s enforcement or non-enforcement. Do you believe that blue lives matter?
Lentz: I think that we should talk about the topic at hand.
Quiring: It is the topic at hand. It absolutely is the topic at hand.
Lentz: When anyone in a position of power starts to take “what about-isms” into the public eye, then we’re avoiding the real conversation, which is that, right now, we’re talking about systemic racism. And when you say things like illegal activity, when you try to compare a Black Lives Matter with a response to Blue Lives Matter, when you fail to talk about systemic and structural racism that is at the heart of these issues and that have led people to protest because of ongoing injustice and inequity in justice, that we need to be responsive to that. And to instead come forward and say that this is not relevant, that we quibble at some of these small words that mean so much to some people, I find it not only disheartening but deeply indicative of the amount of work we have to do.
Quiring: What I find, Councilor Lentz, is this is very disturbing to me. I do not agree with what the sheriff has done. I completely disagree with it. I honor people that have given their lives in the line of duty to enforce laws that we, as leaders, make, and they have to go out there and enforce these laws. I believe their lives matter. I think it’s horrible when people are discriminated against, and I feel empathy for those people too. That does not mean that we have to set aside the people who defend the laws that we write, that we place. I do not agree with this letter. I will not sign it, because I do not agree that we have systemic racism in our county. Period.
Lentz: I appreciate you going on the record with that, and I look forward to sending a letter with the signatures of those who do support moving our community forward. I want to say that talking about supporting people who want to eradicate systemic injustice does not mean setting aside law enforcement, does not mean undervaluing others. This isn’t pie. It’s not like there is a certain amount of justice to go around, or there certainly shouldn’t be. I am very grateful to our law enforcement officers who do do excellent work. That said, there are a number of people in our community who deal with injustice every single day. And when they come to us and tell us that a decal that shouldn’t even be on the police vehicles because it is not a county insignia, when they come and tell us that that makes them concerned about whether or not they should trust law enforcement in our community, that is something worth listening to. And I very much appreciate the sheriff recognizing that, in order for us to have productive conversations, we need to remove barriers to those conversations, and I thank him for making this decision that I know wasn’t easy. And if you don’t agree with it, then I welcome you not signing this letter.
Quiring: Other comments of the council?
Councilor Gary Medvigy: This was the sheriff’s decision. And I know each of us spoke with him personally, and it was a hard decision. And he really, number one, “Buck stops here.” He took full responsibility. I thought his insight into the issue was heartfelt, and he really worked hard on that response. It was his letter, his decision. He took ownership of it, and for that I think I greatly admire his standing up and doing that. In that letter, he did detail what that thin blue line meant to him, and frankly, it meant the same thing to me. I support law enforcement. I’ve had law enforcement in my family. I’ve had a son that graduated from the academy that their cadet class had that flag emblazoned on their back. That flag meant something very, very different to me and means very different things to those in the law enforcement community, especially at a time when a law enforcement officer dies in the line of duty. He detailed that in his letter, rightfully so. I show my full support for law enforcement. That’s a different issue from whether or not there could be better reforms, whether we could have dash cams and body cams, whether there could be different arrest protocols and standard operating procedures. Techniques and tactics used by police are always subject to review and reform. Those are all separate issues, and I’m glad to enter into them if we can do so in the Law and Justice Committee. So, you can show your full support for the rank and file for those that are on the streets, that are giving their lives to our community to enforce the laws and have hundreds of police contacts every day throughout the country that are successful and peaceful and really reflect them being our ambassadors to enforce law and order on the street. So, I support law enforcement. I support reform. I think the message here is, I want to support the sheriff in his tough decision, and I want to let the guilds know and rank and file know I stand behind them and I support you as well. And most of the community, I think, still greatly appreciates the honor and dignity that they bring to their jobs every day but for the few bad things that occur by bad apples across the nation that are always highlighted. So this is the sheriff’s decision. I want to show support for it. But as importantly, we need to recognize what this flag has come to mean in other circles. I want to admit, when I got that letter, I had to research it because I had never heard of these counter interpretations of the flag because it never meant that to myself or my family. I mean, I’ve worked 30 years in and around with law enforcement, and I appreciate what they do every day. So I had to research it, but it exists nationally and it has for a few years that there’s been this counter interpretation of the flag. I don’t think this letter weighs into that. Whether it’s true or not the truth, I believe that is irrelevant. But I think showing support for the sheriff and his tough decision and recognizing, out in the community that there are these other feelings. And going to the point about public property, you know, the American flag is our flag. The state flag is our flag. You know, “to serve and protect.” Those are all emblems that should be on public property. Anything outside of that really shouldn’t be supported by public dollars anyway. So, in terms of symbolism, I really think that it is a bland statement to say there should be very few things on public property. As far as symbols, the state flag and the American flag, that’s as far as it should go and that’s not to show disrespect to our police in any regard. So I support the letter and would agree to sign it as amended.
Quiring: I just want to make a comment about the letter and how it doesn’t make a statement about our law enforcement. I think it does because in the second paragraph, it’s saying that we’re taking meaningful action to eliminate hate, bigotry and racism in our county, and we must lead by example. That is saying that we, actually by honoring these public employees by the way, that we are eliminating this that honors those who have lost their lives enforcing the law and are basically hateful, full of bigotry and racism in our county. So, I’m sorry. I do not agree that we are somehow supporting our police by doing this, our sheriff’s office, our deputies. I do not believe that. I believe that this is a direct letter that makes them one of the people in our county that is creating this systemic hate, bigotry and racism. So that is why it really, obviously, brings up passion in me here about our law enforcement officers that are actually, basically being responsible for the racism in our county.
Medvigy: And I share your thoughts. I don’t think that this letter says that, but I guess it could be read in different ways.
Councilor John Blom: I agree that we need to support law enforcement. I don’t think that you’ll find anyone who says they don’t support law enforcement. But we don’t support law enforcement by talking about a sticker. We support law enforcement by passing budgets that provide them the resources and the tools they need. We support law enforcement by having policy conversations with the sheriff and the guild and the community about what effective public safety looks like in Clark County, both from the sheriff and from the court system, and by addressing systemic problems that are there. That’s how we support our law enforcement deputies. They put their lives on the line on a daily basis, and they deserve our support for that, but as we work to better improve the relationship with the community on all of these issues.
Lentz: I appreciate this conversation. I think that Councilor Blom made a very important point that supporting law enforcement is a much larger issue than a sticker and that, in general, this does come down to needing to walk the walk of public service, and for our public property, we should not have things that clearly show such division.

Jack Heffernan

Jack Heffernan

Jack Heffernan is a breaking news reporter and covers Clark County government for The Columbian.