James Whitfield has this memory of when he was about 7 or 8 years old growing up in Champaign, Illinois.
He was walking outside with his mother and they saw a police car. The young Whitfield laughed to himself as he thought about what it would be like if he just took off running. When he told his mother, she told him he couldn’t do that because if the police thought he did something wrong, they could shoot him.
“‘They can do that. You can’t do that,’” Whitfield said, recalling his mother’s words about the difference between his white peers and himself.
Now an adult and with two grown children of his own, Whitfield — who lives in Kirkland — has been on the other side of the conversation and has given his son and daughter The Talk.
The Talk is a conversation black parents often have with their children about the police and how due to the color of their skin, they are often perceived as a threat — even when they’ve done nothing wrong. It’s a conversation prompted by interactions between black people and law enforcement that have ended in violence, including the deaths of unarmed black people of all ages and genders. But the perceived threat does not stop at law enforcement. With the rise of camera phones and social media, there have been more publicized instances in which police have been called on black people for simply living their lives — anything from having a barbecue in a public park, to inspecting real estate investments, to sitting in a Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt Shop.
The latter happened Nov. 7, 2018 in Kirkland. Coincidentally, it was on the one-year anniversary of this incident — during which a black man named Byron Ragland had the police called on him at the Menchie’s in Totem Lake while he was supervising a court-ordered visitation between a mother and child — that I met with Whitfield at Thruline Coffee Co. in downtown Kirkland to discuss the work the city has done following the incident.
Centering people of color
After the news broke, a community-led town hall meeting was held on Nov. 27, 2018, at Kirkland City Hall with attendees discussing issues as well as the work needed to make Kirkland a more welcoming city for people of all backgrounds.
There was talk of additional meetings and community outreach but nothing has been held yet.
But that doesn’t mean nothing has been happening.
The city of Kirkland has since contracted with Leadership Eastside (LE) to start Welcoming Kirkland, an initiative to create, well, a more welcoming Kirkland.
Whitfield, who is stepping down from his longtime role as CEO and president of LE but staying with the organization to work on community development programs, is managing the Welcoming Kirkland efforts. He said community development programs such as this one — as well as the work LE is doing in the Snoqualmie Valley regarding human services and in Redmond regarding homelessness — bring people together to come up with innovative solutions for a given issue in a given community.
Whitfield described the work they do in these programs as courageous collaborations with the intent of bringing people with different points of views — including the people who are directly affected by the issue in question — together to come up with a solution.
As much sense as this makes, I can’t tell you how many times I have attended workshops or trainings or seen videos addressing issues on race and racism and there are very few people of color in attendance or on camera. So when Whitfield told me Welcoming Kirkland is focusing on centering people of color in their work, especially black people, I thought it was quite profound.
Jonathan Rainey, a Kirkland resident who is on the Welcoming Kirkland planning committee, said the issues they are talking about affect people of color so people of color should be part of coming up with solutions. Rainey, who is black, said white people can be allies but they can’t understand the things people of color experience.
So we have to speak for ourselves and speak to the solutions.
One experience does not fit all
And not all people of color have the same experience.
Both Whitfield and Rainey shared their thoughts and experiences on what it’s like to be, not just black, but specifically black men, in a society in which they are perceived as dangerous.
Rainey told me about The Talk he had growing up with his father, a now-retired law enforcement officer from Mississippi. Rainey said he was taught to be submissive and respond with “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” if he ever encountered law enforcement.
This got me thinking to an encounter I had with police during my early days in Redmond.
Long story short, someone had called the police on me while I was covering a story. I was full of sass and attitude during the interaction and there was a definite unsaid “duh” at the end of one of my responses. While I did have second thoughts about my attitude, I was concerned that I would get written up or fined — maybe arrested. Never had it crossed my mind that I could get hurt.
But after talking with Whitfield and Rainey and seeing countless incidents on the news, I realized my own privilege of being a non-black person of color.
Other members of the planning committee have also had realizations and learned things through their experience working on Welcoming Kirkland.
Kathy Feek, who sits on the boards for the Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce and Kirkland Downtown Association, is also on the planning committee and said a lot of the work they have been doing so far has been listening to different perspectives.
Feek, an art consultant, shared with me one of the things she has taken away from these stories.
As a mother of three sons and to not have to worry when they go out the door, to not have to worry for their life, she said that is a privilege and advantage she has because she is white.
“They’re mostly safe,” Feek said about her sons.
Kirkland Police Chief Cherie Harris, who has been involved in the Welcoming Kirkland initiative since the beginning, said the group also has been doing a lot of reading.
One book they have read was on white fragility and Harris admitted that while she was reading the book, she had moments in which she thought, “That’s not me,” before realizing that was the point.
Harris also shared that during some of the discussions they’ve had, the men of color have shared how they have all been followed around stores and shops, and most of them at one point in their life have been asked to leave a business.
This type of interaction between businesses and people of color is one of the things Welcoming Kirkland is working toward addressing.
Harris said if a business owner wants someone to leave their business, they should ask why they want that person to leave.
And since the Menchie’s incident last year, Harris said the police department has changed their protocol on how to deal with unwanted subjects. She said they are asking their officers to think before they act.
This being said, the Kirkland Police Department (KPD) has recently come under fire for how officers handled the arrest of a black teen in September at the YMCA’s Kirkland Teen Union Building. Officials with the YMCA of Greater Seattle said the officers used excessive force in detaining the youth.
I asked about the incident but as it is still under investigation, Harris and the city declined to speak about it at this time.
‘Something we’re working on’
Harris did tell me, though, that when talking about police and people of color, officers in her department have said they are heartbroken when they hear that people of color fear them or do not feel welcome in the community.
“It’s something we’re working on,” she said.
One of the ways they have been doing this post Menchie’s is bringing in Bryant Marks, a diversity and implicit bias trainer.
Kirkland assistant city manager Jim Lopez, who has also been part of Welcoming Kirkland since its inception, said the training has not been just for police but for all city government employees. Both he and Harris said people want to learn, with Harris adding that in her department, there has been an interest in doing more training with Marks.
Lopez added that the city has created a business support site (tinyurl.com/yx8yzguc) with a number of resources including links to training videos from Starbucks, which the company created after it came under scrutiny after two black men were arrested at one of its Philadelphia locations while they were waiting to meet a friend.
“We want to take this from all angles,” Lopez said.
Although this type of training is great, I thought back to my conversation with Rainey and how his father being a black man allowed him to understand the dynamics between law enforcement and the black community and how that informed his policing.
I mentioned this to Harris and we discussed the makeup of KPD.
There are 107 commissioned officers and while she does not know the exact demographics, Harris said there are four black male officers on the force. The department has a large number officers (male and female) of Asian or Pacific Islander descent and she said KPD has the largest proportion of female officers than any other department she has worked for. In addition, Harris said the department also has greater lifestyle diversity than any other department she’s worked for.
And while it would be great to see more women and people of color in law enforcement, Harris said they are just not seeing the number of applicants (in general) as they used to. The struggle to hire new officers is not limited to Kirkland though, she said, it’s nationwide.
Lopez said the community can expect to see external work such as workshops and trainings for businesses and community meetings in the first quarter of next year.
Whitfield added that there will also be Kirkland Talks, which will consist of three topic areas. Each topic area will have two structured dialogue events as well as a town hall event. He said they are now in the process of choosing the topic areas.
Although it has taken a long time for the community to see anything happening, Welcoming Kirkland is about the long game, not instant gratification.
“The outcome is about changing systems,” Whitfield said.
To read about what the city of Kirkland has done since the Menchie’s incident, go online to tinyurl.com/yd7noq3y.
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at firstname.lastname@example.org.