Protestors rally in support of Black Lives Matter

— Created June 10, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

“Stop the violence, stop the hate!”

“Justice now!”

“Black Lives Matter!”

“I can’t breathe…”

Many voices joined together in a chorus of unity Saturday in Oak Harbor. A peaceful protest led by the newly-formed Facebook group, Whidbey Against Brutality and Racial Injustice, brought approximately 300 people together at Beeksma Gateway Park to protest racial inequality and police brutality – one of hundreds such protests being held across the country after  people saw the video of George Floyd dying under the knee of  Minneapolis, Minn., police officers.

There were protestors of all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities present, braving the early rain to raise homemade signs with messages ranging from “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace” to “Racism is Staying Silent and Doing Nothing” to other, more succinct messages inappropriate to print.

As the day progressed, students from Oak Harbor High School read the names of black Americans who have been killed recently. Other protestors spoke passionately about the issue at hand, as the crowd sat quietly listening, before once more picking up their signs and raising their voices to chant in unison.

While most participants wore face masks, physical distancing was nearly impossible due to the number of people gathered in the small space in front of the city’s electronic sign. The protest was an opportunity for many to look past the COVID-19 restraints under which they’ve been living and come out to support a cause they say is something that should have resolved itself years ago.

“We’ve made progress with the civil rights movement, but not nearly enough,” said Ryan Wethall, who teaches U.S. History at Oak Harbor High School. “We’re not nearly where we should be. We’ve already been talking about police brutality and injustices toward people of color and then another murder happens. It’s like it just keeps happening; once was too many times.”

“It should have been solved back at the founding of our country,” said Mason Martino. “We can go back to the New Deal and how it disenfranchised black people unfairly compared to white people. We can take this history back to the founding of our country, whether it’s the Native American genocide, Jim Crow, through desegregation. So, why am I here? I’m here because these problems haven’t been solved…and they need to be solved.”

The issues are complex. They date back hundreds of years. Perhaps the protests won’t change things immediately, but they serve a greater purpose, said demonstrators: Starting the conversation.

“You can’t make anybody understand [what it’s like to deal with these issues every day], in my opinion,” said a woman who asked not to be identified. “But you can continue to have the conversation, the uncomfortable conversations that people shy away from. Just because it’s not happening to me doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I think people are very scared of what it may make them look like if they’re supportive, so they do it silently. And silence has not gotten us anywhere.”

“I hope [events like this] spark at least conversations that need to have been started a long time ago,” said Anna Chargualaf. “I hope we can start a conversation with the community about what needs get done to make a part of our community feel included, which they should have felt included all this time.”

While the death of George Floyd may seem to be far removed, the issue of systemic racism is everywhere. Whidbey Island is not immune.

“I’ve lived here over 20 years and I have a son who grew up in this community,” said another woman who preferred not to be identified. “It’s hard, it’s difficult. As a mother raising a black son, you have to have difficult conversations with them. I don’t think anyone could imagine having to tell your son to act a certain way in order to protect his life, just so he can go about his normal daily activities.

“That’s where we need change, because we shouldn’t have to do that, but we do, in order to make sure they come back home to us safe,” she continued. “The huge problem is that even though we teach them, they’re still not coming back home. So how do we fix that? How do we fix a system that continues to be biased against certain groups? We all are an American.”

Alexandra Colvin came to the protest with her 4-year-old son, Jack.

“I want better for him, I want better for our country,” she said. “It just hurts my heart. I think being a mom, especially, thinking about all the black children who don’t understand; there’s no rational explanation for the racism in our country. I want to be a positive part of the solution and not a part of the cycle.”

If conversations can help people work toward finding solutions and spark healing, then it’s up to elected officials to listen, according to Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns.

“[Protests] are a way to communicate that we need to listen to,” he said. “I’m here to listen more than anything. The more we understand, the better our policy decisions will be.”

Severns said while there are no specific issues or policies under evaluation at this time, everything should always be under constant consideration.

“I think our police chief and our staff are always concerned and listening and the more we can do that, the better,” he said.

If Saturday’s protest, and those taking place around the country, are any indication, a serious conversation is beginning. It’s a good start, some might say.

“It feels good to  know the community I’m raising my children in is supportive, because I am raising my children in this community and I don’t want something like [what happened to George Floyd] happen to any of them or anybody else, any of my friends,” said the first woman. “It feels good to have support.”

“We need to remember we’re a microcosm of what society is,” said the second woman. “Just because you live in a certain place and may have camaraderie in your community, there’s still going to be individuals with that mind set. It’s about having a conversation. It’s about getting to know each other. It’s about coming together in solidarity and making sure your neighbor is okay. No matter what color you are, you are your brother’s keeper and you are your sister’s keeper, and people need to have that mentality.”