by Jordan Chaney
When Governor Inslee’s Senior Policy Advisor reached out to me in June of this year to be a part of the Task Force for Policing Reform and Racial Justice, both the activist and the dreamer in me fought for the wheel and began driving toward visions of systemic changes to laws and policies that would keep Black people psychologically and physically safe from unjust murder. I was ecstatic to finally have a seat at the table. The brain storm I wrote over the three days following the announcement of my appointment was around 5,000 words deep.
For several days following the assembly of this task force, I dreamt of laws that would protect all the people I am in community with: my incarcerated students, my Black transgender friends, all the different Black communities that I am a part of in some form or fashion. I thought about Black students who have reached out to me over the years who were driven to suicidal ideation after being called “ni**er” by white classmates that nobody in admin did anything about; I thought about all the times I was socially punished for sticking up for my Black self; I thought about the militias that formed around my city and made it feel like a “Sundown Town” again; I thought about Ebo Barton passing out TINAS in the CD; and I tuned my ear to the songs that rise from the war drums that beat day-in and day-out inside of Nikkita Oliver’s chest, too. I asked myself if I could write a law that would protect my son, my mentees, and my friends and family members from racial terror, gas-lighting, violence, and gory-unjust-state-sanctioned-televised death, the answer was yes, and I wanted that shot. But then the hopes that I had written into my lengthy brainstorm evaporated like thin smoke on the 4th of July this year when within days of the initial announcement, the name of the task force was changed from the “Task Force for Policing Reform and Racial Justice” to the “Task Force for Independent Investigation of Police Use of Force.”
The sudden change in the name denotes a finely narrowed focus but also raises multiple concerns and questions about the purpose and intent of this state-appointed team. For one, it is voting season, so this assembly could appear to be political posturing, but by the same token it is widely agreed that reform in policing is most definitely an emergency — a crisis. For the record, I wholeheartedly agree that we should be refining and reimagining the current process of the independent investigations all together but my contention is this: If the task force is only going to focus on writing or rewriting legislation that will bring swifter, saner justice to the Black body on the ground, then we are only focusing on cleaning up blood and not on what is causing the blood to spill in the first place — unjust systems and laws, policies & practices, hundreds of years old, designed to target and oppress Black people. These systems are being well-oiled and maintained by all those who do not protest it or by those who’s collective power and privilege sit idly by in silence and allow it to happen without so much as even posting our hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter. We all see it, we all feel it, and we’re all like, ”Nah, not this time.” I believe that we all witnessed the moment George Floyd’s spirit left his body, and it is impossible to stand by any longer without feeling complicit in injustice that has finally reached critical mass. Protesters are being killed on this principle (RIP Summer Taylor). We must seize this historical moment.
With all that being said, I still believe that being a part of the Task Force for Independent Investigation of Police Use of Force is worthwhile and that this is an opportunity for those involved to really learn about the pain and suffering of racial injustice and the impact of the culture of police brutality against Black people starting with “just the blood” from the ground up. This attitude is not intended to diminish the intent but to keep the whole problem of systemic racism in full view at every turn.
Anyhow, let’s narrow the focus, shall we?
My commitment to this process stems from Gordon Whitaker, his children, and the mothers of his children. Gordon Whitaker was killed by the Kennewick Police Department around six months ago, and the family and the community that knew Gordon still have not received any answers as to exactly what happened that night. When I spoke to Gordon’s daughter Juliet, I asked her, “What do you miss most about your dad,” and her eyes grew warm, and she said that he was funny and kind and always made time for her. Then I asked her, “What do you hope will come from the investigation?” and she simply said “truth and accountability,” or in another word, justice. When I spoke to Tia, one of the mothers of Gordon’s children, she got angry. She cussed and she screamed. I understood. “He was my friend, Jordan,” she cried. The son that Tia has with Gordon expressed how much he loved that his dad knew so much about the stars. He also describes his father as funny and kind. They’ve all been waiting several months now to hear back from the department, or investigators, or the county prosecutor — waiting for truth and accountability.
The lag in the current process is causing more pain and suffering on the family and the community that knew and loved Gordon, and that is critical to pay attention to. Healing begins with communication, so night after night, when Juliet goes to bed without the truth of what exactly happened to her father, pain and suffering mount and her healing is delayed. What could remedy this delayed healing for Juliet? In a short answer, a phone call. Those responsible for the death need to keep the families and community in the light every step of the way. But a better question would be “What would prevent the need of a Task Force for Independent Investigation of Police Use of Force to begin with?” Answer? “STOP FUCKING KILLING US,” as spelled out on the shirt of the owner of The Station, my favorite coffee shop on Beacon Hill.
All the headlines that were written about Gordon Whitaker that read “Man fatally shot in police scuffle had 37 arrests and 4 felonies” should also mention the fact that none of those 37 arrests or felony charges were punishable by death. Therefore, since none of what Gordon had ever done in his life from birth to death deserved a death sentence per the justice system that works so well for white people, then every inch of the system that continues to produce this Black death injustice needs to be confronted, challenged, and changed. What can be more important than fighting for the fair and equal treatment of oppressed human beings? Nothing. Justice is a law just as real and as natural as gravity — it doesn’t necessarily need our permission to operate, but it works a whole lot better when we cooperate with it.
James Baldwin said “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” That’s a perfect sentiment for my mood in these times, because like the rest of the world, I can’t take it anymore, and like Juliet, I want justice.
Jordan will be a part of the first meeting of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Task Force on Independent Investigations of Police Use of Force at 6 p.m., on Thursday, July 9. The meeting can be watched here.
Jordan Chaney is an author and poet. His works can be found at poetjordan.com.
Featured image by Susan Fried.