by Carmen Rivera
Renton, Washington, is home to more than Boeing and the Seahawks’ practice facility. Renton, only 12 miles south of Seattle, is a majority BIPOC city where white supremacy is gasping for air.
I was born and raised in Renton. I graduated from Lindbergh High School where one of my friends, a masculine presenting boy who came out as gay, had his truck keyed with the word “FAG.” When I moved back 12 years later, I had hoped the amount of inclusivity and respect would have improved, but what I have seen in the last two years alone exemplifies that Renton is still unsafe for marginalized people.
In 2019, an inclusive church was attacked with explosives during Pride month. That same month, dozens from right wing extremists groups, some of whom were armed with pistols, protested a drag queen story hour at the Fairwood Library. Later that year, swastikas were painted on living turtles at Gene Coulon Park. Hate speech and hate crimes continue in Renton. Less than six months ago we saw a beautiful mural, meant to exemplify diversity and love, defaced with spray paint and the artist threatened at gunpoint. Most recently, it came out that a Renton Police Officer had been in business with a Proud Boy member who attended the terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Renton is now gaining notoriety for yet another incident of hate, this time by way of a YouTube video titled, “Racist Robin calls me a F*…” posted this past Valentine’s Day.
When I watched the four-minute video clip, I was not surprised at all by what I saw. Rather, I was taken back to times during my upbringing where I witnessed similar incidents of hate in the community where white people yelled racial slurs like they were no different than other curse words. I remember being called a “spick” when I was 14 or 15 years old by one of my classmates.
What I have discovered in the weeks following the video going viral (with over 110,000 views so far) is that it has reinforced a subconscious fear I have had my entire life — one that many marginalized people live with every single day. It is the underlying fear when your senses are heightened to those around you because of your identity and how you are perceived in this world. It is similar to the feeling I have when I walk outside holding hands with my fiancé: the on-guard feeling of being ready at any moment to have slurs yelled at us by a car driving by, or worse. This fear is valid but is being silenced or dismissed by white leaders in Renton.
Diane Dobson, president of the Renton Chamber of Commerce intervened to get “Racist Robin” to leave the scene of the incident before police arrived. This action has brought attention to other internal issues boiling over between City leaders, Renton Police, and the community. In the days following the release of the YouTube video, more Renton BIPOC community members came forward with negative interactions they’ve had with Dobson or other members of the Chamber.
The Chamber has taken a strong stance against using the Red Lion Hotel as a homeless shelter, working with Renton political leaders to pass an ordinance shelter providers say will prevent any homeless shelter from being placed within Renton city limits. King County’s 2020 Count Us In report shows homelessness disproportionately impacts People of Color. Despite Renton residents speaking against the ordinance, in favor of the homeless shelter for the duration of the pandemic, Dobson dismissed us as not members of her community. She has been accused of bullying and reportedly threatened to revoke the membership of the Renton LGBTQIA+ Community, a nonprofit that promotes diversity in Renton, over advocacy by one of its board members in favor of the shelter. I believe we cannot say we value marginalized people while supporting the systems that marginalize them.
A previous Chamber employee, currently a Chamber Ambassador, is one of four white-presenting administrators/moderators of the Renton Crime and Safety Facebook page. With nearly 9,000 members, they are actively deleting any posts having to do with Racist Robin or similar incidents of hate crime or speech, labeling the posts as political and going against their own community guidelines. Members who post or inquire further on such incidents are removed and/or blocked, including those regarding Renton Police Officer Trevor Davidson’s affiliation with a known Proud Boy.
This information-policing has ignited Renton community members of marginalized communities to speak out about the very real issues of hate in Renton and to create the Renton Community Safety & Local Discussions Facebook page. It was through this page that I learned about many other BIPOC experiences with harmful ignorance and hate and the resulting forced silencing. Wanting to gather more concrete information about these experiences, I tried to join the Renton Crime and Safety page and was denied. When I made a second request to join, I was blocked from it instead, even though I am a Renton resident.
Social media has been a tool especially relied upon since the start of the pandemic. Despite the Renton Crime and Safety Facebook page’s efforts, it’s proven impossible to drown out the voice of the BIPOC majority in Renton. White-presenting administrators/moderators labeling valid community safety concerns as political in order to silence BIPOC voices is one example of what I would label as willful ignorance and bigotry, but it does not end with them.
White leaders in Renton need to do more than host performative community conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion and defend their advocacy until they are blue in the face. After community members spoke up demanding accountability and consequences for hate crimes and hate speech in the city, the Chamber released a statement that is performative at best.
Despite a movement asking leaders to take power from police and give it back to the community, Mayor Pavone appointed former police chief Ed VanValey as the city’s interim Chief Administration Officer. If the City of Renton wants to “stand against racism and promote racial equity,” should they promote a cis-gendered white police officer into a position of power unrelated to his field of expertise? This does not make sense to me.
At a Renton City Council meeting on February 22, Mayor Pavone issued a statement against hate speech, stating “positive change starts at home,” and urged Renton residents “to move forward with love and compassion and empathy.” He cited Renton Resolution No. 4414, another solely performative action that has a weak foundation to build upon (at best) when 80% of City of Renton leaders (including department leaders), are white-presenting. This ornate resolution is invalidated by the City of Renton’s close working relationship with the Chamber (80% of their leadership being white presenting), which is potentially getting $150,000 as part of the Renton Lodging Tax Grant Program. Mayor Pavone, an active member and supporter of the Chamber, has utilized his relationship to prioritize business over actionable diversity, equity, and inclusion. Three days after the Chamber’s statement, Renton Police Department announced they will be sponsoring the Safe Space Initiative, a program created by the Seattle Police Department.
Renton leaders need to listen to the BIPOC and marginalized community residents rather than working so hard to silence them with performative statements. Rather than respond from a place of defensiveness or fragility, City leaders and the Renton Chambers of Commerce need to do the internal transformative work to support the safety and inclusion of the BIPOC communities.
Carmen Rivera is a Renton resident, educator, facilitator and community organizer for complete justice reform.
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