At 1:15 A.M. early Thursday, May 21st on the westside of Olympia, Washington, white police officer, Ryan Donald, shot two young Black unarmed men, step-brothers, Andre Thompson, aged 24, and Bryson Chaplin, aged 21. These two Olympia residents are in serious condition at nearby hospitals in Tacoma and Seattle. Fortunately, they are expected to live.
According to the May 22, 2015 edition of the local newspaper, The Olympian, the two brothers had been skateboarding at a local park before going to a Safeway supermarket nearby. They picked up some beer and were stopped by an employee of Safeway inside the store but near the entrance and past the cash registers. When challenged, they dropped the beer and took off shortly before 1 A.M., last Thursday. Safeway then called the Olympia police department. Police officer Ryan Donald responded and saw Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin a few minutes later, about half a mile north of Safeway and near the brothers’ home. According to police reports, Police officer Donald got out of his police car a little before 1:15 a.m. and was attacked by one of the brothers with a skateboard. Donald then shot one of them. They fled into a nearby wooded area, and when they emerged, Officer Donald shot the other brother multiple times.
Neither brother was armed. Olympia police officer Donald was not injured. The first shooting seems totally unjustified. Remember we are talking about suspects in an alleged shoplifting incident that Safeway had photos of. Officer Donald did not have to get out of his police car. The second shooting that took place a few moments little later appears to be a case of attempted murder. Donald cannot claim that he was in imminent danger when he fired the second time. He has not made a statement yet.
Police officer Ryan Donald, age 35, had served tours of duty as part of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had also worked for the U.S. Border Patrol before becoming an Olympia police officer. As one Olympia resident said at a rally on the day of the shooting, Ryan Donald had served in institutions where hunting “men of color” was the norm. This touches on an important issue—police officers who return from U.S. wars abroad and a militarized border, and then have a mindset that the local residents are dangerous or “the enemy” and shoot if there is the slightest perceived threat.
Many people I know in Olympia, Washington—a small liberal city of 50,000—told me after the police killings of Sean Bell, John Williams, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Akil Gurley, Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, Walter Scott , and most recently, Freddie Gray and Daniel Covarrubias in Lakewood, Washington that such police shootings couldn’t happen in Olympia because “we are so progressive.” This is a mistaken case of Olympia exceptionalism. Police shootings, especially of Blacks and Black men, can happen anywhere in the United States and Olympia is part of the United States. Racism exists in Olympia just like it does throughout the United States. We are not living in a post-racial society.
There is a small but growing African-American population in Olympia. According to the 2010 census, 2% of Olympia is Black, 5% self-identify as of two or more races, 80% are white and the remaining 13% are Latino/a, Asian-American or Native American. African-Americans are more likely than whites to be stopped by the police, to be followed and racially profiled in stores and when walking, to be disciplined and tracked in the schools away from attending a four year college, and to face racial discrimination in renting and buying homes in Olympia. So, racism in Olympia is about far more than the police shooting of two unarmed young black men who were suspects for shoplifting. I have lived in Olympia for 27 years and know numerous young white people who have shop-lifted beer from that particular Safeway, which is about a mile from my house. Of course, none were shot. If caught, most were let go after a warning or got a citation to appear in court.
This is also not the first case of major police brutality in Olympia. In 1989, a healthy young man named Danny Spencer who was high on LSD, was arrested, hogtied and brutally beaten by two Olympia police officers. Similar to the case of Freddie Gray, he was taken to the police station rather than to a hospital and died. In 2002, Stephen Edwards was repeatedly tasered after shoplifting a steak from a supermarket in downtown Olympia. He also died because of the police actions. Tasers can also kill. In 2008, Jose Ramirez was killed by a former Olympian Police Officer, Paul Bakala, who was also involved in the killing of Stephen Edwards, six years earlier. In all of these cases, police from Olympia and surrounding communities investigated the shooting and found no wrongdoing. For the most recent shooting of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, Olympia police chief Ronnie Roberts announced that this “critical incident team”, led by the Thurston County sheriffs and also including police from the two surrounding cities and the State Police, would investigate the shooting. This is an old boys’ network of police investigating themselves. There should be an independent investigation by representatives from groups like the NAACP and the ACLU in Washington State investigating this latest police shooting.
Resistance and Public Opinion in Olympia
On a few hours notice, a small group of people organized a rally and march from the westside of
Olympia to the main Olympia police station in downtown on the day of the police shooting, May 21, 2015. Mobilization was mainly done through Facebook. About 800 people , mainly young and primarily white but not totally so, took over one of the main streets in Olympia, chanting “Black Lives Matter,” and making a powerful statement via their march against the police shooting and in support of and concern for the two victims, Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson. With the real possibility of a major physical confrontation with right-wing and pro-police individuals, and divisions within the progressive community, another march called for the next day (Friday, May 22nd) by the Olympia group, Abolish Cops and Borders to police officer Ryan Donald’s home was cancelled.
The local newspaper, The Olympian, has attempted to reduce criticisms of the police and support for Andre Thompson and Bryce Chaplin by printing the minor arrest records of the two brothers in its May 23, 2015 edition. This is totally irrelevant. Some Olympia residents have stated that before there are protests, we should wait for the investigation to be completed. This denies the fact that even the claims made by the police admit that both Chaplin and Thompson were unarmed at the time of their being shot. Similar to their response to the many of the recent police shootings of African-American men, many residents of Olympia are quick to voice fear or disapproval of militant protests while their actions against continuing and frequent murders by law enforcement of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and others are limited or non-existent. Fortunately, there are many others who really want to stand up for racial justice.
The Olympia City Council is meeting, Tuesday, May 26th. There will be a rally outside of the City Council, which is next to police headquarters, before the City Council meets.. Concerned Olympia residents will address the City Council. Among other demands, there will be demands for an independent investigation of the May 21st police shooting as well as calls for an civilian review board with teeth that has the power to investigate and discipline the police, and where members of the civilian review board are independent of law enforcement and represent primarily those who are the most likely to be victims of police misconduct. Others will demand the police be equipped with body cameras. There will also be demands that there should be no charges against Chaplin and Thompson; they have already suffered greatly.
There is a teach-in scheduled at the Evergreen State College in Olympia and the Evergreen campus in Tacoma on Wednesday, May 27th that will connect the police shootings in Olympia to the police killing of an unarmed Native-American man, Daniel Covarrubias, in Lakewood, WA, next to Tacoma, on April 21, 2015. Ideas for developing a long run campaign to deal with racism on and off campus will be presented.
In addition, a recently formed group in Olympia, called ”Olympia for All”, announced they were running two candidates, Rafael Ruiz and Ray Guerra for the Olympia City Council and a third candidate, Marco Rossi for mayor. All three candidates said today, May 25, 2015, in a press conference that accountability of the police would be a major part of their platform. So will their commitment to be part of a movement for an inclusive Olympia. This includes promoting a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right for all for affordable housing. This is a hopeful development.
The challenge in Olympia as in many other places is to build an ongoing campaign, and a broad social movement that builds on the justified anger at this horrible police shooting in Olympia of Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson. We need democratic, radical, inclusive and principled organizations that sustain themselves, where Black people play a major role in a movement against institutional racism and for economic and social justice. All groups need to make racial justice and equality a part of their mission and activities.
Mobilizing primarily through Facebook is insufficient. Mobilizing, even if more broadly than through Facebook, is important and necessary but it doesn’t substitute for real conversation and education, and organizing and developing ongoing campaigns for and winning meaningful demands that improve people’s lives and don’t stop.
It is a difficult period here in Olympia and in other places also. There are many, many politically conscious people here of all ages and a willingness to do something but not a lot of anti-racist and active groups and organizations. Out of this tragedy, an opportunity arises to have serious conversations about racism, about Black lives matter, and to build social movements that can more effectively challenge white racism and all forms of inequality.
Peter Bohmer is a Faculty member in Political economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. He has been an activist since 1967 in movements for fundamental social change.