A police shooting has rocked the small, Pacific Northwestern city of Olympia, Wash., where the progressive student body of Evergreen State College spends its days attending classes along the forest-lined shores of the Puget Sound.
On Thursday, hundreds of people marched in Washington State’s capital to protest the police shooting that wounded two young men accused of stealing beer from a local supermarket. The police officer reported that he fired at the two African-American stepbrothers after being assaulted with a skateboard. That night, hundreds of community members in the city of nearly 50,000 residents marched to the City Hall, carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Race is a Factor."
But while the events in Olympia may echo those of Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., where locals took to the streets following the deaths of young black men at the hands of police, Olympia is missing many of the key elements that sparked violent protests in other parts of the country, such as a history of civil rights abuses.
These circumstances have left some local residents wondering whether their community will address the issue of police misconduct differently than would more-diverse communities in other parts of the country.
“This issue has been invisible here because people of color are less than two percent," says Amy Levison, an Olympia resident who attended the demonstration.
"There is a lot of activism around indigenous stuff and climate change, but this has been an invisible issue, and now people are saying, ‘Now it’s in my backyard,' " she adds.
After the Black Lives Matter movement developed across the country following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson last August, activists in Olympia have been trying to spark a conversation about police brutality, says community activist Steffany Ann Brown.
“This movement isn’t a new thing because people were already organizing in solidarity with other cities. But people were complacent until it came here," she says. "People haven’t come out in the numbers that they did yesterday until now.”
Community members reported that the protests were mostly peaceful, and young people carried skateboards in solidarity with the men shot. Meanwhile, around 200 people attended an interfaith community meeting at the Temple Beth Hatfiloh, where city council members spent the evening discussing the events.
The city's reaction was also different than in Ferguson: Within 24 hours of the shooting, the City of Olympia created a website devoted to the #OlympiaShooting. The city council also set up a website to inform citizens about upcoming meetings.
"All lives matter," said Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts on Thursday. "It's unfortunate that an officer was involved in a situation where he believed he had to use deadly force. Now, the investigation will determine whether or not that was an appropriate use of force. I won't be able to do that today for you."
One of the men shot was in serious condition on Friday and the other was in stable condition, the Associated Press reported. The officer responsible for the shooting has been put on administrative leave.
Surveillance video released Friday shows one of the two men leaving with what appears to be a case of beer, which he tosses near a store employee when confronted by her.
Despite the assertion by police officials that the shooting was not racially motivated, some community members said they believe the police reaction would have been different if the two men had been white.
“There is a big contingent of people here who regularly shoplift as an anti-corporate action,” says Ms. Levison.
“This town is imbued with a spirit of anti-corporatism and the punk kids are shoplifting from this supermarket all the time," she says. "That’s the Olympia thing. But as a white person, I’ve had to pick my kids up from the back room of a store. The cops don’t even get called.”
Chief Roberts "is failing to comprehend the factor that race plays in our entire criminal justice system, from the sidewalks to schools to prison,” says Mike Coday, a member of the Olympia organization Cop Watch.
“There is just no reason why two shoplifters carrying skateboards should be shot in the chest,” says Caitlin Eubel, a community activist.