So why doesn’t the City’s budget yet have funding for an Office of Civil Rights?
For a city to function, it has to be equipped with proper infrastructure. That means a robust power grid, water, sewer and a way to dispose of waste — services we pretty much all agree are important to ensure a baseline of livability. So what about civil rights?
In September, the City of Spokane hired outgoing Spokane Public Schools Board President Jerrall Haynes to serve as its first-ever Civil Rights Coordinator to enforce civil rights laws in the city. Federal and state civil rights laws aren’t always applied at a city level. Civil rights include protections for race, gender, religion, and disability, but also less-obvious forms of discrimination such as housing, pay disparity, domestic violence victim status, and veteran or military status.
Haynes’ appointment is years in the making: City Hall considered filling the role in 2017 but never acted — despite having funding — until Mayor Woodward agreed only after bargaining for the addition of a Community and Economic Development Division director too.
But even if the role had been filled in 2017, Spokane would have been years, and multiple staff members, behind other similar-sized cities. Tacoma launched its Office of Equity and Human Rights, which launched in 2015, has a staff of 10. The Madison (Wisconsin) Department of Civil Rights is a team of 20, serving as “a focal point for affirmative action, disability rights, equal opportunities, racial equity and social justice in the region.” Even Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city of less than 200,000, has an Office of Equity and Engagement, scoring significantly higher than Spokane on municipal. non-descrimination and inclusivity metrics.
It’s easy to see why a group of local organizations believe a one-person position isn’t adequate to serve a city our size, especially given our track record. In 2018, Spokane County had the second-highest rate of reported hate crimes in Washington State. The actual number is likely higher; hate crimes often go unreported. Visible, recent incidents of hate in Spokane County include:
- 2016: A racist slur spray-painted on the MLK Center
- 2017: Anti-semitic, pro-Hitler graffiti chalked on the Community Building
- 2020: Red-white-and-blue paint splattered over Terrain’s Black Lives Matter mural
- 2020 & 2021: Repeated defacement of a downtown George Floyd mural
- January 2021: A rock thrown through the window of d’bali Asian Bistro (Airway Heights)
- February 2021: Raymond Bryant scrawled anti-semitic symbols on Temple Beth Shalom Jewish synagogue
The need is real.
In 2019, The Spokane Human Rights Commission (SHRC), along with a coalition of activists, began hammering out a proposal for an expanded, six-person Office of Civil Rights, Equity, and Inclusion (OCREI). SHRC collaborated with Greater Spokane Progress (GSR) to form a task force that researched and drew up details.
About a dozen equity-minded organizations helped shape the document, including Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR), Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Spokane (APIC), and Muslims for Community Action and Support. In their proposal, they make clear that they “expect leaders and members of BIPOC, refugee, immigrant, disability, LGBTQ+, justice involved, and other impacted communities to be actively engaged in creating this office.”
In addition, over 50 local organizations signed a letter urging Spokane City Council and Mayor Woodward to fund a full office in the city’s 2022 budget. As of November 2021, members presented their finalized proposal to the City. The City Council has expressed willingness to fund three of the proposed six positions in 2022.
Jac Archer, an organizer at the Peace and Justice Action League (PJALS) and board member of the SHRC and SCAR, told the Spokesman-Review in December 2020 that “having a single person do that work is to both set up that person and that work for failure. We’d really love to see models more similar to what has happened in other cities where it’s fully staffed and funded.”
One of those similar cities the research group examined is Des Moines, Iowa. At a Nov. 29th City Council meeting (via Zoom), Pui-Yan Lam — Vice President of APIC — assured council members that investment in a full office would be economically sound, totaling at under $4 per resident, based on the Des Moines model.
Lam emphasized the need for a multi-faceted office that would do more than enforce civil rights laws, because “when a complaint is brought forward it means a person is already hurt,” Lam said, who suggested proactive approaches “in terms of educating the community.”
From City of Spokane Office of Civil Rights, Equity, & Inclusion Proposal
While the City of Spokane expanded wording of its human rights laws in 2017 to define refugees as a protected class, and make housing and employer discrimination illegal regardless of the size of the company or landlord’s properties, Liz Moore, Director of PJALS, reminded council members on Nov. 22 that funding speaks louder words.
“A budget is a document that expresses our values,” Moore said. “Spokane is a place of struggle regarding who belongs, who is worthy, who it’s okay to see as dangerous, who we collectively recognize as valuable. And the city … must play a key role in saying that Spokane is a place where everyone is valued and protected.” The first step, she said, would be funding this office.
Anne Martin, Director of Greater Spokane Progress (GSP), echoed this need, saying: “Our city has human rights laws on the books that currently have no enforcement mechanism, and there’s been a complete lack of progress in taking actions to advance racial equity. … Spokane is behind other cities around the country of a similar size.”
Council member Karen Stratton said she’s “completely supportive” of the process and emphasized the need for a full staff, recalling a period in the early 2000s when Vince Lemus served in a similar role as the City’s Human Rights Specialist, yet got completely overwhelmed. On a phone call last week, Stratton elaborated: “Let’s not promise things we can’t deliver, and we can’t deliver if we only have one person.”
Council member Candace Mumm called the SHRC’s presentation of data on hate crimes “pretty shocking” and pledged her support, encouraging the group to also speak to Spokane Valley and surrounding councils in the county.
Kurtis Robinson — Vice President of Spokane NAACP and Executive Director of I Did the Time — expressed the urgent, overdue need for a full OCREI, telling City Council that because the NAACP isn’t a legal institution, there are limits to how it can help. “We do not need to keep re-proving the fact and the need for a fully staffed office,” Robinson said, “no amount of intentional, historic ignoring by any business or governmental organization will change what people of color have already known to be the truth, and we’ve been saying it all this time. … Our voices in this have all been but ignored until recent times. … This office must be fully staffed countywide, and completely independent. … It is well past time.”
City Council will determine funding for the OCREI on Monday, December 13th.