Viewpoints: Letters / Opinions
Acknowledging the existence of racism in our community both past and present
By Sid Hartley
July 13, 2020
Ketchikan’s rich cultural roots, not surprisingly, are jungled with the noxious weed that is oppression and systemic racism. As we examine this historical truth, we also singe the idealist illusion that, the so-called “American Dream” buries the past, and that the integrity among some first responders might exempt the acknowledgement of horrific history inflicted by their predecessors. While this reality can be hard to accept by first responders that commit their lives to the safety and welfare of modern-day Ketchikan, it is vital that we address these generationally lingering traumas, if we are going to walk alongside the footprints of decolonization and equity.
On Ketchikan City Council’s committee led by Councilwoman Emily Chapel, a letter was drafted with the intention of collaborating with Ketchikan Police Department, as well as seeking counsel from oppressed populations in Ketchikan, and the advisement of Clan Leaders of the regions First Peoples. City Manager, Karl Amylon rejected Councilwoman Chapel’s request for collaboration, responding that the committee-drafted letter should redundantly be approved by the Council. Again, the proposal was put in front of the Council, this time with an explicit outline of its intention:
“The Ketchikan City Council and the Ketchikan Police Department stand united against racism and the hatred that fuels it.
Unfortunately, the City Council also recognizes that Ketchikan, like many communities, has a history in which members of our community have suffered from racism in many forms.
In the first part of the twentieth century, Ketchikan was a segregated city. White families lived to the north of Ketchikan Creek and Native, Asian and other minorities lived to the south of Ketchikan Creek. The Stedman Street area south of the Creek was called "Indiantown." Even in some official city documents. It was not unusual for stores north of the Creek to have window signs reading "No Dogs or Indians." It is a history that many would like to forget or pretend didn’t exist, but we cannot do that.
Initially, Ketchikan schools were not segregated but by the 1920s, the School Board had segregated the schools and it took a lawsuit by the family of Irene Jones to allow mixed race students to attend non-Native schools in 1929. A Bureau of Indian Affairs school continued to operate in Ketchikan but with the coming of statehood, all of Ketchikan's schools were finally, completely desegregated.
The last Alaskan to face the death penalty was a Ketchikan man named Nelson Charles who murdered his mother-in-law. Charles was executed during a time when no white men charged with first degree murder faced the death penalty in Alaska. The fact that people of color were disproportionally executed throughout the territorial history led Alaska to ban capital punishment when it became a state in 1959.
Ketchikan is not alone in how it treated minority residents during its history and with people of color representing a higher percentage of people in Alaska prisons today than their percentage of the population, it indicates there remain systemic issues that need to be addressed. We recognize that is the case.
There are people in this community who believe that Natives and other minorities are still not treated fairly by the system. The Ketchikan City Council hears those concerns and - in light of the nation-wide discussion over policing and the effects that policing is having, particularly in communities of color - we pledge to do everything in our power to ensure that the city government and police department are responsive to all members of the community.
We will ask the Tongass Historical Museum to review our community's history to provide and clarify the Historic Landmarks rooted in Black history, and Asian history, along with Native Historic Landmarks. We will also ask members of the community to suggest ways that we can better commemorate the histories of Ketchikan's people of color, without whom Ketchikan would not be the community it is today. We will also seek to promote the stories of those people in our school system so that we won't hear "wow, I was never taught about that" ever again.
It is our responsibility to our community to teach our children about those who helped create the community they live in: To acknowledge the past, and through education create a community of understanding, compassion, and healing.
As a Council it is egregious to us when anyone in our community has to fight to be heard, to raise their voices so loud to point out injustice in numbers like we have seen over the last couple months to bring attention to injustice being committed in our community. We the council will use this time to educate ourselves in our own history of discrimination. We condemn all police brutality and declare racism a public health crisis.
We also recognize the role systemic racism and inadequate oversight played in the murder of George Floyd and others. As such, we have begun to review our own officer training and policies. We have identified the initial areas of improvement.
Those include revisiting our use of force policy, modifying the body cam policy that makes it clear when body cameras should be activated, additional de-escalation training and mental health first aid training.
We also pledge to seek community involvement in this process to ensure that community concerns are heard and taken into consideration. We pledge to make sure, going forward, that the Ketchikan Police Department reflects the professionalism of its finest members and addresses the concerns of it the members of our community.
We recognize that additional training for the police department and other staff will take the reallocation of resources and we pledge to make that happen.
We also pledge to the make the city government and the police department records as open as we legally can to ensure that the community can have transparency.” (City Council, 2020)"
In response to this stinging reality, many Ketchikan community members (including KPD Officers), attended the July 2, 2020 City Council meeting to declare their unacceptance of it. Many audience members went so far as to shame Councilwoman Chapel, shouting, “YOU!” in an effort to condemn her as a wave-maker. As we evidence in the letter, this disparaging attempt to rearrange the letter’s motive, was baseless. What their actions did do, however, was reestablish the present need to address racist history in Ketchikan, and educate community members on what it means to acknowledge history.
While there exists some confusion on the matter, it is important to clarify that acknowledgment does not mean damnation. Acknowledging the existence of racism in our community, both past and present, does not create (in and of itself), a torch and pitchfork anarchy. What acknowledgement does do, is hold our justice system accountable in every action it makes from this moment forward. It builds trust in our community. It plants a seed of equity that has the power to bloom generations of healing. It amplifies all Ketchikan voices so we are heard at the same decibel. What other response is there than, “We are in this together”?
As with every crisis we face as a community, I hope we see this one as an opportunity to become better; become unified; become #KetchikanStrong.
Gunalchéesh. Háw’aa. Nt’oyaxn.
The text of this letter was NOT edited by the SitNews Editor.
Received July 11, 2020
- Published July 13, 2020
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