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‘We have progressed, but so has racism’

Vancouver NAACP president advances fight for justice

By Beverly Corbell

Jasmine Tolbert

One year in as president of the Vancouver NAACP, Jasmine Tolbert, has taken the battle to eliminate racial injustice to new heights.

When the local civil rights group joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in November to file a lawsuit urging the U.S. Department of Justice to open investigations into “excessive force and discriminatory policing” in the Vancouver Police Department, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and a joint city-county drug task force, Tolbert was front and center.

“The problem is that systemic racism is alive and well in Vancouver and Clark County, Tolbert said.

In an interview with the Portland Observer for its annual Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday special edition, she described the current need for reparative actions to advance racial equality.

“I think that as we have progressed, so has racism,” Tolbert said, “I think the tactics, the same way overt racists laid the groundwork for the systemic racism taking place now, allowed racism to continue evolving, and while we’ve made progress, so have those systemic policies.”

Tolbert grew up in Clark County and clearly remembers reading books on King and civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Harriett Tubman that were in her home growing up. She also recalls lessons about civil rights and racism she received from her mother.

“I remember those books explicitly, Dr. King’s message and my mom’s home history lessons, things you didn’t get in school,” she said.

But Dr. King’s message has been watered down, she said, including what’s being taught in schools.

“I wish it was a more holistic picture being painted of the work he did rather than for certain members of society to dictate the way our actions should look,” she said.

In the lawsuit targeting local law enforcement, the NAACP and ACLU point to four officer-involved deaths in Clark County and Vancouver in recent years that included a 16-year-old Pacific Islander high school student; a 28-year-old Pacific Islander man; three white homeless men, one in a mental health crisis; and three Black men, 43-year-old Carlos Hunter, Kevin Peterson, 21, and Jenoah D. Donald, 30.

The civil rights organizations say Hunter, falsely accused of being part of the drug trade, was pulled over and shot 16 times while still fastened in his seatbelt. Peterson was caught in a drug sting and ran away in fright when two unmarked law enforcement cars boxed him in. He was shot, in the back, 34 times. Donald, who was unarmed, was stopped for a broken taillight, punched in the face and shot twice at close range.

Tolbert said the deaths are examples of how Vancouver and Clark County law enforcement has engaged in discriminatory policing for years against people of color, residents experiencing homelessness, and those with a mental health disability, while showing favor to known white supremacist extremist groups.

“This disparate policing causes lasting harm for residents and undermines public safety for the community at large,” she said.

Calling out highly publicized police actions that erode the already strained relationships between the community and local law enforcement, Tolbert said all residents of Vancouver and Clark County deserve equal and professional treatment by police officers.

“When someone is stopped by the police it should not have to end with them dying. No matter what the person’s background is, no matter what the reason is for the stop. There should be and there needs to be a better way to handle these interactions,” she said.

Last year, Tolbert served as vice president of the Vancouver NAACP when listening sessions were held before the Clark County Council to outline racial equality concerns. Systemic racism is a longstanding problem in Clark County and can be traced back to a tight connection between the Ku Klux Klan and county leadership in the 1920s and 1930s, she said.

The NAACP outcry drew opposition from one council member at the time, Quiring O’Brien, who declared that she does not believe Clark County has any systemic racism.

O’Brien resisted calls by the NAACP and other civil rights advocates to resign after her statement, but the Council took action against her remarks by passing a resolution declaring “systemic racism in Clark County is a public health crisis.”

The NAACP and other civil rights leaders have been part of public demonstrations and marches for racial justice over the past two years, but some of these actions have been marred by violent demonstrators, that “have not amplified Dr. King’s message,” Tolbert said.

But Tolbert also points out how many people have forgotten how tough it was for King and his followers back when they led protests in the 1950s and 60s.

“It’s a complicated topic because the way that society has whitewashed Dr. King and his message and used his phenomenal and impactful words, makes it hard to bring him up to condemn current violent activists,” she said. “We see the activism and the rebel intent that he displayed during his time, but the folks who condemn the way we protest are the same folks that pretend they didn’t see the dogs and the hoses used in those ‘peaceful’ protests…I love the framework Dr. King used, but it’s disheartening to see how that is weaponized against us.”

Census records show there are more than 12,000 Black residents in Clark County and more than 4,000 of them live in the city of Vancouver. Going forward, Tolbert said her goal is to serve that community.

“This year we will be figuring out how we can continue expanding while also starting to rebuild relationships within our community,” she said. “We’ve been apart for so long because of the pandemic and we want to be sure that our community feels nurtured and cared for after so much separation.”

--Beverly Corbell


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