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Justice for Tyre Nichols March Calls for Changes with Spokane Police Policy, Culture

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Justice for Tyre Nichols March Calls for Changes with Spokane Police Policy, Culture

News Story by John McCallum

This news story was made possible by contributions to FāVS from readers like you. Thank you.

It may have been billed as “Justice for Tyre Nichols,” but Saturday afternoon’s rally and march of about 200 people in Spokane was really about calls for action from the community to enact change in its police department.

“We have to do more, that’s it, that all,” incoming Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson told the crowd gathered first at North Bank Park — north of Riverfront Park — downtown.

The rally and subsequent march to the Spokane County Court House was co-organized by six local organizations: the Party for Socialism & Liberation (PSL), Spokane Democratic Socialists of America, Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR), The Lands Council, Dorothy Day Labor Forum and Muslims for Community Action and Support. PSL media coordinator Zach McGuckin said it was easy to coordinate all of the groups in organizing the event in response to Nichols’ death at the hands of the Memphis Police Department.

Rally attendees ended their march at the Spokane County Court House where they listened to speakers final appeals to get more involved. / Photo by John McCallum – SpokaneFāVS

“Something needed to be done in the wake of the national tragedy,” McGuckin said. “We’re basically calling things what they are and demanding change.”

Nichols, a tall, slightly-built, 29-year-old Black employee of Federal Express as well as an amateur photographer with his own website, was stopped by Memphis Police on the night of Jan. 7 for alleged reckless driving. Officers immediately dragged him from his car and used pepper spray and tasers to subdue him, even though police body cameras showed he was not resisting but continually asking what he had done.

Nichols managed to free himself and run from the scene, but was subsequently chased down and physically beaten with officers fists and batons. Medical personnel arrived about four minutes after a battered Nichols was handcuffed and propped up against the side of a police car, but didn’t begin to assist him for another 16 minutes.

Nichols was eventually transported to a hospital where he died of his injuries on Jan. 10. Five MPD officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills, Jr. and Justin Smith — have since been charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Two EMTs and a lieutenant have been fired from the Memphis Fire Department while two more police officers have been relieved of duty, one of which — Preston Hemphill — is now also facing charges.

Hemphill is white while the five officers charged are Black, a fact that for Spokane march attendee Dave Bilsland speaks to a larger problem than just racial motivation linked to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

“That indicates it is a police problem,” Bilsland, who brought a “Black Lives Matter” flag to the rally, said. “Blue on black, which is why we’re coming out here.”

Speakers at Saturday’s rally didn’t mince words when it came to the topic of police brutality, pointing out that the Spokane Police Department’s record on the subject is dismal. According to the website Mappingpoliceviolence.us, Spokane ranks fourth in “Rate of Police Killings Per Population” with an average of 9.2 deaths per 1 million in population from July 2013 – December 2022.

By contrast, Boise — a city slightly bigger than Spokane — average 4.7 deaths while Seattle at over three times Spokane’s size average 4.3 deaths. Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl has taken issue with the website’s methodology.

Whitworth student Chris Clay addresses the crowd at the Justice for Tyre Nichols march on Saturday, Feb. 4. “When will I feel comfortable calling the police when I’m in trouble and not feel like they will harm me?” Clay asked. / Photo by John McCallum -SpokaneFāVS

Perhaps nobody at the rally has been impacted more by police brutality than speaker Debbie Novak, whose son David was shot by Spokane Police Officer Brandon Rankin in 2019 when police mistook the sounds of him banging a baseball bat against a car as gunshots.

Novak disputed that, noting that investigations by Spokane’s department into officers conduct didn’t indicate the need for changes in policy and procedures and none will be made. The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office ruled Rankin’s use of force as justified, but the city subsequently settled lawsuits the Novak’s brought for $4.8 million.

“It (no need for change) sends a message to all of us, and it’s they don’t care and they’re not going to make any changes,” Debbie Novak told the crowd.

Speakers not only called out problems with Spokane police and what they believed were the roots of the problem and its impacts upon the community, but also pushed for more than just boots marching on the ground in protest. In a way, they echoed the advice of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he wrote his famous 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail” when he stated that “The time is always ripe to do right.”

“Show up right, not just righteous,” NAACP’s Robinson said, calling on people to not only vote but engage their neighbors in difficult discussions as well as tracking and advocating for measures moving through the Legislature and being advanced locally.

One of the former is a bill to establish an independent prosecutor to investigate acts of police misconduct. Novak, who works with the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, encouraged the attendees to go to the organization’s website to learn more.

“No more Spokane County investigating the city, the city investigating the county when there’s a police-caused death,” Novak said. “It will be done by an independent state prosecuting attorney and the investigation will be done by the Office of Independent Investigations.”

Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane organizer Jac Archer also pointed out programs that organization is undertaking to engage the community about policing changes. Archer called for a number of things, but finished with a call for integrity, noting that it has become acceptable for a larger portion of the population to look to the police to punish people.

“That is not their job,” Archer said. “On paper we say that is not what they do, we say that is the job of the courts, to prove people, one way or another, are guilty or innocent, not the cops.”

In accepting, and even expecting, police to enact punishment, Archer said the community has become “complicit” in what happens.

“We need to stop that,” Archer said. “We need to take the pain and the hurt we may be feeling and turn that into action, and today I am demanding action. We all need to begin to do things. We all have to begin to do things that are not comfortable.”

The rally met with a few counter opinions, with one man on a bicycle circling the gathering crowd early on and asking “How come nobody thinks about raising better kids?” Prior to the rally’s start, a woman yelled “All lives matter” from a passing black SUV.

If rally goers heard these sentiments, it didn’t seem to matter.

“We’re not going to back down until we get the change we need,” PSL’s McGuckin said.

This news story was made possible by contributions to FāVS from readers like you. Thank you.

John McCallum
John McCallum
John McCallum is a freelance writer living in Liberty Lake. A graduate of Eastern Washington University with degrees in Journalism and Radio-Television, John spent 21 years at the Cheney Free Press as an award-winning staff reporter, editor, managing editor and photojournalist covering everything from government to education, sports, religion and current affairs. He is a member of Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church and has served as a church leader on session and participated in worship through a variety of roles. He has made six mission trips to Guatemala as a member of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest Guatemala Task Force. John enjoys time with his wife, Sheila, and their Dachshund, Chili, road trips — especially the Oregon Coast — along with running, biking and kayaking.

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