NEWPORT — Student activists Sophie Goodwin-Rice, Ruben Kruger and Jenny Reyes are continuing the discussion about racial discrimination and policing, taking the issue to the Newport City Council last week and presenting testimony regarding local instances of racism solicited from the community.
While Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer, Police Chief Jason Malloy and members of the city council made explicit statements during a previous meeting denouncing the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the students sought further statements from officials and a meeting with the police chief, as well as “communication with NPD laying out clear action plans and responses.”
After a peaceful protest in Newport that saw hundreds gather in front of city hall in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the students sought to continue the dialog to gain support as unprecedented numbers of protesters gather even in the face of the global pandemic.
“We appreciate the statements of condemnation made by city officials following Floyd’s death but see them as only the beginning of a much longer, active, meaningful conversation and process of reconciliation not only for George Floyd, but for the horrific ways that Black folks and other people of color have been treated for hundreds of years in the U.S.,” Kruger told the News-Times. “Many Americans see this tragedy as an indication of systemic racism within institutions like law enforcement, and we believe that this is a time to take real action.”
Distributing a Google form between June 10-15, the activists solicited personal experiences of racism in Newport. There were 28 anonymous replies, the report detailed, “57.7 percent white citizens; 30.8 percent from Latinx; 7.7 percent Black and 3.8 percent Asian” from a variety of circumstances in schools, with police and in local businesses. There were several signed letters submitted to the council as well, also made part of the record.
A Washington Post/Schar School poll taken June 9 revealed “69 percent of the 1,006 Americans polled say Floyd’s killing indicated a larger issue with law enforcement,” the students presented to city council.
“When I was a senior in high school, many of my peers made racist jokes in my government class. The teacher never told them to be quiet or shamed them for it. He usually laughed with them,” read one anonymous comment.
Another wrote, “Tons and tons of kids at my school say the N word, thinking it’s OK. I’m white, but it just makes me uncomfortable, and my friend that is part African-American has a problem with it, too.”
A derogatory word was a common theme in the comments. “Team members in a public school … carelessly flung the N word around. I still believe that staff, such as teachers or coaches in Lincoln County, can better assume their personal responsibility on educating about racism and confronting it when they see in,” someone responded to the poll.
“Nobody did anything about racist kids in Newport,” read another.
Citing a survey that said 90 percent of students feel safe in school, School Superintendent Karen Gray responded to the News-Times that Newport principal Reyna Mattson reached out by email to the activists, asking if there were ways they would want to partner with the school in a collaborative way. “While the information is important to us, it is also important to note that this was not a view held by many students at NHS. Nevertheless, it is important information to us to pay close attention to. Do we have a long way to go to make certain that all students, staff and families in Lincoln County are afforded respect and racial equity? Yes. And LCSD has begun that work,” Gray wrote in an email.
Of a local business, someone responding to the survey revealed, “I have heard the owner there use derogatory terms toward persons of color and a Latino person…”
Another cited a man “talking about ‘those damn illegals’ and how they ‘need to speak English to be in this country.’”
There were four accounts of experiences with police where citizens felt they were followed or pulled over by the police simply because of their race. One recounted being approached by an officer for a headlight out with “his hand on the pistol he was carrying.” Another claimed to not feel safe or that they can rely on the police for help.
Police Chief Jason Malloy responded by thanking the students. “You started this conversation, which I think needs to continue.” The chief said his department has had similar conversations, both within the department and with City Councilors Beatriz Botello and CM Hall. “While we’ve taken … substantial efforts and moved forward in a lot of directions, I think we still have a little bit more work to do,” said Malloy.
“One of the things you said that really hit home is we need to sit at the table, and we need to have a conversation,” the police chief added. “It all comes down to communication. What does the community want? What does the community expect (in a police department)? I think we can also educate each other to explain certain police practices, why we do things, how we’re trained … how do we make the community more at ease. I look forward to having these conversations.”
The activists identified keeping a school resource officer out of the budget as one of their next steps. (It should be noted that there was a letter written to the city council in support of that same resource officer by Sue Graves, safety coordinator for the Lincoln County School District.)
The students also intend to hold listening and information sessions with the public, community workshops on policing updates and a citizen review committee.
“There is much which we hope to accomplish,” Krueger wrote in an email to the News-Times. “The first step is awareness. Next steps will include meeting with law enforcement, local government and the school district.”
Krueger noted the local action is a direct result of Black activists who have been fighting injustice for years, speaking out against systemic racism. “The three of us are here today not because we are the leaders in this fight, but because we had the contacts and time to quickly coordinate a public effort.
“The needs and voices of everyone in this community have the right to be addressed and heard, and we hope to amplify and elevate their stories and concerns,” Krueger concluded.