I'm not going to argue that the story of Rachel Dolezal isn't newsworthy or doesn't make for great TV. But pull back from the media circus for a minute. Spokane and North Idaho wrestle with a very troubled racial history. That's why Dolezal's effort to reenergize the local NAACP chapter was so welcomed. It's also why her deceit was such a shock and why the region's activists are so anxious to get back to work.
Only 2.3 percent of Spokane's population today is African American. The infamous white supremacist compound in North Idaho has been turned into a "peace park," but its history is never far from anyone's mind.
"We're still moving in the shadow of the Aryan Nations," Angela Jones, activist, law student, and new member of Spokane's NAACP, told me. "Even though everywhere has racism, we have a unique brand of it because it feels like these folks are still around. Even though we can't point them out... we still fear that."
Here are just a few recent incidents that illustrate Spokane's fraught race relations:
1. In 2011, a 36-year-old rural white supremacist packed a bomb into a Swiss Army backpack and left it on a bench downtown during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. Inside the bomb were 128 fishing weights to act as shrapnel, each covered in rat poison. That, according to the FBI, was meant to keep bleeding wounds from clotting. Three temporary workers found the backpack and called the police. By the end of 2011, attempted bomber Kevin Harpham had pleaded guilty and been sent away for 32 years. At his sentencing, according to media reports, Harpham told the judge the bomb was in protest of "these kinds of social concepts, unity, multiculturalism... just making a statement that people are out there who do not agree with these ideas."
2. Everyday bigotry is still very much a thing there. Over the last two years, the case of an 88-year-old white World War II veteran named Delbert "Shorty" Belton consumed Spokane. Belton was beaten to death in his car, and two black teenagers pleaded guilty to the murder. An online commenter wrote, "20 years isn't enough," when one of the teens was sentenced, "kill him, and his mother for raising him." After a grand jury did not indict the New York police officer whose choke hold killed Eric Garner, a diner in Spokane put on its sign: "Shorty can't breathe either." As if a homicide by two black people who pleaded guilty was at all equivalent to a homicide by a white man who was never even charged. As Dolezal pointed out to a newspaper at the time, the sign was "alienating" to a community that is "hurting and in pain right now." After the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the wife of Spokane's newly elected county prosecutor, an establishment Republican who beat out a lawyer well known for his police reform advocacy, commented in a Facebook post, "I do not trust muzlims [sic] no matter what."
3. Spokane's police department is in the midst of serious reform. The 2006 death of a mentally ill janitor in police custody—he had been beaten with a baton, hog-tied, and shocked with a Taser—led to community outcry for a Department of Justice review. (The officer eventually convicted in that death was saluted by dozens of officers in the courtroom.) Among the DOJ's findings: the department's heavy reliance on the neck restraint or "sleeper hold," the same move heavily criticized after Eric Garner's death in New York.
The office of the city's police ombudsman—the civilian tasked with overseeing the police department—is, at the moment, completely dysfunctional, according to reform advocates. The current ombudsman resigned six months ago, and the city has yet to replace him. In the meantime, cases in which citizens complain that officers mistreated them (like a trans woman beaten in a bakery who says cops insisted on referring to her as a man) are going unheard.
"The other thing has been a distraction," said former NAACP Spokane president James Wilburn, referring to Dolezal. "We cannot linger there. We have to continue to move forward... What can we do that will make life better for those who are left behind?"