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Otto campaign pushes plenty of buttons in community

Thu., March 5, 2009

Let me start today’s column by saying …


I’m not usually so lacking for words. But the response to my Otto tribute button has left me stunned and humbled. It also has shown just how deep the level of public outrage is for what happened three years ago to a mentally ill Spokane janitor named Otto Zehm.

Otto, of course, was the innocent man who died following a violent March 18, 2006, encounter with cops in a Spokane convenience store.

And much to our shame, no charges have been filed – no justice done.

On Tuesday I offered free buttons for people to wear as a way of keeping Otto’s memory alive.

It appears that about 400 of you took me up on this proposition.

Sorry to be a little fuzzy. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on the e-mails, voicemail messages and letters, more requests roll in.

Since so many of the requests are for multiple buttons … Well, I’m fairly confidant that we will burn through the 1,000 buttons I ordered from Button Up.

But please be patient. With help from Mary Beth Donelan – our amazing newsroom administrative manager – we’ve compiled a mailing list and the buttons are on their way.

I can’t tell you enough how encouraging it is to see that so many people still care about Otto.

And not just people in Spokane. Requests for Otto buttons poured in from all over the region.

Shonto Pete was one of the callers.

I probably don’t need to introduce him. Pete was shot in the head by off-duty Spokane police officer Jay Olsen, who is currently on trial.

Pete told me he wanted to wear an “Otto” button during upcoming interviews with the media.

Another Spokane caller asked if he could swing by the newspaper and pick up two buttons. He and his wife, he said, were bound for Las Vegas and they didn’t want to leave town without them.

A bar owner and two bartenders called. They asked for extra buttons to give to customers.

Two car dealers called offering to help foot the bill for another run of buttons.

A woman asked for 50 buttons to hand out to all her friends.

More than a few of those who contacted me pointed out the eerie irony of a national story that appeared in The Spokesman-Review the same day as my button column.

A Texas jury “awarded $3 million to the mother of a mentally ill man who died after he was shocked 18 times with a stun gun and hogtied during an arrest,” the story reported.

Sound familiar?

“We can hope Otto Zehm’s mother, family and friends will find comparable justice!” observed Janice of Spokane in an e-mail to me.

Here are a few more selected quotes from some of those who ordered Otto buttons:

•“As for Mayor Verner and Chief Kirkpatrick – if that’s their idea of ‘proper police procedure’ then no one in this community is safe.” – Tom of Spokane

•“How about sending one of those buttons to the police chief, think she’d wear it?” – Mel of Spokane

•“I am ashamed to admit that something that outraged me so much three years ago has been all but forgotten until I saw your article today. I would like a button to remind myself and others that we still care … .” – Erin of Spokane

•“Along with many, many people, I’m stifling the anger until this is resolved, hopefully justly. I don’t want my attachment to Spokane to continue to be shadowed by anger and disgust.” – Cathy of Spokane

•“I’m requesting an Otto button to wear on my lanyard at work every day. … I will share Otto’s story every chance I am given. I will not forget him.” – Candace of Spokane

•“It seems as if the local authorities would like nothing better than to have this shameful episode fade away without having to accept responsibility.” – Andrew of Spokane

•“It breaks my heart that this is the most we can do for Otto, but we’ll wear our buttons every day this month and gladly tell his story where we go.” – Chelsea of Colville

•“I can’t believe that not even an apology has come forth.” – Larry of Spokane

•“If you send me a button or two, I’ll wear them until they are faded and chipped beyond recognition.” – L.H. of Colville

•“My boyfriend also plays in a band and said he would wear his (button) on his guitar strap, too.” – Sharon of Spokane

•“Otto was a very special man whom we must show our respect – to both he and his family and, hopefully, in the process, stop this brutality by our local law enforcement.” – Joan of Mead

•“Anyone who believes in the dignity of all men and women should be wearing one of Otto’s buttons.” – Karen of Spokane

•“That could have been my son.” – Yolanda of Spokane

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or

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