They lined up wearing cowboy hats and baseball caps. They came on bikes and in strollers, some using walkers and a few leaning on canes, and a bit of spring snow didn’t deter them.
About 300 people of all ages and many colors marched peacefully from the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena to the Lilac Bowl in Riverfront Park under the watchful eyes of countless law enforcement officers Sunday afternoon.
The Demand Justice and Promote Peace rally was sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Alaska, Oregon and Washington to commemorate the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, flew to Spokane to help lead the march.
“It’s time to focus on the urgent need for a conversation about racism,” Jealous said as he shook hands with participants. “This is a time where diversity is going up and the economy is going down. These are tense times. We have to continue to press forward.”
Asked whether the Inland Northwest is different and more racist than other places, Jealous said: “It certainly is very different to have a cyanide-soaked bomb sitting there on a bench during a Martin Luther King Day march.”
Mayor Mary Verner, police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich were among the local dignitaries participating. V. Anne Smith, president of the local NAACP chapter, and Oscar Eason Jr., president of the NAACP Alaska, Oregon and Washington State-Area Conference, walked in the march.
Paige Chwilicek, 12, was in town from Wenatchee visiting family. She was at the march with her grandfather and “family organizer” Leo Driscoll.
“We are here to show our support for peaceful means of civil action,” Driscoll said, adding that he’d brought more than 10 people from his extended family.
The march was organized in response to the discovery of a hidden bomb at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March on Jan. 17.
A suspect, Kevin Harpham, was arrested by federal agents in early March and is awaiting trial on charges of attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and possession of an unregistered destructive device. He’s being held without bail at the Spokane County Jail.
Many of Sunday’s marchers were in the MLK Day march, too.
“I was there and I felt angry and a whole range of other emotions when I heard about the bomb,” said Andrew Larson, of Spokane. “I’m here to show my support for the NAACP. Every person should be here, but the parking lot is not even full.”
Sharon Ortiz, executive director of the Washington State Human Rights Commission, had staff at the January march and was back in Spokane to show support for the NAACP.
“I don’t think these hate groups should come here and make this their stronghold,” Ortiz said. “I hope Spokane comes together and says, ‘Not in our town.’ ”
Representatives from the predominantly African-American motorcycle club Buffalo Soldiers marched, too.
“I think the bomb was a shock for Spokane,” said Buffalo Soldiers member Curtis Bowe, of Spokane. “At the same time, how surprised can we really be? The Aryan Nations was not that far away from here.”
Marchers made their way down Howard and into Riverfront Park singing chants and waving signs in support of civil rights, peace and justice.
“This is our Spokane,” Verner told the crowd when it had gathered in the Lilac Bowl. “Our message is that the people of Spokane will not be bullied or threatened. We will not accept acts of violence directed at people because of the color of their skin.”
Jealous told the crowd that this event was the first of more than 900 celebrated across the country this week, as part of the “We Are One” campaign.
“It’s important for us to keep coming together in times like these,” said Jealous, adding that in times of rising diversity and falling prosperity it’s all too easy to attack the rights of minorities. “We should attack poverty instead. We should attack the lack of access to public education instead.”
In perilous times, Jealous added, one should scrutinize one’s own actions.
“Are we being as inclusive as we can be? Are we being as courageous as we can be?” Jealous asked the crowd. “We all get scared and that’s OK. But if you act in spite of your fears, then you are courageous. The man who left a bomb on that bench is a coward.”
Spokane NAACP President Smith summed up the mood of the march this way: “Look at us. Look at our Spokane, we are doing something.”