Religious, community and government leaders forging a pact in Spokane County to combat hate crimes have the benefit of a blueprint just across the state line.
“This is a historical moment in Spokane,” Tony Stewart, one of the founding members of the 35-year old Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said Tuesday to a new coalition of Spokane County leaders hoping to emulate the success of Stewart’s organization. “All communities have them. This is one for you.”
The Spokane County Human Rights Task Force has been organized as a nonpartisan nonprofit that will seek to condemn acts of bigotry and hate countywide and work as a regional partner with the Kootenai County organization, said Dean Lynch, chairman of the new group. The group announced its organization at a news conference Tuesday at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
“We are looking to reach out to anyone in the community who is going to come forward and help us,” said Lynch, a community activist and former Spokane City Council member. “We’re also looking for ideas as to how best we may contribute to existing organizations.”
The task force’s creed opposes discrimination of any kind because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or socioeconomic status. Prospective volunteers are asked to sign a statement supporting that creed, organizers said.
The task force’s board of directors includes members from Spokane’s different faith and ethnic communities, as well as representatives from local governments. Members include Baptist Rev. Happy Watkins, Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mark Richard, Catholic Charities Director Rob McCann and YWCA Chief Executive Officer Regina Malveaux.
Hershel Zellman, who chairs a committee that organizes Spokane’s Community Observance of the Holocaust, represents the Jewish community on the task force’s board.
“We know that we have incidents of hate in Spokane County,” Zellman said. “There are some groups that try to address it. But when I heard there was an umbrella organization that would be offering education programs, I knew I wanted to become involved.”
The difference between the new task force and existing local organizations will be in scope and representation. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who will also sit on the board of directors, said his agency would support the work of the group.
“We have to make sure there’s a clear message,” Knezovich said. “We will support this group, and my commitment is we’ll prosecute hate crime offenders to the fullest extent of the law.”
Knezovich said he began working with Lisa Rosier, a manager at the Arc of Spokane, and others to establish the task force 18 months ago. The idea was to create a human rights organization larger than the city that could publicize the stories of hate crime victims and help them find support in the community, Rosier said.
“Human rights are really a community responsibility,” Rosier said. The announcement Tuesday, on International Women’s Day, was significant, Rosier said, to honor the lives of women who were imprisoned, tortured and killed in their pursuit of the right to vote.
Lynch pointed out that since 2011, Spokane County has seen many crimes that appear tied to discrimination. He listed the attempted Martin Luther King Jr. Day march bombing in January 2011, the painting of a swastika on Temple Beth Shalom in October 2014, graffiti reading “Death to Islam” on a center for worship in east Spokane in July 2015, and Thursday’s break-in at a Sikh temple in Spokane Valley.
“I may not know the motives for these criminal acts, but it is safe to say that in each instance, those in the religious institutions that were defaced felt violated, victimized, hurt, scared and angry,” Lynch said.
Lynch, Stewart and others read letters of support from Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations applauding the formation of the new group.
Surrounded by board members, Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins and other supporters, Stewart said Spokane County’s task force is off to a better start than Kootenai County’s. Founding members met at First Christian Church in Coeur d’Alene more than three decades ago, with white supremacists sitting in the back to intimidate them, Stewart said.
“I said to my friends on the board, this morning, that you’re off to a much, much better start than we were in February 1981,” Stewart said.