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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As we wait for justice, we can remember

Anybody who wants a button honoring Otto Zehm, the mentally disabled janitor who died after an encounter with police, can phone, e-mail or write to Doug Clark. (Rebecca Bolte / The Spokesman-Review)

March Madness has arrived, and I don’t mean basketball.

I’m referring to my mood as we approach the third anniversary of one of Spokane’s more shameful and frustrating episodes.

The death of Otto Zehm.

Otto was the mentally ill janitor who died following a violent and unnecessary encounter in a convenience store with Spokane police.

Three years later …

No charges have been filed.

No justice has been done.

And too many people, I fear, have forgotten the name Otto Zehm.

I can’t do anything about the first two factors. But I can try to do something about that last one.

Today I am issuing a new “Otto” button. The intent is to jog the public’s memory on what the cops did to this innocent Spokane man on March 18, 2006.

The button isn’t an original idea. A supply of 2-inch blue-and-white “Otto” buttons showed up around town not too long after his death. Many of them were worn by the man’s friends and co-workers. There’s one affixed to my guitar strap every time my band plays.

I hope this new button will have a wider distribution.

I’m having 1,000 (for starters) 1-inch black-and-white buttons made at my expense by Button Up. The local enterprise has made buttons for some of my food bank fundraising efforts and does great work.

Here’s the deal.

Anybody who wants an “Otto” button can have one at no charge. Just phone or e-mail me at the information provided below. Or write me in care of the newspaper. Just make sure to include an address where you want your button sent.

I’ll also give multiple buttons to brave souls who would like to pass them out at suitable locations such as City Hall or the police station.

Warning: I make no guarantees on your safety.

All I ask in return is for you to wear your button as much as you can this month. And if anyone asks you what the “Otto” stands for, please let them know.

Tell them about how Otto went into a North Division Zip Trip to buy a Diet Pepsi and a candy bar, and his world turned upside down.

Tell them how Otto was wrongly pegged as a possibly drug-crazed thief because of an erroneous teenage 911 caller and police dispatchers.

Tell them how, within 30 seconds, the first cop entering the Zip Trip had shocked Otto with a Taser and clubbed him a half-dozen times.

Tell them how Otto was hogtied and put on his stomach, a violation of police procedure.

Tell them how they put a plastic oxygen mask on his face to keep Otto from spitting.

Tell them how the mask wasn’t hooked to an oxygen supply, forcing the agitated and confused man to suck air through a nickel-size hole.

Tell them how “all I wanted was a Snickers” was one of the only coherent things Otto managed to utter.

Tell them how Otto died two days later.

Tell them how the medical examiner ruled Otto’s death a homicide.

Tell them how Spokane officials say the cops did nothing wrong.

Tell them how the city has never issued an apology for what happened to Otto that day.

Tell them to remember Otto.

•As an additional reminder, give a listen to “The Ballad of Otto Zehm” at . I recorded this original song 2 1/2 years ago with my buddy Joe Brasch at Cue11 studios.

Sadly, I think you’ll agree this song is as accurate as the day I wrote it:

“And you can’t stop a cop with a bottle of pop.

“You can’t outrun a badge and a gun.

“When the law’s on your side you can do homicide.

“And not worry, cuz nothin’ gets done.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. To order a button, call (509) 459-5432 or e-mail An archive of his columns can be found at columnists.