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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: NAACP leader confronts hate with confidence

Spokane police are investigating a package of racist, threatening literature sent last week to the head of Spokane’s chapter of the NAACP.

The incident has left Rachel Dolezal, the new president of Spokane’s NAACP, concerned for the safety of herself and her 13-year-old son. She’s keeping a revolver handy and has decided to home-school her son; she’s worried about the way the incident might affect those around her – from the organization she leads to her students at Eastern Washington University. But Dolezal, an energetic, forceful voice, insists the threats will not make her pipe down.

“I want to have a voice, and I want to be noncompromising on issues of justice,” she said Monday. “I’m familiar enough with the territory. I’m not scared.”

Dolezal picked up the package last Wednesday at the NAACP’s post office box. The large envelope included photographs of lynchings; images of a man and a woman aiming firearms at the viewer; a photo of a black criminal suspect that was used as target practice by Florida police, with the handwritten words, “Hey man, nice shot”; and references to several public presentations and issues that Dolezal has been involved in.

The package was directed to Dolezal in her role with the NAACP, she said, and not in association with her other work as a professor at EWU or as the chair of the citizens commission overseeing the police ombudsman.

The envelope and several of the individual pages were signed, “War Pig (Ret.).” The case is being investigated by a major crimes detective with the Spokane Police Department, police spokeswoman Monique Cotton said.

For Dolezal, it is the latest in a string of incidents going back seven years to the time of her arrival in the region as the leader of Coeur d’Alene’s Human Rights Education Institute. She has been threatened by apparent neo-Nazis, had her home broken into and once had a noose left on her front porch, among other incidents.

In recent months, Dolezal has taken a high profile, leading demonstrations relating to the Ferguson case, taking over as the president of the NAACP chapter, making a public presentation on police racism, and becoming entangled in a controversy over the restaurant reader-board that appropriated the dying words of Eric Garner: “Shorty Can’t Breathe Either.”

That was a reference to Delbert “Shorty” Belton, who was beaten to death by two African-American teens who have pleaded guilty. Dolezal attempted to discuss with the restaurant owner how some people concerned about the lack of justice in the Garner case might object to using the phrase in that way; she has since been accused by various folks – including City Councilman Mike Fagan – of trying to bully or silence the restaurant owner.

A flier about the Shorty case – produced by “Extremely Pissed Off Right Wingers 2” – was included in the package left for Dolezal. Other pages included an image of an assault rifle with the words “Come and take it”; conspiracy theories about how police protests are tools for starting a race war; and comments about illegal immigrants.

Several of the pages included in the package Dolezal received include explicit mentions of her community activism, including references to a speech she gave at Spokane Community College entitled, “We Can’t Breathe: How Racism is Choking the Justice Out of Law Enforcement.”

“I was really shaken when I was reading this,” she said. “There were references from my presentation. The person had to be there.”

Dolezal said the outside of the envelope contained the words “War Pig (Ret.)” and “Still Golfing on Wednesdays.” As she opened it and saw what was inside, she immediately became concerned about her 13-year-old son, who was home alone. She has an older son who is studying at the University of Idaho. She hurried home and found him OK. Then she began struggling to figure out what to do.

“Do we go to a hotel?” she asked. “Do we stay home? Do we go out of town? What do we do?”

Part of her struggle was the knowledge that her public role would be a part of the way the incident was received – along with the fact that there is, among some, a tendency to dismiss and disregard such incidents and to denigrate those who point out racism.

“I was trying to think: Is this going to be seen as an overreaction?” she said. “Is this going to be seen as an underreaction?”

She called Crime Check. As soon as she began describing the contents of the package, the operator said an officer should come and take a full report. Dolezal turned over the package to the officer, and the police took extra steps to make her feel secure, she said. As someone who has been among those calling for police reforms, as well as someone who has worked closely with the police department, Dolezal said she was happy with the speed and seriousness that the department showed.

Dolezal sees it as part of a recent pattern of extremist expression about race in this community – one that ranges from the most explicit racism to more veiled fears about disease-laden, criminal immigrants.

“It just seems like there’s so much tension and conflict right now that it’s unsettling,” she said.

The kind of hateful ideas included in this package are a disease, and we have a stubborn case of it around here – a history of proud, ignorant racism that waxes and wanes, dating back decades and accompanied at every turn by lots of loud voices trying to minimize, deflect, rationalize and deny it. Some of these voices of accommodation have taken to using the phrase “race-baiting” lately, as a way of dismissing such concerns.

The package Dolezal received last week is a reminder that it’s here. The people who keep telling you to disbelieve it are only helping it grow. The rest of us, Dolezal says, need to send a strong enough message of opposition that “maybe this can be the last thing that happens.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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