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Shawn Vestal: New Spokane NAACP president Phillip Tyler proving to be a leader who listens

Spokane NAACP President Phillip Tyler shakes the hand of a protester who tried to disrupt the Black Lives Matter rally in front of the Spokane County Courthouse on Saturday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane NAACP President Phillip Tyler shakes the hand of a protester who tried to disrupt the Black Lives Matter rally in front of the Spokane County Courthouse on Saturday. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The man was shouting from the back of the crowd, disrupting the speakers.

Hundreds of people had shown up Saturday in front of the Spokane County Courthouse for a Black Lives Matter rally, which had expanded to take in all the hurt and heartbreak over the shooting of 14 Dallas police officers, five fatally. The young man was arguing with speakers and others, calling people liars and insisting that the BLM motto was wrong because “all lives matter,” according to accounts from people at the rally.

That slogan is meant to clash and contradict. It is a three-word argument, an intentional misreading, an attempt to start a fight.

Phillip Tyler didn’t want a fight.

Tyler, the new president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, encouraged people in the crowd to hear the guy out.

“Let’s not argue with the man,” Tyler said, according to state Sen. Andy Billig. “If anything, let’s give him a hug.”

Later, after a good hugging failed to prevent the man from interrupting, Tyler gave the man a chance to speak, found a point of agreement … and defused the tension.

“I thought it could have gotten out of hand,” Tyler said Monday, “especially if we didn’t give him a platform. That’s how you pivot that – by giving someone a voice.”

It was a move that left many impressed again by Tyler, who took over the leadership of the NAACP just a month ago.

“Seeing him at that rally the other day blew me away,” Billig said. “Phillip was incredible.”

A year after Rachel Dolezal became Spokane’s most famous NAACP president – a national joke, the subject of think pieces on identity, and fodder for dismissive bigots everywhere – Tyler is emerging as an impressive and productive voice for justice in Spokane.

Maybe the “Today” show will give him a call.

A 48-year-old former Air Force law enforcement specialist and Spokane County jail officer, Tyler is building a track record of collaboration and practicality. He took over as president of the NAACP from Naima Quarles-Burnley, who replaced Dolezal, and he’s also been an important voice in recent discussions between community groups and the Spokane Police Department.

Craig Meidl, assistant chief of the Spokane Police Department and leader of the department during the search for a new chief, called Tyler a “force multiplier” – a good listener who is able to get different groups working in the same direction.

“He has a very strong ability to see both sides of any issue,” Meidl said. “Because of his ability to see both sides of the issue, he has a unique ability to bridge differences.”

Meidl also attended Saturday’s rally. The timing of the event, which was planned before the shootings in Dallas, presented organizers with a challenge that they met by broadening the focus and remembering the victims of that tragedy as well.

The tone of the gathering, and the sizable crowd, was not simply a reflection on Tyler. Many community groups played a role, as did the efforts in recent years to foster better community relationships between police and citizens. Meidl said the rally was just one example of how it’s working – how Spokane might be ahead of the curve on this. Meidl’s own approach was heartening, attending the rally and listening, rather than demonizing and blaming as some police officials have done, and as many have done to police officers themselves.

“We’ve been building bridges,” Meidl said. “We’ve come so far in just the last couple of years.”

Tyler is not just throwing oil on the waters and ignoring problems. He cites racial disparities in police stops, at the county jail and in school discipline as evidence the community needs to work harder. He has an ongoing discrimination suit against the county over his time working as a jail officer. He says blaming Black Lives Matter, or police reformers, for violence against police officers is wrongheaded.

Following the recent shootings of black men by police – and before the Dallas shootings – he posted a passionate, powerful video statement online: “I’m sorry that I don’t have the words to explain why to my community. I’m sorry that I don’t have the words to explain why to my children. … I’m sorry that the actions of a few officers taint the many good deeds of the others. I am not, however, sorry for being a proud black man and standing up and saying enough: Enough. And I’m tired of being sorry. I’m tired of our people, men and women of color, being treated like quarry.”

He has called out people publicly – including a candidate for the city’s ombudsman job – for claiming to be “color-blind,” which is so often a dodge used by people who want to deny the existence of bias-related problems at all.

He’s not just being “Spokane nice” about race relations. He is establishing a tone and style of leadership focused on productive interactions, on calm and collaboration, on listening more than talking.

“This is bigger than Phillip Tyler,” he said – sounding wonderfully nothing at all like Spokane’s most famous NAACP president.

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