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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Unique July Fourth celebration marks 57th year of speeches and stirring the pot in Spokane

UPDATED: Thu., July 4, 2019

When the late Tom Westbrook founded the “Freedom at the Arboretum” picnic on the Fourth of July, 1962, it was about bringing people together to celebrate equality, human rights, freedom and democracy, regardless of party affiliation.

Westbrook’s son, Mark, and wife, Nancy, have continued organizing the annual nonpartisan event – now in its 57th year – which features informal speeches, songs and foodat Spokane’s Finch Arboretum.

“It appeals to people who like to think a little bit and want to celebrate the day,” Nancy Westbrook said.

The picnic drew around 100 people this year, including Spokane County Superior Court Judge Shelley Szambelan, Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs, City Council president candidate Phil Tyler, County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.

In a speech, Knezovich said partisan politics are dividing the nation and took aim at two of his favorite rhetorical targets: the leftist protesters known as antifa and state Rep. Matt Shea, the controversial Republican legislator from Washington’s 4th Legislative District, which covers Spokane Valley.

“That man should be in prison,” Knezovich said of Shea.

Knezovich said when people lacking character are elected to political office and are embroiled in feuds, there is “something morally wrong.”

“And that happens in the 4th District every election cycle,” he said.

An attempt to reach Shea by phone on Thursday was unsuccessful; he rarely speaks with local reporters.

Knezovich accused Shea of promoting an extreme Christian Identity agenda last year after Shea acknowledged he had distributed a document titled “Biblical Basis for War,” which condemned abortion and same-sex marriage and called for the killing of those who defy “biblical law.”

This spring, Shea faced additional scrutiny when the Guardian revealed he took part in a 2017 group chat with far-right activists who suggested, in graphic detail, that the group commit acts of violence against left-wing protestors.

It wasn’t the first time Knezovich declared that a politician should be locked up. A month ago, in an appearance on Fox News, the sheriff vowed he would not follow a new state law that forbids local officials from helping federal agents enforce some immigration laws and said Gov. Jay Inslee, who signed the law in May, should be “arrested for obstruction of justice.”

Though Knezovich and Inslee attended the same event in Spokane Valley a week after the sheriff’s TV appearance, the county’s top law enforcement official did not arrest the governor.

The Rev. Todd Eklof, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, was selected as this year’s “stir the pot” speaker at “Freedom at the Arboretum.” He titled his speech “Freequality: The Gray Area Between Individual Fulfillment with Social Responsibility.”

Eklof said people have different definitions of freedom and equality. Some think freedom is being free from government control, taxes and regulations. But for others, Eklof said, freedom means being able to have their own ideas, question authority and voice what’s on their mind.

“But for far too many of us, those who have been marginalized because of arbitrary qualities of their identities like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, income and so forth, freedom is about having the right to participate equally in the benefits of our society,” Eklof said.

Last month, Eklof was asked to leave the Unitarian Universalist Association’s national conference at the Spokane Convention Center after distributing his self-published book, “The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister.”

The book drew opposition from within the church and online. Eklof told The Spokesman-Review last week he was asked to leave the conference for arguing the church was too devoted to political correctness.

Mark Westbrook said his father decided to host a “stir the pot” speaker at “Freedom at the Arboretum” to provoke thought and discussion among attendees.

Past “stir the pot” speakers have included journalists as well as city and state officials.

“My dad liked the idea of stirring the pot,” Mark Westbrook said.

Tom Westbrook founded “Freedom at the Arboretum” in 1962 after attending what he thought was a Fourth of July community celebration at Manito Park. Instead, it was a political rally with speakers who held ultraconservative beliefs and likened Democrats to socialists and communists.

Westbrook, who had liberal leanings, organized his own gathering at Finch Arboretum that afternoon. Attendees planted an American flag at the site, read poetry and recited the Declaration of Independence. The event drew about 40 people that day.

Mark Westbrook aims to continue the event to bring people together, much like his father did.

“The values that get this country through tough times are still alive,” he said. “We just need to figure out how to work together.”

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