The Vancouver NAACP held its annual Juneteenth Celebration on Saturday morning, centered around a Q&A session with Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins. The virtual event drew more than 275 attendees, according to the organizers.
The annual celebration is typically an all-day event at Clark College, but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a change to an online format this year, with attendees signing in to watch the two-hour presentation via Zoom.
Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in the United States, commemorating the day that Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 and announced that all slaves in the state were free. Granger’s arrival came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, but as the most remote Confederate state, it took a long time for the proclamation to reach Texas.
The holiday has grown more prominent this year amid nationwide protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks an end to police brutality against Black people.
The current wave of protests was sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes, and Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot by police as they executed a no-knock warrant at her apartment.
After an opening prayer from Pastor Mark Westbrooks, NAACP Vancouver Vice President Jasmine Tolbert discussed the theme of this year’s event: “We Are Done Dying.” Tolbert said the theme ties into an NAACP campaign to seek reform in multiple areas including criminal justice, health care, voting rights and economic justice.
She discussed the discrimination that the Black community has historically faced across all four of those areas, as well as the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified those disparities for Black people and other minority communities.
Shareefah Hoover, chair of the NAACP Vancouver’s legal redress committee, led the discussion with Atkins, reading from a preselected set of questions as well as additional questions submitted by the audience.
Many of the questions focused on the policies and strategies to ensure accountability at the sheriff’s office, as well as broader issues such as defunding the police.
Atkins placed particular emphasis on providing funding and resources for agencies that can respond to calls involving people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises. He said he believed the sheriff’s office has improved its ability to respond to those calls in recent years, but that the agency is still tasked with fielding too many calls that should be handled by other specialists.
“Take that mental health piece and put it where it belongs,” he said.
Hoover also quizzed Atkins about the office’s rate of use-of-force complaints, as well as the issues of accountability and community oversight, the sheriff’s hiring practices and the application process for the community representative positions on the Independent Investigation Team.
During the livestream, Atkins announced that he had issued a directive on Friday to remove all “Thin Blue Line” stickers, pins and other decorations from sheriff’s vehicles, offices and staff uniforms.
The stickers, which feature a blue bar across the middle of an otherwise black-and-white American flag, have been allowed on Clark County Sheriff’s Office vehicles for about four years.
They’ve been a source of controversy due to a perceived overlap between the Thin Blue Line iconography and “Blue Lives Matter,” a phrase that emerged in response to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The NAACP Vancouver criticized the office’s use of the symbol earlier this month.
The sheriff’s office had previously stated that the Thin Blue Line flags were intended to honor officers killed in the line of duty, and that the image was not associated with Blue Lives Matter. Atkins reiterated that position on the Saturday, but said he had ordered them removed due to concerns about community members being afraid to approach police.
“I still stand firmly with my officers who believe that (the sticker) is to support the fallen officers and their families,” he said, but later added “I’m not going to let that little sticker be a divide amongst people in the community.”
Tolbert closed the livesteam event by inviting NAACP Vancouver Juneteenth committee member Joseph Hernandez to read the Langston Hughes poem “Let America be America Again.”