Native Lives Matter—Puyallups Take the Lead in Washington State
It is a bright morning, and we are in a small crab vessel in Puget Sound, north of Tacoma, Washington. Puyallup tribal member James Rideout is baiting and tossing overboard some dozen wire-mesh crab pots. As we navigate the sound, with its forested islands and peninsulas, Mount Rainier’s massive snow-covered peak seems to glide around the horizon, slipping behind one hilly shoreline then another. Toward evening, Rideout will return to collect the crabs. They’ll be cooked for one of the regular family meetings that has followed the police shooting of his niece, Jackie Salyers.
Shortly before midnight on January 28 of this year, Tacoma patrol officers killed Salyers during a failed attempt to apprehend her boyfriend, who was wanted on drugs and weapons charges. Minutes after the officers approached the couple, one of them had shot Salyers in the head, and the boyfriend had escaped into the night. A mother of four, Salyers was pregnant at the time of her death.
At Salyers’s funeral service, her mother, Lisa Earl, called for justice—not only for her daughter, but on behalf of everyone impacted by police violence.
The Puyallup Tribe took up the challenge, under the banner Justice for Jackie, Justice for All. As they continued to meet, as a family and as a community, to deal with their grief and shock, others in the region who had similar experiences and concerns started joining them. This makes sense culturally to the Puyallup, whose name in their language translates as “the generous and welcoming people.”
Rideout explains: “When the police killings happened to people who didn’t have a tribe to back them up, they were alone, on their own. When our tribe took a position on this issue, we realized we had an opportunity to take care of them all, to bring them along with us.”
As time went by, non-Natives and members of other tribes began to join the family gatherings at the tribe’s Little Wild Wolves Youth/Community Center. In a traditional talking circle, they told stories of tragedy and survival then shared a meal. Participants at a recent meeting included African American mother Crystal Chaplin, whose two sons were shot (both survived, but one is paralyzed), and Silvia Sabon, Tlingit, whose family lost a young Latino friend. They and other attendees talked about feeling welcome and safe on the reservation—sheltered within the space Puyallups had created for those who need to express their feelings to supportive, nonjudgmental listeners.
The group that has gathered under the Puyallup umbrella has both organized and attended protest marches. Along with other advocacy groups, group members are gathering the 250,000 signatures needed for a ballot initiative that would improve police accountability in the state. Other tribes, groups such as the NAACP and individuals have joined them. If successful, the initiative would place before the legislature a measure to remove an escape clause in Washington law for officers who kill.
Currently, Washington police who use lethal force cannot be charged with a criminal offense unless it can be proven that they acted with malice. Since malice is a state of mind, it is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, says Tacoma attorney Ben Barcus. (If the bill passes, deadly force would still be allowed under circumstances already defined in the law, such as when an individual may cause “serious physical harm” to an officer or others.)
One of Barcus’s clients is Marilyn Covarrubias, whose son Daniel, a Suquamish tribal member, was gunned down in 2014 by Lakewood, Washington, officers who claimed to have mistaken his cell phone for a gun. Barcus is preparing a civil case that will seek monetary damages to help provide for Daniel’s seven children. Marilyn describes her son, who was 37 when he died, as a beadwork artist, horseman and devoted dad, who loved to have fun with his children and nieces and nephews.
“Every one of them has been deeply and terribly affected,” Marilyn says. “A good man was lost.”
Advocate Lisa Hayes, of Olympia, Washington, who wrote the ballot-initiative text, says it has started a statewide conversation. “We want the discussion of police shootings and use of excessive and deadly force to be at every dinner table and on every porch,” Hayes says. “This is one reason the initiative idea is so powerful.”
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