EVERETT — A local group of Black activists has envisioned a first step to addressing the daunting racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
Their plan, in its infancy, has drawn intense criticism — not from local law enforcement officials, who have worked alongside the group to propel the effort forward, but instead from other protesters who are also seeking to reform American institutions plagued by deep-seated racism.
The initiative, coined “Cops and Barbers,” is meant to foster honest conversations about race and policing between Black residents and Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies — talks that could open the door to future reforms, the activists working on the proposal say. Known as America’s Promise Project, the group hopes to eventually host events at barber shops, which are often seen as Black community hubs.
“The idea here was simply to bring people of color and law enforcement together in a unanimously safe environment that would create conducive conversation between the two,” said Elton Davis, a 34-year-old Black barber who helped to devise the idea. “We’re so torn right now. No one talks to one another.”
Davis was cited for a noise violation by Marysville police in late June for playing music on the roof of his apartment building during a recurring demonstration with other members of the group. The charge was dismissed almost immediately after it received media attention.
For months, the Black men and women behind the project have spent Saturday afternoons protesting police brutality on the corner of State Avenue and Grove Street. They began discussing social justice ideas with Sheriff Adam Fortney after a sheriff’s deputy told Davis the agency was interested in addressing the distrust that communities of color typically feel toward police.
“We wanted to create an opportunity where we could actually help mend that relationship so that my kids — who are 12, 6 and 4 — wouldn’t have to protest when they’re my age,” added activist Chris Anderson, 40, a Black musician and film producer who lives in Marysville. “It was a step, you know. It wasn’t the answer to ending systemic racism.”
The concept first became public late last month, when Fortney introduced it at a public meeting after the Snohomish County Council asked the county’s top law and justice officials for social justice proposals to consider funding in the 2021 budget.
“There was time and care put into this,” Fortney told The Daily Herald.
This is just one way the sheriff’s office is responding to recent protests, he said.
At the meeting, a handful of critics skewered the idea as a racist, sexist public relations scheme meant to enhance the department’s image — the type of so-called “copaganda” that the activist community has warned can result from people of color cooperating with law enforcement.
“We intentionally did not go public, because we knew that was going to be the perception of this program,” said Jordon Jeffries, 39, another Black artist who is working on the proposal. “We assumed we would have been up against some sort of conservative force — the bad guy, as we’ve painted them lately — when actually it was people that we’ve stood side by side with that had a problem with what we were doing.”
The blowback highlights a division that has grown increasingly apparent this year, as local governments grapple with nationwide calls to “defund the police.” On one side are those who are willing to take small, incremental steps to begin breaking down issues of racial injustice. On the other are those seeking an immediate, complete overhaul of the public safety system, paid for by slashing police budgets.
“The assumption that haircuts, food trucks, or swag bags will build or repair relationships and lead to social justice, borders on the edge of the ridiculous and offensive,” Janice Greene, the president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wrote in a Nov. 3 letter to the County Council that criticized “Cops and Barbers” and other social justice proposals Fortney has pitched.
The Snohomish County NAACP has asked the county to fund projects that would lead to more police scrutiny and accountability, by creating a community task force to review complaints of excessive force or misconduct by law enforcement, installing dashboard cameras in sheriff’s office vehicles and implementing programs to teach deputies “how to recognize and manage systemic discrimination.”
County leaders are also devising plans to equip deputies with body cameras and establish a community police oversight commission.
Jeffries and his fellow activists have emphasized that starting a conversation is key to building a foundation for future improvements in the county, where the Black population is relatively small and many people have not acknowledged that systemic racism exists.
Just 3.8% of Snohomish County’s roughly 820,000 residents identify as Black or African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure does not include a separate category for people of mixed race, who make up 4.9%.
“We’re not talking about Chicago. We’re not talking about Los Angeles,” Jeffries said. “We’re talking about a very small population that could easily be reached.”
Soon, the group hopes to do a small scale test-run with volunteers from the community and the sheriff’s office. They plan to document the discussions on video and use the footage to encourage different barber shops to participate. A full-scale event won’t happen until COVID-19 social distancing restrictions ease and larger gatherings are permitted, Jeffries said.
Organizers have also considered providing sheriff’s deputies with free haircut vouchers to distribute to young people they encounter while on patrol duty prior to the event.
“Has the Sheriff considered the appropriateness of law enforcement approaching young Black men and judging those young men as needing a haircut?” Greene wrote in the NAACP letter. “ … Let us make no mistake, youth of color have a justified fear of the police, and the idea that they would be brought into spaces where they would encounter ‘a large enforcement presence’ might not have the fairy tale outcome the Sheriff appears to expect.”
The activists who worked with Fortney were hesitant at first. During initial discussions with the sheriff, “you could have cut the tension with a knife,” Jeffries said.
“Fast forward a few months,” he said, “the change that’s possible with just continued conversation — whether it’s fun or not — it’s real.”
Their first meeting, set for about 90 minutes, lasted nearly three hours, Fortney said.
“It has been eye-opening to me to hear their perspectives,” he said.
Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; email@example.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.