Local groundswell spontaneous, community-based
Even for people immersed in the local social-justice movement, pulling together a rally in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in just 24 hours was momentous. It was even more striking that it was followed by seven more rallies in the Methow and Omak over the next two weeks.
“What feels really true — nationally and, certainly, locally — is that we’re seeing a groundswell of organizing and activism,” said Darcy Ottey, who helped launch the local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) three years ago and is on the group’s steering committee.
There are many people in Okanogan County who are passionate about social justice, but the movement had been growing slowly. But “if we drew a big map of all the connections, we’d see that a bunch of shortcuts just got made,” Ottey said. “So much has happened in such a short time.”
“One of the things that’s so powerful is that it hasn’t had to be led by SURJ or a central organizing group — it’s led by the community,” Ottey said.
Raechel Youngberg, who organized the first BLM rally in Winthrop on May 31 with a few friends, agreed. “It was community-led — it wasn’t by any one organization,” Youngberg said. “We were planning up to the last minute — there were so many moving parts.” Some 200 people attended the rally.
Activists in the Okanogan described a similar synergy. When Jordan Williams and a group of high school students learned they were both planning a BLM rally in Omak on June 4, they teamed up. Since that Peaceful March for George Floyd, which drew close to 500 supporters, the activists have created the Okanogan County Group for Social Justice on Facebook, which serves as a community bulletin board for people involved in a variety of issues.
“We all wanted further action,” said Williams, the group’s administrator. The group has no single focus or list of goals. Among the issues group members are working on are anti-racism, voter registration, education, immigration, and missing and murdered indigenous women.
Organizers of the Facebook group plan educational events and a resource library, Williams said. “It’s a place to reach out for resources and find like-minded people. We’re not working toward anything specific except making it a better county,” she said.
The Methow Valley and Okanogan County are a microcosm of a much broader movement. Local activists working against social injustice look to people of color in the community to understand the best way to engage with national demands, Ottey said. Since there’s not a large Black population here, they also look toward national groups for direction, she said.
SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals working to undermine white supremacy and to work for racial justice. Until the pandemic, SURJ Methow invited anyone interested to a monthly meeting, primarily to study social justice and the broad issue of systemic racism. The group emphasized learning and understanding the issues before taking concrete actions, she said. They also focused on building relationships with other community groups addressing justice-related issues and worked on immigrants’ rights.
But recent events have quickened the pace as people build a broader movement, Ottey said. “There’s been a critical groundswell of energy,” she said. Young people — including high school students from around the county — have been energized in their work on social justice. Ottey has helped teach a unit on social justice to ninth-graders at Liberty Bell High School.
Social-justice groups across the country recognize that not one size fits all, Ottey said. Based on its demographics and whether it’s urban or rural, each community needs something different, she said.
After the Winthrop rally on May 31, participants split into discussion groups to propel meaningful future action, rather than just a one-time event, Youngberg said. Ideas generated in the groups include learning more about local needs and issues, working with law enforcement on violence prevention, supporting organizations for people of color and Indigenous people, and finding ways to communicate these social-justice goals through art and other actions.
The current issues focus questions about what the movement means in this community, Ottey said. Local activists need to hear from people of color threatened by systemic oppression and police violence. “This is not a fight for white people to lead. We can show up with our bodies and our wallets, and take direction from communities of color,” she said.
The BLM movement was formed seven years ago after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, in Florida. The project is now a member-led global network that works to build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes, according to the BLM website.
In a small community like the Methow Valley, where we all shop at the same stores, we need to continue to focus on how to live together and get along, Ottey said. “To really move toward true equity, there’s a lot of social conditioning to unpack.”
“This is where relationships are key. That’s the gift of being in a small town — we get to be on this journey together,” she said.