One of the highest-ranking officials in Clark County, Washington, said during a heated public exchange on Wednesday that she doesn’t believe systemic racism exists in the community.
Eileen Quiring, chair of the Clark County Council, defended the Clark County Sheriff’s Office’s decision to outfit country patrol vehicles with flag decals that have become associated with the controversial slogan “Blue Lives Matter.”
After civil rights groups recently called the decals inappropriate, Sheriff Chuck Atkins over the weekend said any harm was unintentional and ordered them removed. Then, Quiring, at a county meeting, renounced his decision.
“This is very disturbing to me,” she said. “They have to go out and enforce these laws. I believe their lives matter. I think it’s horrible when people are discriminated against, and I feel empathy for those people, too, but that does not mean we have to set aside the people who defend the laws that we write.”
She added: “I do not agree that we have systemic racism in our county. Period.”
Civil rights groups quickly responded with rebukes, saying Quiring's remarks showed the disconnect between her and communities of color.
“It’s unfortunate that our county chair has decided to deny the fact of systemic racism in our community,” said Shareefah Hoover, of the local NAACP chapter. “The community is not waiting for County Chair Quiring to come to terms with the truth. We’ve been working toward a more equitable Clark County in housing, health care, employment, education and policing, and will continue moving forward.”
Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the Southwest Washington LULAC, or League of United Latin American Citizens, pointed out Clark County has very recently fostered racism. In 2018, the FBI designated the far-right Proud Boys group as an “extremist group with ties to white nationalism.” In recent years, Proud Boy members have frequently gathered in Clark County, along with other groups, and have engaged in street fights with leftist demonstrators locally and in Portland.
“She apparently has not paid attention to the last 20 years in Clark County, or the last five years in Clark County, or the last 20 minutes in Clark County,” he said. “That makes her very, very out-of-touch with her own county.”
The flag decal in question is a black-and-white American flag with one blue stripe. Law enforcement officials have said it honors the “Thin Blue Line,” paying tribute to those who died in the line of duty.
After the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2014, the black-and-white flag became more commonly associated with the slogan “Blue Lives Matter,” and has been seen as undermining protests against systemic racism experienced by Black Americans.
In 2017, the flag appeared at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, alongside Nazi and Confederate flags.
Since 2016, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office has bought 300 decals of the flag, paying a Seattle company close to $1,100 in taxpayer dollars, according to records obtained by OPB. The sheriff authorized placing the decals on its fleet.
. The organization said they not only intimidate communities of color, but also misuse taxpayer dollars.
“No flag but the U.S. flag or Washington state flag should ever appear or be authorized to appear on Clark County property issued to public servants or used by public servants to carry out their duties,” the organization wrote in a June 18 letter to the sheriff.
Two days after receiving the letter, Atkins appeared at the NAACP’s virtual Juneteenth celebration and announced that he had ordered the flag decals removed from all fleet vehicles and other public property in his department. He said his order came after days of “prayer and consultation with people I trust.”
Quiring’s statements Wednesday came after fellow councilor Temple Lentz sought to send an official thank-you to the NAACP for raising the issue. The letter also thanked Atkins for agreeing.
“The County Council agrees that displays of the ‘blue lives matter’ and ‘thin blue line’ iconography are not appropriate for display on public property,” the letter said. “The County Council is committed to taking meaningful action to eliminate hate, bigotry and racism in our county. As a county government, we must lead by example.”
Quiring, who became chair in 2018, raised her voice as she disagreed with the letter. She pressed Lentz if she knew the history of the flag and asked if Lentz felt the lives of law enforcement mattered.
“I think that when anyone in a position of power starts to take what-aboutisms into the public eye, we’re avoiding the real conversation,” Lentz said. “Right now, we’re talking about systemic racism.”
“I find it not only disheartening, but deeply indicative of the amount of work we have to do,” Lentz added.
Quiring’s responded by disagreeing that systemic racism exists in Clark County.
Ultimately, councilors Lentz, Julie Olson, John Blom and Gary Medvigy signed the thank-you letter. Quiring did not.