The Rev. Gregory Christopher has been the head of Tacoma’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for about five years.
During that time, he says, the NAACP branch has tackled what it sees as educational inequality, racial profiling by law enforcement and voter suppression – issues he identifies as both areas of progress and the biggest challenges to the region going forward.
Christopher, the 56-year-old pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, spoke about the past, present and future of the chapter, the first to establish west of the Rockies, as it prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary on Thursday.
Q: What are your priorities for the chapter, and what do you think the community should know about this anniversary?
A: Education, voter suppression and profiling within (local) police departments.
Martin Luther King, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, talked about 100 years. We’re still being discriminated against, 100 years (after the founding of the Tacoma NAACP chapter). Our agenda hasn’t changed. Those things are still relevant today. We are dealing with the same issues 100 years later.
Q: In terms of education, what progress has been made, and what needs to change further?
A: Our top focus is trying to make sure our education system develops curriculum and strategies for trying to close the achievement gap. The Tacoma School District made it possible that low-income people of color could apply to and attend SAMI (the Science and Math Institute). Some youth were really getting ready to go in a different direction, and SAMI presented to them another way of learning, and they gravitated to it and are doing well.
They also recently started at Lincoln High School an academy for at-risk youth. They’re trying to educate the teachers on trying to change the culture within the schools so that every child can learn. They have put their best effort forward. They are partnering with the community, trying to make sure that their voice is heard.
For the first time as far as I can remember, the school board and the superintendent are really reaching out and saying: “Hey, we need to partner with the community better.”
Q: You mentioned voter suppression — what do you think that looks like locally?
A: We need to really educate the people, and rally the people to register to vote, and then to vote.
With the recent redistricting of County Council seats, it’s almost impossible to get a Democrat elected in some of those areas, because of how they drew the lines. Maybe we need to start moving to some of those areas.
For instance, there was an opportunity to put a person of color in the District Court. Even though the person who won is well qualified, this is a diverse community, and having a person of color there would represent the community. I feel the Democrats see the need for diversity.
Q: What changes do you think need to happen to local policing?
A: Look at the training for racial profiling, because it’s evident it does not empower them to not profile people of color. Either that or they’re just ignoring it. I have a lot of respect for our police department, and I’m not trying to put all of them in the same basket. I’m saying they have some they need to deal with. I do believe we have a lot of men and women on our police department who are good and are trying, but we have some bad apples that have to be dealt with.
Q: Where do you get those accounts?
A: We have a legal redress committee that reports at the general leadership meeting, which is once a month. People call the NAACP office and then our legislative redress person calls them back and meets with them to fill out a complaint form. They go into details of what they feel happened to them, and we address it from there.
Q: You said you sit down with law enforcement leadership to discuss this issue. What progress do you see?
A: It’s been slow, but we are at the table, and that’s an accomplishment all by itself. And they are listening. I really believe they’re listening.
Q: You’ve mentioned sitting down at the table several times now, have those meetings been a theme for the chapter?
A: You have to be at the table and communicate the issues and work toward change. When that’s not possible, that’s when you take it to the next level – maybe do a march, maybe get the federal government to come in.
We’ll advocate and fight for equal rights, but we will not do it in a violent way. Nor would we make it personal, where we are attacking a person’s character. I had to learn that the hard way.
Three years ago, when the police arrested the 36 Hilltop Crips gang members, I really did (Pierce County Prosecutor) Mark Lindquist an injustice by making it personal, and I apologized to him for that. Because of the way I handled it, not because of the issue.
I should have had more conversations with the prosecutor’s office and started working toward solutions, as opposed to just going on some wild spree of verbal lashings. I would stay at the table and try to work out the issues.Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268 alexis.krell@ thenewstribune.com www.thenewstribune.com/crime-news