Douglas County Library’s Draft Black Lives Matter Statement Leads to Conflict with Sheriff, Protests (UPDATED)

UPDATE: On August 25, the Douglas County Library Board of Trustees voted 3–2 to approve an investigation into Amy Dodson and her staff over the proposed diversity statement. The investigation, to be conducted by an independent firm, would cost an estimated $30,000, although the scope of the investigation was not specified.

Douglas County Library Minden location exterior, low building with parking lot and flagpole

A statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement has opened fault lines within a western Nevada community, resulting in a rift between the two-branch Douglas County Library and local law enforcement.

As libraries and other institutions across the country began posting calls for equity in their communities and aligning themselves with Black Lives Matter In the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, director Amy Dodson decided that Douglas County Library should take a similar stance. Dodson, with the help of her staff, drafted a brief statement that read in part, “The Douglas County Public Library denounces all acts of violence, racism, and disregard for human rights. We support #BlackLivesMatter. We resolutely assert and believe that all forms of racism, hatred, inequality, and injustice don’t belong in our society.” The statement also noted that the library had signed the Urban Libraries Council’s Statement on Race and Social Equity—one of only three in the state to do so.

Although Dodson doesn’t need board approval for social media posts, she alerted members that she planned to post the statement on Facebook and included the text in her email. They offered minimal feedback and asked her to put it on the agenda of their next meeting, scheduled for July 28.

Dodson posted the statement on the library’s Facebook page, and immediately got a call from the County Manager’s office telling her to take it down. The library doesn’t report to the County Manager, Dodson noted, but as they often work together—and the board is appointed by the County Commissioners—she chose to remove it. However, when she included the text of the statement in the upcoming board meeting agenda, which is posted on the library’s website, “it blew up on social media and spread all over community,” she said.

The library immediately found itself on the receiving end of overwhelmingly negative feedback via email and social media, Dodson told LJ, “some of it really nasty and vulgar—some of it just so angry I couldn't believe I was reading it.” Commenters claimed that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization made up of violent thugs and demanded that Dodson resign or be fired, even calling for her arrest. The board was blamed as well, although its members had nothing to do with the crafting of the message. “People were contacting them directly,” Dodson told LJ. “It's a small community—a lot of people know the library board members.”

The library did receive some positive feedback, mostly from neighboring cities and counties and other Nevada libraries.

The response that garnered national attention was posted in an open letter on the Douglas County Sheriff’s website by Sheriff Dan Coverley on July 27. The letter mainly defended policing practices and refuted “claims that law enforcement is systemically racist or structurally biased,” blaming “bad actors within the law enforcement profession” for Floyd’s death and stating that “[n]umerous Black Lives Matter protests have resulted in violence, property damage and the closing of local businesses, sometimes permanently. To support this movement is to support violence and to openly ask for it to happen in Douglas County.”

In closing, Coverley wrote, “Due to your support of Black Lives Matter and the obvious lack of support or trust with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, please do not feel the need to call 911 for help. I wish you good luck with disturbances and lewd behavior, since those are just some of the recent calls my office has assisted you with in the past.”

 

BACKLASH RESPONSE AND SUPPORT

The response to Coverley’s letter was swift and widespread, with many regional and national news outlets interpreting it as a threat. Dodson said his response was “a big surprise. He didn't come to me—no one from the county stepped forward to say, ‘Hey, what's going on, what's the issue here,’ or ‘Let's talk about it.’” She and the library received messages of support from the Nevada state librarian, attorney general, and Sen. Jackie Rosen, as well as the American Library Association (ALA), the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), and libraries across the country.

“Libraries of all types, in all parts of the country, are engaging in this important work of addressing systemic racism and historic inequality that's been directed at library users of color, and that draft diversity statement that was posted by the Douglas County Library director is absolutely consistent with this important and necessary work,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), told LJ. “It's consistent with the statements issued by other libraries and ALA itself.”

Forrest Lewis, president of the Nevada Library Association (NLA), expressed support for the library as well. “NLA has a long history of championing diversity,” he told LJ. “We stand firmly in our commitment to condemning racism and addressing inequalities that harm the communities of color.”

“Anywhere else I would have been able to put this [statement] forward and I don't think there would be much of a reaction at all,” Dodson told LJ. “Maybe I'm naive, but I was honestly surprised at how negative and how big the response was from within the community.”

She added, “I think the words Black Lives Matter really set people off. That's what brought about such an emotional and angry response from the community.” Douglas County, with a population of about 47,000, is 89 percent white, according to the 2010 Census.

“Black Lives Matter began as a call to action in response to state sanctioned violence and anti-black racism. It is not a movement that deliberately promotes violence, but unfortunately the confusion of the global organization's mission is what brings so much debate to the conversation,” said BCALA President Shauntee Burns-Simpson. “When there's injustice to one, it affects us all. So we support Douglas County Library's statement.”

On August 4 the Abolitionist Library Association, a group formed to discuss how libraries can divest from police, started a Change.org petition to demonstrate solidarity with Douglas County Public Library. A separate petition to recall Coverley had garnered nearly 1,750 signatures at press time.

The following day, Coverley posted a second letter noting that the sheriff’s office would “impartially” continue to respond to calls from the library. Coverley and Dodson also met to discuss the situation, and issued a joint statement in which Dodson wrote, “We agreed that we both support the people of Douglas County and this may have been an unfortunate circumstance of misunderstanding. The library respects and supports the work of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and appreciates everything they do to keep our community safe.”

Coverley added, “This has been a difficult time to be a law enforcement professional and can be disheartening when we perceive that our office may be under attack. My response was rooted in my belief that these issues need to be openly discussed in a way that values diversity and law enforcement.” Coverley’s office did not choose to comment for this article.

“I think that it's important always—but especially at times like this—for us to first seek to understand and not to make snap judgments about someone's intent, especially if you're in a position of authority,” noted BCALA Vice President Nichelle M. Hayes. “It's always good to stop, reread the statement or listen to it again, and then go to that individual organization and say, ‘I just want to be clear on what I feel like you're saying’—let them explain themselves so everyone can literally be on the same page.”

The July 28 board meeting was canceled out of concern for a potentially large turnout in response to the widely publicized dispute. Most board meetings have been taking place virtually, and the physical meeting space would be too small to accommodate two or three hundred community members, especially with social distancing requirements. The agenda for the board’s August meeting has not yet been posted.

The board publicly disavowed any involvement with Dodson’s message in a statement of its own. “I want the public to know the draft diversity statement in question was initiated by the library director and staff,” Board Chair Kathryn Garrahan wrote. “The July 28, 2020 Discussion of Possible Diversity Statement agenda item was to be our first opportunity to discuss the statement, give our input and receive community input. Any suggestion that the board drafted, offered input or voted on the statement, as individuals or as a body, is inaccurate.” Board members did not choose to comment for this article.

Dodson concurred. “A lot of people missed the point that this was just up for discussion.” The board does not have a say over the library’s social media content but does control its mission statement.

 

PROTESTS AND COUNTERPROTESTS

At the end of July a group of local Black Lives Matter supporters, dissatisfied with Coverley’s response, announced that they planned to protest on Saturday, August 8, outside the sheriff’s office in the town of Minden. “You don't get to choose who you serve and protect,” one activist told local NBC affiliate KRNV.

In a news release, Coverley’s office stated that it was preparing for the demonstration, establishing “free space” to accommodate a peaceful protest. “Our office has openly encouraged every group to exercise their rights in a peaceful manner without reservation,” said Coverley.

However, on the day of demonstration, some 30 protesters were met by a heavily armed contingent of Douglas County sheriff deputies, as well as hundreds of counter-protesters, many bearing guns and carrying pro–law enforcement and pro-Trump signs. One of the event organizers, Jerome Silas, addressed the crowd and asked how, if the local police force would not protect people who support Black Lives Matter, they were protecting Black citizens. The counter-protesters shouted over him and followed the demonstrators as they left, yelling and shoving them.

“This is the response you get in Douglas County when you try to attack a county [that’s] rural like us, unfortunately,” counter-protest organizer Corey Baird told This Is Reno. “I wish some people would have been a little more peaceful, but it’s kind of hard to control everyone.”

“The Douglas County situation shows that libraries, and intellectual freedom more broadly, are under serious threat from anti-democratic, organized right-wing forces,” Abolitionist Library Association member Alison Macrina told LJ. “This situation also illustrates the need for librarians to be organized in solidarity to affirm that Black Lives Matter.”

 

WORK TO BE DONE

Dodson and local library organizations hold out hope that these challenges may lead to productive conversations.

NLA’s Lewis wants to see progress as well. The Nevada library community is close-knit, he told LJ, and issues of equity are a subject of discussion throughout the state. “We see the issues that are out there,” he said. “We see the longstanding and systemic racism that has affected communities of color. We see the inequality. And we try to work on issues of equity within our communities.”

He added, “If we come into the community and we have open dialogues, and we have a trusting environment like a library setting can provide, then that's how we're going to learn what our specific communities need. That's where we're going to learn how we can help, and how we can move the process forward.”

Both ALA and the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) have toolkits that support “courageous conversations” around race, noted Burns-Simpson. “Just being able to have your community come together and have civil discourse, be able to talk about their experiences without feeling ashamed or judged—there's training for library staff to do that, and we're developing tools to support these types of conversations with libraries across the country.”

The library can also help educate its community through books on the history of American racism; BCALA and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) have put together a social justice reading list, Community, Connecting, Cultivating & Constructing Conversations Through Literacy.

“There needs to be basic education,” Hayes told LJ. “Understanding the racial equity framework, why that came about and why that's important; understanding the history of our country; understanding the impact of 1619 and where we are now in 2020.” There are no magic bullets, she noted, “but it could be a start.”

The board should stand with Dodson in order for that work to progress, said Burns-Simpson, noting that the statement is aligned with what many institutions across the country are already saying. “But you also can't just make a statement—you have to do the work to support it. We need for the board to support that statement and support [Dodson] in doing the work."

“People are going to be uncomfortable doing this work,” added Hayes. “They're going to be uncomfortable having these conversations on both sides. But it's a necessary discomfort.”

OIF is currently working with Dodson to help reach a resolution that reflects the best interests of the library staff, board, and patrons. Said Caldwell-Stone, “We all know that the goal of this is to ensure that the library as a community institution is welcoming and inclusive for all members of the community.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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Karen Teatum

Goodness, this is a librarian and from a librarian I would expect some basic research. BLM is a Marxist organisation (announced by one of the founders, Patricia Cullors). For a library paid for by Americans to decide to support communism is beyond the pale. Libraries should be apolitical since the money for them is taken directly from the pockets of people who may not agree with such a stance.
Ms. Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project has herself admitted that it is about the narrative, not about history. Thus making it an attempt to alter history to push a viewpoint, not to spread truth.
While racism, hatred, and injustice don't belong in civilized society, and equality of opportunity should be a given, equality of outcome should not.
For a public employee to decide how the entirety of it's supporters should feel, and what they should support, is unacceptable. For her to do so without researching the meaning of her post, when research is her job, makes me wonder why she is in that position.

Posted : Sep 12, 2020 06:26

Jeffrey Violet

Patricia Cullors said that she has studied Marxism not that BLM is a Marxist organization. It also would not matter if she did say that, because it is not a centralized organization. Anyone who is willing to say the words black lives matter is part of the moment. Also look at the list of those who are willing to support BLM and its cause that can be found with a quick internet search.
- Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago cut ties with a University of Chicago economics professor who was a scholar at the bank, following his criticism of the BLM movement.
- In a recent interview Brian Brooks, head of the OCC explained that Regulatory leaders have also recently proposed ways to remedy economic inequality in low-income and Black communities.
- Attorney General William P. Barr acknowledged the importance of the work of BLM saying that there’s a “widespread phenomenon” that . . .
- A recent article in Foreign Policy stated that the U.S. economy needs reform, and the BLM movement shows how it can be done.
These are not Marxists.
The librarian initiated a dialog something that evidently made the Sherriff and much of the community very uncomfortable. There has been no recognition that the Sheriff by threatening to deny response to the library committed a violation of the Public Trust. The Constitution is principally a document designed with the intent of protecting the rights of all people from bullies in power. If this were America, it would be the Sheriff loosing budget to an investigation and possibly loosing a job not the librarian.

Posted : Sep 12, 2020 06:26


Ron Schermacher

Keep getting in "good trouble, necessary trouble". Sorry your Sheriff has an apparent deficit in his neuro physiology.

Posted : Sep 10, 2020 10:15


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