On what would have been Otto Zehm’s 42nd birthday, his family and City leaders hold his memory and reach for larger lessons.
Shortly after 1 o’clock this afternoon, as diffuse sunlight illuminated the still-golden boughs of maple trees in Mission Park, a small crowd of people gathered to reflect upon the life of Otto Zehm. The beloved son and musician who worked as a janitor and struggled with mental illness, would have been 42 today.
Otto’s death in March of 2006 at the hands of Spokane police became an emotional saber slash in both directions. If the pain it inflicted was felt most sharply and immediately by his mother, Ann, and the rest of the Zehm family, it later came to be felt in deep repercussions for the reputation of Spokane’s police force and the City’s leadership as a whole.
The Center for Justice—attorneys Terri Sloyer, Breean Beggs, and Jeffrey Finer—represented Ann Zehm and the Zehm family in the federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Spokane. When the lawsuit was resolved by a mediated settlement last spring part of the agreement was to honor Otto’s life with a marker in a City park. Today’s brief ceremony followed the laying of that marker, in the form of a plaque set in large cobblestones, at the entrance to a new shelter near the park’s northern boundary.
Richard “Spike” Cunningham, the Executive Director of Center Pointe was the first to speak. Center Pointe is north Spokane-based program that serves adults with disabilities.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s been over six years since we gathered here in a memorial for Otto,” he said. “And what brings us here today is the result of human behavior. Unfortunate actions based on lack of judgment, lack of discretion, lack of foresight. Otto’s beating and death are the result of this behavior. But this simple memorial is a permanent reminder of Otto’s life. The simplicity of the plaque is a testimony to the simplicity of life. As human beings we all have prejudices, preferences, and blind spots. Hopefully, we will take to heart from Otto’s death, and learn from our past mistakes.”
Listening along with several members of the Zehm family, and friends of Otto, were a few reporters, staff members at the Center for Justice, a handful of city council members, the City’s new police chief, Frank Straub, as well as Mayor David Condon and other senior city officials.
Cunningham spoke about his own memories of Otto Zehm and to how his own experiences with Otto taught him important life lessons, about the importance of recognizing the value in everyone.
“I hope that today begins a new day. Otto is gone but not forgotten. Hopefully, we will all change our attitudes and behavior to prevent such behavior in the future. Otto will live through our actions, acceptance and compassion.”
Otto’s first cousin, Dale Zehm, read a statement for the family.
“On behalf of Ann and our family, I would like to say a few words. It’s been a long and difficult time since 2006. Today is Otto’s 42nd birthday. We honor him with a dedication plaque, permanently installed in Mission Park, place where Otto spent much of his time growing up as a child. We are pleased with the beauty and the placement of the plaque. Thank you for agreeing to honor Otto Zehm with this plaque. The family wishes to thank Terri Sloyer, Breean Beggs, Jeffry Finer and all others involved in making this day happen. We also thank Mayor Condon an all other city leaders involved. We thank all those in the community who continue to support our family. Our family will heal. The scars will never go away. And the memory of Otto will remain in our hearts and thoughts forever. Thank you.”
Nancy McLaughlin, spoke on behalf of the city council, and when she finished, she presented a bouquet of flowers to Ann Zehm, who sat in a wheelchair on the east side of the circle that had formed inside the shelter.
Spokane Mayor David Condon, spoke last:
“Mrs. Zehm thank you for allowing me to be here today and to celebrate with you and your family the life and memory of Otto. As you told me several months ago, Otto was a loving and supportive son to you and your husband, and a friend to so many more as you can see here today. We know he’s in many ways unknowingly done us a great service and many have talked today about today about that great service, in his life and the impact he had on those that he worked with and worked for. He’s taught us all a lesson and we and our children can always remember him here in the park, which I think is so appropriate for Otto. Otto’s lesson is simple and Spike talked about his simple and, more importantly, his profound impact on all of us. He told us and he lived it, that we must all not fear, but we must praise each others’ differences and appreciate each others’ differences. That truly is Otto’s legacy and the City of Spokane, and myself, and you’ve so graciously accepted our apology for what has happened and what happened to Otto. And I want to thank you for so graciously receiving that and making me feel so comfortable in your home when we apologized. You know we placed this plaque today in memory of Otto. It can and will serve as a reminder of our commitment to you and to Otto to make Spokane a place that truly welcomes and serves every one of its citizens. But you know, more importantly, and I thought today as we decided where to put this plaque, and you personally decided where to put it, rather than the Mayor or anybody else, that we placed this marker, this plaque in Mission Park where Otto so truly felt at home in our town. I want to thank you for allowing us to be a part of your personal ceremony here today and to thank you and commit to you that we will continue to live out his legacy.”
The Mayor then closed the ceremony by walking from the center of the circle to where he could lean down and embrace Otto’s mother.