After a weekend of late-night violence in the CHOP, today Mayor Jenny Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best signaled that their hands-off approach to the protest area on Capitol Hill is changing, and “it’s time for people to go home.”
It’s been nearly a month since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, surrounded by other officers who stood by and did nothing. The ensuing weeks here in Seattle — the protests, the violent police response, the looting and destruction, the abandoning of the East Precinct, and the occupation of a small section in the heart of Capitol Hill — have been filled with hope, new ideas, and if we’re lucky the start of something important in addressing structural racism. But they were also weeks filled with people making dumb mistakes and doubling down on them, and as we enter the final act of this Shakespearean tragedy of errors, it seems few will emerge unscathed.
The original sinners are of course the police, still wrestling with biased policing practices eight years into the Consent Decree. They then piled on by committing the first act of irony in this tale: when faced with an angry protest over the police’s excessive use of force, they responded with excessive use of force — ultimately turning Capitol Hill into a tear-gassed war zone. They compounded that error by failing time and again to explain their actions by providing thin justifications that fell apart almost immediately upon examination of protesters’ and journalists’ videos of the events, or by simply failing to provide any coherent explanation at all. We still don’t know, for example, who gave the order for SPD to abandon the East Precinct. We have also heard contradictory, or simply poorly explained, stories about SPD 911 response times in the area with the East Precinct shut down, SPD’s policies for responding to calls in the CHOP, and how police officers were met by protesters when attempting to respond to the shootings (SPD said that crowd was “violent,” then later backed that down to “hostile”).
Mayor Durkan and Chief Best don’t fare much better. Durkan, faced with a progressive wing of protesters and their allies who have detested her since before she was even elected, found herself in a tough spot trying to balance support for First Amendment rights to protest with the need to maintain order in the midst of both a pandemic and an economic meltdown. Having spent much of the past year wrestling with visible crime and homelessness issues downtown, she stands nearly alone in the middle ground, trying to unite the city at a time when the city doesn’t appear to want to unite under any leader, let alone her. And yet she has stumbled through her own Groundhog Day, experimenting with new approaches day after day but without any clear articulation of a path forward. With both the protests and the CHOP, she let the situation get away from her, and still today she struggles with how to take it back.
Best, for her part, is equally caught between a rock and a hard place: the first black woman to head the Seattle Police Department, deeply sympathizing with the protesters but also responsible for supporting her officers, keeping them safe, and ensuring public safety. We can acknowledge that she is working under a microscope, and yet her words and actions have not lived up to expectations: after a somewhat misleading announcement of a ban on the use of tear gas by patrol officers, we learned that she was the one who authorized it in the first place — and then she authorized it again less than 48 hours after her ban. She disavowed the decision to abandon the East Precinct; hyped the level of crime in the CHOP while providing no evidence (she came armed with printouts of crime reports today, apparently having learned her lesson); and repeatedly said that without militarized crowd-control weapons her officers will need to resort to “handguns and riot batons.”
The City Council has jumped in and in some ways made things worse, preferring politics to policy and theater to an actual plan. Sawant, of course, has been the worst of the lot: in a spectacular example of astroturfing, she led a late-night group of protesters to “take City Hall” — by letting them in with her own passkey. After this past Saturday night’s shooting, she made unfounded accusations that it was a “right-wing attack” (and quietly walked that back this morning, without apology). She is trying her best to push the CHOP to align with her own political movement. And she has organized her army of supporters to bully through bills without thorough deliberations, lashing out at her colleagues for the crime of proffering amendments to fix issues with her legislative efforts. But the other Council members, perhaps not wanting to be outdone by other progressive cities, have turned this into political theater and tripped over themselves in a mad rush to crank out bills to make them look responsive to protesters’ demands: bans on SPD’s use of chokeholds and crowd-control weapons, restricting mourning badges, conducting an inquest on SPD’s budget (only to discover that it’s mostly headcount expenses), and calling for the Mayor’s resignation. This is the second great irony: only last year as property crime levels rose across much of the city, SPD was dealing with high attrition, and city officials were being accused of not supporting the police, most of the Council members (with the vocal exception of Sawant) were insisting that they fully supported SPD (here is Herbold doing so only four months ago), and topping their list of evidence for that was the increases in SPD’s budget that they had voted to approve. Fast-forward to the present, as the Council instantly flips 180 degrees, denounces the police department, approves new restrictions, and vows to immediately slash its budget. Now there are valid reasons, in line with progressive policies, for re-imagining SPD, funding community-based programs, and removing the responsibility from the police for responding to calls that are better dealt with by someone not carrying a gun. But those things require an actual plan, and the City Council’s mad performative sprint to look like they are responding to the protests has skipped all of that. After asking the city’s own police accountability groups to provide recommendations on SPD’s use of crowd-control weapons, they instead decided not to wait another week for their report and passed a set of restrictions anyway — even though a judge had just issued a temporary restraining order that accomplished nearly the same thing (Chief Best had harsh words for the City Council this afternoon for passing their ban on crowd control weapons, and pleaded with them to repeal it and let the judge’s temprorary restraining order set the rules). They have made public promises about cutting SPD’s budget by 50%, an arbitrary number with no basis in any analysis of what functions SPD should still be doing after its role is re-imagined. There is several months, if not years, of necessary and complex work involving community representatives and subject-matter experts, to redesign police and public safety, but the city’s deliberative body is having none of that.
The protesters — and especially the organizers and the leaders of advocacy groups — don’t come out of this looking so great either, even with the best of intentions. There have been several instances of infighting over the last few weeks as potential leaders have fought for time in front of the microphone and cameras. In a panel discussion I participated in last week, Rev. Kelle Brown gave a fantastic explanation of how leadership works within the Black community, a model that is deeply tied to Black culture in important ways but can make it challenging for other parties to clearly identify the leaders and for officials to negotiate with the community of protesters to meet their demands. And the protest movement as a whole allowed itself to get co-opted by progressive ally groups, so that at the pivotal moment when SPD abandoned the East Precinct, instead of becoming a new chapter of “Occupy Seattle” to demand that the city address structural racism and over-policing, they formed “Occupy Woodstock” and becaome an experiment in participatory democracy. While the original protest organizers have done their best to take it back and re-branded the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” (CHAZ) to the “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” (CHOP), it has still remained largely street fair by day and (by their own admission) increasingly dangerous area at night. The organizers’ attempts to get that under control has in many ways undermined their message and demands, with an armed militia patrolling the streets and at times harassing journalists and confiscating visitors’ cameras (actions that they would never accept from SPD). Their public statements are beginning to match SPD’s for the level of spin: they claimed that Saturday night the SPD officers were never actually prevented from entering the CHOP to secure the shooting scene (despite video evidence that the crowd was, indeed, hostile).
And, of course, we can’t forget the villain in the story: SPOG, the police officers’ union, which has obstructed police reform efforts and last week was expelled from the MLK Labor Council after Council members didn’t buy the police union’s sorry-not-sorry letter as sufficiently owning up to the work that the union needs to do to address the continuing issues with police bias and use of force in Seattle.
On Sunday, while some CHOP participants were drafting a statement on actions they would take to deal with their late-night public safety issues, Andre Taylor, the brother of Che Taylor and founder of advocacy group Not This Time, brokered a meeting between them and Mayor Durkan for this morning to discuss next steps for winding down the zone. However, according to Taylor “some agitators” convinced the CHOP organizers not to show up for the meeting, so it never happened. Nevertheless, Durkan held a press conference this afternoon to announce how she wants to move forward. Surrounded by elders from the Black community and a representative from the GSBA and Capitol Hill Business Alliance, she announced that she was working with community members to bring the CHOP to an end. The Mayor said that her administration is engaging with black-led community organizations, hoping that they will encourage people to leave the CHOP voluntarily, but that if gun violence continues they will “look at additional steps.” Durkan also said that the Human Services Department is setting up resources for homeless individuals who have set up tents within the CHOP.
Durkan listed a number of other initiatives that are being spun up or investigated, which she acknowledged needed to be led by the community and not by the city:
- investing in Black and marginalized communities, including transferring city-owned properties back to the community.That includes that Central Area Community Center, whose transfer has been stalled for years (and Durkan’s administration shares the blame for stalling it);
- investing another $5 million in mentoring and summer learning for Black youth;
- a community space on Capitol Hill;
- giving the community a larger voice in contract negotiations with SPOG.
And then there’s the East Precinct itself, still empty. Durkan announced at a press conference this afternoon that Chief Best has begun the process of negotiating with the protesters and the community for the phased return of SPD to the East Precinct, though she does not yet have a date for the re-opening. “What’s happened in the last four days detracts from the message,” she said, “and it’s time to restore order.” Durkan also said that the long-term fate of the East Precinct is still an open question and the community will take an active part in deciding the answer with the leadership of Rev. Harriet Walden, a CPC co-chair, founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, and long-time advocate for police reform.
Walden and several of the other community leaders at the press conference spoke in support of SPD returning to the East Precinct. Walden recounted that former City Council member Sam Smith pushed to establish the East Precinct specifically to provide better police service to the Black community in the Central Area; before then, it could take 45 minutes for the police to respond to the Central Area, and Walden said that sometimes callers needed to say that a white woman had been hurt in order to get a response. Pastor Carey Anderson agreed with the need to re-open the East Precinct to restore services to the community, while also agreeing with the protestors’ principles, their right to protest, and the need for changes to how the city funds social services. Anderson said that he will be opening up the fellowship hall in his church, which abuts the CHOP, as a location for ongoing negotiations and conversations for how to move forward.
But the most powerful testimony at the press conference was from Andre Taylor. He related how he had told the CHOP organizers that “CHOP is an idea,” not a place, and by making it a place, they minimize it. “When everything was peaceful, I applauded them,” he said, “but when violence enters in, it overshadows your message.” Taylor said that he asked the organizers if they were aware of the danger of the place: “Are you willing to die? Are you willing to take the responsibility for someone who dies on your watch?” Taylor expressed his disappointment that the CHOP organizers didn’t show up to the meeting with Mayor Durkan, but emphasized that his message to them is, “I still think there is an opportunity.”
Late this afternoon as word spread through the CHOP that the Mayor and Chief Best planned to re-occupy the East Precinct, some protesters were seen removing some of the signs adorning the building in order to preserve them — and others piled as many signs as possible in front of the entrance. Later in the evening, protesters linked arms in front of the East Precinct (SPD has not attempted to re-enter the East Precinct today). There are signs that at least some of the protesters will hang on as long as they can. In the meantime, a new group appears to be spinning up to apply the lessons learned from CHOP to future protests.
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