A large contingent of police barricaded 4th Avenue with their bicycles, blocking a route out of Westlake Park. (Photo by Robert Cruikshank)
A large contingent of police barricaded 4th Avenue blocking a route out of Westlake Park. (Photo by Robert Cruikshank)

“I’m not going to stand up and make a promise,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said to a crowd of people protesting police violence demanding she cease the use of tear gas.

The City also gave no promise to give fair warning when deploying tear gas. Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said the law requiring a dispersal order before using tear gas only applies when “it’s not feasible” to do so. Apparently, it wasn’t feasible to warn people in the line of fire.

The New York Times reported tear gas makes people more susceptible to respiratory illness, making them more vulnerable to Covid-19 and potentially encouraging a second wave of infection. It’s banned in war as chemical warfare, but it used routinely by police forces–the past five days of protest a prime example. On Monday night, police finally lost their patience and doused much of Capitol Hill in a giant plume of tear gas, affecting both protester and resident alike. Police used tear gas on people gathered in Capitol Hill again last night, with the Mayor’s refusal to make a “no tear gas” commitment very foreboding.

Brandy Grant of the Seattle Community Police Commission criticized the police response and said “it’s open season on Black lives” during their meeting this morning. “It’s time for [White people] to stand in the gap for us. If you don’t, your silence speaks volumes.”

Yesterday was the first time the Mayor had directly addressed protesters and it happened after a sit-in organized outside the City’s Emergency Operations Center. Two protest leaders, identified as David Lewis and Rashyla Levitt, reached out to Mayor Durkan and extended the invitation to speak. Acting as MC’s, Lewis and Levitt urged their fellow protesters not to boo or interrupt her so that they could hear what the Mayor was saying.

The Mayor did stand out there among the masses for maybe half an hour (thank to the protester who livestreamed it) and boos still came intermittently as she refused to commit to much beyond promising to meet with them again the next day. That meeting will apparently happen at 3pm outside the Emergency Operations Center. After the meeting with protesters, Mayor Durkan held a press conference and mostly stuck to her talking points that Seattle Police Department (“SPD”) was on the right track and had built trust in the community.

The lack of commitment and absence of remorse on the part of the Mayor, combined with the fact that she was negotiating with two leaders who weren’t well known in the social justice community led some Black, Indigenous and People of Color (“BIPOC”) leaders to speak out. Black Lives Matter King County issued a statement saying they didn’t have any affiliation with Rashyla Levitt nor David Lewis. Nikkita Oliver, who ran against Mayor Durkan on an platform that including sweeping police reform, criticized their organizing tactics and promised a response.

1:30pm Rally at Cal Anderson Park

Oliver and other BIPOC activists with deeper ties in the community began spreading word of a “Defund Seattle Police Rally for Black Lives” at Cal Anderson Park at 1:30pm today for the BIPOC leaders to announce their self-identified demands rather than having two leaders they didn’t recognize as such speak for them. Their number one demand, as the name belies, is cutting police department funding to invest in equitable people-centered alternatives.

Mayor Durkan has dodged the question of whether police department budget cuts are on the table, when asked during the press conference. The City estimates its budget shortfall is between $210 million to $300 million due to the Covid recession, and Mayor Durkan has not advocated for new taxes or revenue sources, but rather cuts. Nonetheless, the Mayor said that cutting SPD’s budget would be “very tough” and decisions would be based on values–which values isn’t yet clear.

The Mayor also demurred when asked about retracting her motion to lift the consent decree under which SPD is subject, with the federal Department of Justice providing oversight to ensure the end of pattern of excessive force.

In 2018, Mayor Durkan negotiated a contract with Seattle Police Officers Guild (“SPOG”) that rolled back accountability measures and was sharply criticized by the Community Police Commission, ACLU-WA, and Oliver. Those accountability rollbacks also earned a rebuke from Federal District Judge James Robart who determined it put the department partially out of compliance with the consent decree. Nonetheless, Mayor Durkan is seeking to work with the Trump administration to lift the consent decree.

And I feel like I have to keep saying this: She keeps tear gassing her people.

Slanted media coverage

The abuses are staggering for many people watching the raw footage or at the receiving end of chemical weapons, batons, and rubber bullets. But people getting news via conservative media sources are getting a completely different narrative. It’s not just Fox News, but also KOMO (which is owned by right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting Group owned by a conservative Republican-megadonor billionaire) and KIRO in Seattle, that present protesters as violent instigators indistinguishable from anarchist rabblerousers and burglars. Police, meanwhile, are presented as heroes of great restraint and resolve–never the source of the violence. For people on the ground, the story couldn’t be any different.

Media seems to be polarizing in America right now–perhaps because there’s no neutral side when government gas their own people. Some Seattle reporters have done an incredible job reporting and some have the marks to prove it. An MSNBC reporter was struck by a tear gas canister while standing in Cal Anderson Park live on TV on Monday. Luckily, she was wearing a gas mask and survived without physical injury beyond a singed sleeve. However, there was been a pattern of police forces across the country targeting journalists with their weapons. One egregious example is a Louisville police officer sniping a TV news cameraman with pepperballs, again live on TV. Some reporters have lost an eye to rubber bullets, which are “less lethal” not still very much a deadly weapon.

Why is Mayor Durkan so resistant to reining in police?

The Mayor insisted her police department and chief are doing a good job. She has committed to anything beyond cosmetic changes like modifying mourning badge rituals and turning on police body cameras during crowd control activities–fruit so low hanging that it is astounding it has not yet been plucked.

“This structure doesn’t love us, doesn’t feed us, and tears us down,” Seattle Community Police Commission interim executive director Bessie Marie Smith said through tears at this morning’s meeting.

On one level it’s mind boggling Mayor Durkan has not made firmer commitments or criticized her police force. But looking at Mayoral campaign she ran (and full disclosure, The Urbanist didn’t endorse her) it’s not as surprising.

Some of key promises Mayor Durkan’s campaign made in contrast to opponent Cary Moon:

  • Tough on crime and will promised to expand police force
  • Tough on homeless people and promised to continue sweeps
  • Pro-business and anti-taxation of business
  • Crisis manager

All of those promises rely on expanding and enabling the police force, at least in the mind of a moderate. Those political considerations make Mayor Durkan’s insistence on defending SPD more predictable, but such considerations do not excuse the need for police accountability. An executive that is always on the side of SPD is a huge obstacle to the systemic change we need.

Mayor Durkan repeatedly cited her what she called 40-year career working on police reform during her comments yesterday. It’s a nice talking point, but is it that even the same fight? Has she collaborated with grassroots BIPOC groups demanding system change, or only the elevated few that settle for more cosmetic changes?

Defund the police

The “Defund The Police” rally obviously presents a different demand. In fact, Covid-19 Mutual Aid has suggested a 50% cut to the police budget. This sounds dramatic and it’s likely Mayor Durkan will present any significant budget to SPD as unreasonable, dangerous, and likely to increase crime. Interestingly, when NYPD went on strike to prove broken-windows policing works, crime actually went down.

A decade into the reform effort that the federal consent decree was supposed to jump start, it still feels like we’re still at the beginning. Police still shield themselves from their responsibility to the taxpayers who fund their salaries and pay for their legal defense. They tear gas whole neighborhoods, shrug, and justify this disproportionate response by citing a couple of rocks thrown. They arrest BIPOC protesters, the courts cancel bail hearings violating their due process rights, and authorities shrug. Justice remains highly unequal.

I’m still learning how to be a good ally to the BIPOC community and it’s not always simple, but, when Commissioner Grant asked White people like me to stand in the gap and show up to protest, it really is. The 1:30pm “Defund The Police” rally in Cal Anderson Park is a good place to start. And if you can’t make it to the rally, please donate to the bail fund or organizers as you are able.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.