Seattle’s Two Ton Elephant

by Marcus Harrison Green

Demonstrators march down 23rd Avenue. Photo Credit: Celia Berk

A cure for the will to live is what greeted me on the streets of South Seattle Monday night. The mood was like Vatican City moments after they announce the pope died. It was barely an hour after a different announcement. One made by a St. Louis Grand Jury who decided against indicting Ferguson, MO police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Mike Brown, effectively absolving Wilson of any wrongdoing for fatally shooting the unarmed teenager on August 9th.

Stepping onto the light rail from Rainier Beach, I was met by faces that ran a narrow spectrum between anguish and disillusionment. There was the middle aged black mother with tears silently streaming from her eyes, her face petrified as emotion drained from it while her two children argued over what to watch on their iPad, oblivious to the rest of the world.

There was the elderly man who sat a few seats behind her, with the face of sullen resignation of someone who had lived enough life to anticipate its inherent unfairness – insurance against shattered hopes.  And then there was the young man with the Seahawks cap, baggy jeans and dark hoodie who sat next to me, mimicking a description that could easily put him in the cross hairs of a “concerned” citizen’s 9 millimeter.

With eyes focusing laser-like somewhere far off, his face brimmed with a visceral rage that could barely be contained. It threatened to sear through his skin and ignite whatever happened to be around.

I knew what his face wore well. It was an expression my own adorned when I was 13 years old. A Seattle Police Department officer handcuffed me and threw me head first on top of his patrol car – ostensibly for jaywalking.  The memory remains indelible of him smashing my temple down onto the car’s hood, whispering in my ear, “N**ger, I could rape your mother and you couldn’t do sh*t about it.” I fought as hard as I ever had to hold back tears, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry.

He would continue to come around the Rainier Beach neighborhood with this wry smirk plastered on his face, knowing that at any moment he could harass me and I could do nothing – except think about killing him.

It was such  a young age to be fitted with the knowledge that you are a disposable person for all intents and purposes. Your thoughts, dignity and virtues all discarded because of what amounts to an arbitrary distinction in pigment. Feeling powerless, you suppress your anger (no matter how justified) hoping beyond hope that you aren’t the next target – knowing that your skin color confines you to the burden of being 4.2 times as likely to be killed by a police officer than your melanin deficient counterparts.

But these things can only be suppressed for so long, which is why I found myself in the midst of a drove of demonstrators who had earlier started off in Downtown’s Westlake Park adding and subtracting to the numbers as they made their way through Seattle’s streets, now packing the lobby of the Garfield Community Center to the point sardines pity anyone in attendance.

What was intended to be a calm, low key “Rapid Response” meeting for youth and residents to process what had just transpired two thousand miles away had now turned into a shouting match between event organizers and demonstrators, with the latter demanding the four police officers in the building leave so that they could peacefully assemble inside the community center.

A kaleidoscope of sound boomed around me. Megaphones blared, “The SPD are killing our children” and “We will not be co-opted by the cops.” Multiple human voice boxes shouted “Hands up don’t shoot” and “Get the police the f*ck out of here!”

With news cameras of the local media soaking in the sight, hoping for a slice of red meat they could use to lead off the night’s broadcasts, the demonstrators abruptly shifted course leaving as swiftly as they came. The protesters went on to march down 23rd and Jackson claiming the Central District as their own, momentarily shutting down streets and causing buses to reroute as they pounded pavement south toward Rainier Avenue, intermittently chanting “Black lives matter.”

It was a case study in ad hoc civic protest: disorganized, incoherent, and necessary. Crucial, if only to bring the required attention to what is happening across this country and inside our city, as much of an imposition as it has become to downtown Christmas tree lightings. For it’s sad that it comes as a revelation to most that these protests are not about Mike Brown, or parsing his worth as a martyr. Nor next time – and there will be a next time – will it be about any one individual.

Which is why, with as much sympathy as I had for the protestors that night (with all of the anger that I had long held about what it means to be black in this country bubbling to the surface and feeding into theirs) I couldn’t help but be troubled. The thought could not escape me that I had been whisked away from something more radical than anything they could possibly engage in that night – grant you running unto the I-5 freeway more than flirts with the extreme.

As Adam Gish, a teacher from Garfield High School who had joined the demonstrators for a small stretch, responded to the question on whether what they were doing was going to make any difference, “No, but what was making a difference was what was going on in there.”

By “there” he meant the confines of the Garfield Community Center’s activity room, usually reserved for Zumba and Yoga classes, that prior to the demonstrators entering had been converted to a gathering hall for anyone in the area who wanted to come and discuss how a decision made a world away effected their own.

Police officers joined residents of all stripes: black, white, Native, Hispanic. Most had never met before, and under normal circumstances wouldn’t have chosen to – falling far out of the reach of each others’ social circle. But all waited their turn to be heard by, to listen to and unleash unfiltered emotion upon one another. Andrea Brenneke from the Restorative Justice Initiative acted as master conductor, making sure no voice went unacknowledged.

Many powerful stories were shared (several even similar to my own), including a young mother named Sara who talked about the realization that her children would never be fatally shot by the police because they were white. While the presence of police officers may have felt tense as a man named Aaron explained even the 10 year olds he knew from around the southend and central district held the mantra of, “F*ck the police” – with SPD officers expressing that they earnestly wanted to find a way to fix that – it wasn’t what was said that was so radical. What was radical was that it was confronted.

For here in that most liberal of bastions, people who never before had to confront a two ton elephant that stubbornly goes ignored, covered by the veil of a “progressive” city and aided in its obscurity by its citizens’ predilection for passive agressivity: Seattle’s racism.

There it was, laid bare, staring at everyone in the room without so much as blinking. There was – no way around it, over it, nor under it. Only through, only head on.

Right then no one could look from an ivory Space Needle and wag their finger at those “less” fortunate places who, “just don’t get it,” or “are so backward as to be laughable.” The mythology was shattered that we don’t harbor a race problem in a city where the incarceration rate of blacks outpaces that of the nation’s – an egregious number in itself. A city where (though Marijuana is now legal) blacks are 13 times more likely to be arrested for drugs. A place that even with its minimum wage increase its residents of color can barely afford and are often forced to migrate to the city’s periphery. And where we limp along toward police reform while a growing number of residents of color join in the chorus of the aforementioned ten year olds.

It was at this point that I saw a hatred galvanize each individual in that room, that could have so easily been directed at each other, cinch on a system that many had fallen victim to and others had been ignorant of – both dispositions now seeming tragic. “America’s preferred race” had finally caught up to the mindset of its discarded one.

Ideas began to take shape from the alchemy of collective human imagination: How do we stop this? How do we address this? How do we get those most prominent in an increasingly gentrified city to accept what our city has become and change it? How do we make sure that this time motivation and action isn’t eroded by the diminishing returns of successive tomorrows?

I’m not gullible enough to assume that people in one room can alter a system that has proven implacable since its creation, nor am I cynical enough to say that it has no impact (for historically the grandest of ideas begin in a room with a limited number)- just ask Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and Paul of Tarsus.

We need more rooms occupied by people who are willing to brave judgement, disdain, fear, anger and shame – whether it be justified or not. Those on both sides of the I-90 corridor need to get to a place where a small group found themselves one fateful night, when the death of an 18-year-old made them hold a mirror up to their city, and see that its own reflection did not contrast with Ferguson’s as much as they would have hoped to believe.

 

5 thoughts on “Seattle’s Two Ton Elephant”

  1. “But these things can only be suppressed for so long…” I briefly attended a conversation at Emerald City Bible Fellowship over the weekend and a women wisely stated that, ‘What was once happening in darkness is coming to light!’ Praise God! This was encouraging to hear! It’s unfortunate that it takes tragedy such as the murder of one unarmed young black man whose body lay in the street for hours and the “proven innocence” of his killer for the nation to cry out but I find hope in this. That brothers death was not in vain. Nor was your experience which you have now shared! The key will be, to not let the memories fade or die. …Sometimes it’s the pain that propels us…

  2. it takes the courageous people like Marcus to get us people of privilege to awaken. I will be preaching on this topic this Sunday, including with permission, Marcus’ story. Thank you deeply…you are a good man, Marcus and our city is fortunate to have your spirit, intelligence and dedication to keep up the work required to change culture and systemic racism. Rev. Peg Morgan, Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation in West Seattle.