by Marcus Harrison Green
“Who stands with Baltimore?” The answer came booming back as over 200 people in unison injected the South Seattle air with the response of: “Seattle stands with Baltimore!”
Rainier Avenue South boomed with shouts for revolution and justice on Saturday afternoon as marchers claimed the street as their own for over four hours, forcing traffic to a crawl and outright halt several times as they marched in a ten-mile loop around the South Seattle arterial, followed closely by a swarm of Seattle police officers.
The march, which began and ended at Rainier Beach Community Center, was organized as part of a Black Lives Matter National Day of Action to show solidarity with Baltimore that saw a wave of demonstrations across the country sparked by the recent death of 25-year-old Baltimore native Freddie Gray.
Baltimore erupted in riots last week after Gray sustained fatal injuries when his spine was nearly severed from his head while in police custody. While the six police officers (who initially apprehended Gray after he took off running upon making eye contact with one of them) have been charged for murder, this most recent case of a high-profile killing of a black male at the hands of police officers has further fueled the national dialogue and movement around police reform and systemic racism – concerns many participants in Saturday’s march say are just as pressing in Seattle as they are 2,300 miles away.
“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” proclaimed 19-year-old Ardo Hersi, who ran from the Rainier Beach light rail station to pick up with the march at Rainier and Orcas street. “Today isn’t just about solidarity with Baltimore, it’s about fighting police brutality in Seattle and working together to dismantle this white supremacist system that’s killing everyone.”
This was the prevailing societal assessment of several marchers – many of whom held signs saying “We Demand Justice Now” and “End Police Brutality.” Marcella Pendegrass, a 69-year-old African-American South Seattleite who joined the march – even with an injured knee – after it passed by her bus stop.
“I saw this march and realized, despite my knee, I needed to be out here walking with everyone. How many more black lives need to be stolen until this nation, this city wakes up? We’re marching to demand justice because I want it for my people too,” shared Pendegrass who took the bullhorn and lead protesters in the civil rights song of long ago,“We Won’t Stop Until Our People Are Free.” She also prodded police officers to “repent” for their “collective sins”.
It was this sight of a multiracial cadre (though predominantly made up of blacks and latinos) of pavement pounders along with their police “entourage” that startled many of the residents as the marchers headed northward down Rainier Avenue passing by the Brighton, Hillman City and Columbia City neighborhoods.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in the so-called “progressive end” of “progressive” Seattle, onlookers seemed to be in accord with the marchers as they passed by with chants of “Revolution! Revolution! There is only one solution!” and the signs reiterating that black lives mattered. Several “iPhone activists” took photos of the marchers, and many shouted “We stand with you,” holding up fists in solidarity as marchers continued north. Despite the traffic log caused by the march, frequent honks could be heard from cars passing by. One man in a silver Mercedes van rolled down his front window to yell, “God, what you’re doing is beautiful,” as his vehicle creeped by marchers in the opposite lane.
Though not all bystanders took a favorable view of the unfolding demonstration. As marchers passed by Hillman City one man could be heard blithely saying “Well, I guess at least now we know what the Rainier Road Diet will look like,” as he shook his head.
“I just don’t really understand why they’re marching to be honest,” said a Columbia City resident who declined to be identified. “All lives matter to me and I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen to people – they do – but all I see [from the news] is that the violence is mainly being caused by the people protesting. If all life is supposed to be weighed the same how come there’s no marches for cops?”
Some marchers blamed such confusion on what they claim has been unfair and sloppy media coverage in sensationalizing the negative incidents around the Black Lives Matter demonstrations (most notably during the recent riots in Baltimore), where they feel any attempt at contextualizing what catalyzes these actions has been deliberately absent.
“The media coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and what recently happened in Baltimore with Freddie Gray has been been horrible,” said Tera Oglesby, a marcher and white anti-racist organizer who believes the media has shifted attention away from the glaring ills that plague society.
“They’re taking the focus off of what the heart of these marches and demonstrations are really about, which is the structural and systemic racism that continues to pervade every single institution from the police department, to the government, to the nonprofit sector”.
For many in attendance, this system (along with the police brutality it elicits) is starkly obvious and borne out by facts that many rattled off like John Clayton does football statistics:
- In the month of March alone, 111 people in the United States were killed by police officers (a total that matches all of the deaths at the hands of police in the United Kingdom over the last 115 years).
- While black youth make up only 16% of the school-age population, they account for over 46% of those who experience multiple suspensions from school (39% are expelled).
- 16% of persons in the total population under the age of 18 are black, yet a third make up the total of juvenile arrests.
- The rate of drug use for blacks 12 and older is only 10%, yet they make up 32% of those arrested for drug use.
- Blacks make up just 14% of the population,yet account for 37% of the nation’s homeless population.
Marchers pointed out that those were just a few lowlights to aid in explaining “what all the fuss was about”.
As the march continued underneath the spring sun,so did startled expressions on the faces of onlookers – caused less by the sight of the marchers and more by the appearance of their entourage. A swarm of at least 19 police officers, 10 Seattle Police Department police cars and 10 police vans seemed excessive for several South End residents. Frequent shouts of “look at all the cops” from motorists could be heard throughout the march.
“This is just overkill. There’s a police van for every person marching down the street. When we really need the police, where are they?” said John Linton who watched the marchers as they passed by Lowe’s on Rainier Avenue.
Jack Bolton, who joined Linton in the Lowe’s parking lot to watch the display, seconded that opinion. “This is a peaceful march and we have like 30 vans and cop cars. So this is where our taxpayer money is going. If I was a thief I’d be having a field day somewhere knowing every cop in the South Precinct must be here,” shared Bolton.
A few residents along the route went out of their way to thank the police officers for “doing their job” as they followed the marchers, some seeing the police presence as a necessary “precaution” to avoid the violence that struck Capitol Hill during the previous day’s May Day protest that saw 3 police officers injured and 16 people arrested, in what until that point, had been an otherwise peaceful day of demonstrations.
Though police officers directed any media inquires to their public affairs department (SPD officials have yet to respond to an Emerald inquiry regarding the concentration of police for the march), several could be overheard saying they were simply there to make sure demonstrators were kept safe as they walked along Rainier Avenue, where there had been a slew of much publicized accidents in recent months.
Not everyone bought that explanation for the huge number of “roving sentinels” that accompanied the demonstrators, including Seattle District 2 City Council candidate Josh Farris. “You have a parade in Fremont and you get about half the police presence, but for a march in the South End we get the entirety of SPD down here. It’s ridiculous.”
Farris was even more concerned with the city employees who no showed. “Where is Mayor Murray? Where’s Bruce Harrell? This is about a huge section of our population that continues to be persecuted at every turn and every single city council member and person running for city council should be down here in support!” said Farris, who joined the march after it passed the Hillman City Collaboratory.
Before turning around to head back south towards the Community Center, marchers stopped at Rainier Avenue and Massachusetts on the cusp of the I-90 corridor, spreading in a halo around Rainier Avenue South to listen to speeches from event organizers and anyone who felt compelled to speak about what had brought them to assemble with others.
Organizer Nikkita Oliver took to a megaphone to thank everyone for “putting your feet in the streets” for the five-mile jaunt. Devan Leigh Rogers, an organizer with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) then took the megaphone to shout, “Whose lives matter?” which was met with the response of: “Black lives matter!”.
As the rousing speeches continued, many in the crowd took inspiration from what was unfolding. Seeing the day as a moment in a confluence of many that rekindled hope for a truly equitable nation, starting with their own city.
“To see the youth and everyone out here… I’ve never been this hopeful for change since the Million Man March (on Washington, D.C.),” swooned Marcella Pendegrass.
Echoing those sentiments were Charles Hester Cheek who said the march was not only hopeful but served notice that the South End isn’t as fractured of an area along racial and ethnic lines as many have claimed it to be.
“The myth that black, brown and white can come together here is just that. This march is made up of a diverse group of people, and I’ve seen more and more people realizing that what affects one group of people, affects us all,” said Cheek.
“We’re all Oscar Grant, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray – all of us. If everyone separates it’s easier to defeat us (as a movement). If we come together, it’s much harder to divide us. That’s not just true of this march – it’s true in how we as a city, and a nation, need to go about living our lives.”