Rainier Valley Warning Signs: A Prime Opportunity to Shut Up and Listen

by Marilee Jolin

On Saturday, drivers in Rainier Valley and the Central District were greeted by hundreds of signs warning them of their entry into Seattle’s top two “hotspots” of gun violence.  There was no explanation or images on the signs, simply the words “Warning! You are Entering the Rainier Valley” and on the back: “Welcome! You are leaving the Rainier Valley!”  

I was initially outraged – how dare someone defame the valley in this way?!  Why must we keep perpetuating the idea that our neighborhood is so violent?  I thought of the time my husband invited some east side friends to our neighborhood for a drink; they refused because they said it “wasn’t safe”.  I imagined outsiders hanging those posters: mocking us, misunderstanding us and demeaning us with their misguided political ploy.  

Then I read the statement released by the group, Equal Representation Now, that hung the signs.  They call attention to the disproportionate attention given to violence and shootings in other parts of Seattle but note that the staggering number of Black youth shot in Rainier Valley and the Central District are virtually ignored by city government.  In 2014 the Mayor’s office rejected a proposal to create a special office to address violence in these neighborhoods, calling it unnecessary according to the Equal Representation’s press release.

Good Point.  Still, no matter how good the intention or how worthy the goal, these signs malign a wonderful and vibrant part of the city painting us in a poor light, seeing only the bad things.

As one commenter noted on an article in the Rainier Valley Post, “Like a dirty secret, it tells our youth, our children, that it is only when you are outside of these areas [Rainer Valley and Central District] are you welcome in the City of Seattle.”  These signs feel stigmatizing – painful generalizations that label our neighborhood in a way that diminishes hope and stifles community feeling.

I am part of a movement in the South End which seeks to recognize, honor and uphold the beauty of our community, preserving our elders here and welcoming our new residents; encouraging business as well as social services and non-profits; working to grow carefully and inclusively.  I am proud to live and work in the South End and I hate to see negative messages about this place.

And yet.  I have never been personally affected by gun violence.  My experience of Rainier Vally in this way is very different from some of my friends’ experience.  Over the summer when the front page was so frequently filled with the word “shooting” followed closely by the words “South Seattle”, I was angered and frustrated and saddened – but that is all.  I clucked my tongue, shook my head, put the newspaper away and went about my day.  I didn’t attend even one funeral or memorial service.  I did not shed a tear.

Not all residents in the Rainier Valley experience violence in the same way.  For some, it’s a disappointing news headline.  For many others, it is a deeply painful personal loss and ongoing trauma.  I have a friend who was absolutely devastated by the shootings over the summer.  She lost two friends in less than two weeks.  She attended multiple funerals.  Her life is forever changed by these losses.  She is forever scarred by the fear and trauma from these deaths.  

This realization that my experience is not the complete experience – that my view is deeply tinged by my privilege – reminds me to (as a wise friend put it) “Shut up. Sit down. Listen. And Shut Up.”  Shutting up for a second provides me the opportunity to get beyond the racially privileged way I’ve been taught to engage the world and allows a different perspective to penetrate my process.  

This time I did my “listening” in the form of online comments.  This one from the Rainier Valley Post article really struck me: “…there seem to be a large number of comments from white males stating they don’t like the signs in their area, that they … don’t feel they are in danger, and promoting tearing down of the signs. Clearly missing the point that it’s not about them, it’s about the dozens of young black men murdered over the past 2 years.”

Its not about them.  These words ring in my ears.  Its not about me.  

After shutting up and listening for a bit, I have decided to keep on shutting up about this one.  This question – the question of whether the warning signs should remain hung up – is not my question to answer.  I simply don’t have a pony in this race.  I defer to those whose lives have been powerfully and painfully shaped by gun violence and I support their efforts to bring attention to this vital and urgent issue, even if I don’t like their tactics.  

Do I like the signs hung up in my neighborhood over the weekend?  No.  They ignore the best and highlight the worst.  It makes me angry to see any image of this great neighborhood that doesn’t take into account our music, our food, our artists, our neighborhood clean-ups, our excelling students, our scrappy entrepreneurs and our innovative non-profit leaders.  

But does that matter?  I think not.  Not right now, at least.  When your friends and sons and brothers are being killed, reputation stops mattering.  I suspect, in that situation, you do whatever it takes to get the attention of those in power and make change.  I can’t say for sure because I have never had that experience.  I pray I never do.  I hope the actions of these brave activists will fulfill their purpose: get us talking, get the mayor’s ear, make some real change and transform these beautiful streets into a truly safe community.  

Image Courtesy Marilee Jolin

3 thoughts on “Rainier Valley Warning Signs: A Prime Opportunity to Shut Up and Listen”

  1. Wow! Thank you for a very thought provoking, well written article. Yes, the signs are startling, and can be taken the wrong way. But once the reasoning behind the signs are made clear it makes sense. Sometimes you have to swat the hornet nest to get action from city hall, and this seems like a great way to do it.

    ““On Capitol Hill the reaction to threats of violence was to put together a task force, engage LGBTQ leaders, and even go as far as to paint crosswalks to show solidarity and that (the threat of) violence would not be tolerated.” We applaud the City’s quick action in this case of the verbal threats and harassment on Capitol Hill. However, the African-American community in Seattle is actually losing lives; and we are being told that the find-it-fix-it campaign is enough.””