by Marissa Jenae Johnson
A couple weeks ago, I heard my roommate knock on my door.
“I just wanted to warn you: the police are outside, just so you know.”
I looked out my window and my quiet residential street in Greenlake was now filled with flashing lights and at least ten police vehicles. Nearly a dozen officers covered head-to-toe in SWAT gear walked around the house across the street that had been under construction for weeks. They marched into the abandoned building with assault rifles raised, as unmarked police cars blocked driveways and a helicopter could be heard overhead.
My heart raced as I saw them. As a Black woman, and especially a Black woman who has done work in the Movement for Black Lives, the police are triggering in any context. Their riot gear reminded me of the marches for Mike Brown over a year ago: the time an officer picked me up off my feet and threw me on the ground; the time on MLK Day when an officer put his hand around my neck, pinning me up against a van.
I began to sweat as I thought about their assault rifles and remembered the time an officer pointed theirs at me one night in Capitol Hill. Seeing those white faces with badges and guns, I began to fear for my life. Hiding upstairs, I started to cry. Then they were gone – as quickly as they had arrived.
It’s the same way I felt watching videos of police brutalizing protesters in Baton Rouge before the police shooting. Like others, I was horrified by the images of officers shoving people to the ground, even going as far as to step onto private property to beat people who were there with permission of the owner. It felt surreal to watch officers march up to people with shields raised and mace ready while the cries of “Black Lives Matter” could be heard in the background.
But the most tragic part of what I saw from Baton Rouge was the fact that I wasn’t watching someone else’s story far away in the racist South. I was watching police confrontations that I had already experienced here in Seattle. Seattle is truly an innovator – and militarized police is no exception. The horrors I saw in Baton Rouge had long been played out in the progressive rainy city in the Sound.
If the American South is a vintage, worn, sort of racism, then Seattle is its shiny Democrat-Blue offspring. In a city recognized by the White House for its strides in police reform and where locals take pride in being “unlike the racist Right”, consider the similarities between policing in Seattle and the larger policing issues nation-wide:
- We still have a highly militarized police. There are few distinctions between the SWAT gear employed by the Baton Rouge Police and the Seattle Police save for the emblems on their badges. Assault rifles (both lethal and beanbag), high-grade pepper spray and flash bang grenades are militarized facets of both departments. To top it all off, the mayor has proposed building a new bomb-proof police bunker in North Seattle that will cost the city nearly $160 million. Both departments even use police bikes as barricades, shields, and weapons against protesters.
- We are still under consent decree, and it hasn’t done much. After a 2011 Department of Justice investigation found that the Seattle Police department “engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law” and “certain practices that could have a disparate impact on minority communities and could support allegations of discriminatory policing”, the Seattle Police Department has been under federal oversight. During that time, however, very little has been done and the mayor has failed to put forth reforms proposed even by the Community Policing Commission he appointed himself.
- The police union ensures lawlessness amongst themselves and secrecy in their dealings with the city. Beyond the sexual assault accusations against officers, numerous cases of brutality, and racist social media posts, the Seattle Police Union works hard to shield its officers from any sort of responsibility. Wanna file a complaint about an officer? You will have to go through the Office of Professional Accountability which is almost entirely staffed by SPD officers themselves. To make things worse, the Seattle Police Union has rejected their recent contract offer from the city, with police accountability reforms as a primary point of concern. Furthermore, these negotiations happen in secret, so there is no public oversight or transparency in police contracts.
- There have been police deaths in response to police brutality. In similar fashion to the police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Chris Monfort killed Seattle officer Timothy Brenton on Halloween Night in 2009. Monfort said he believed that random police shootings would incentivize the police to reform themselves and that American citizens had an obligation exercise their 2nd Amendment rights against the brutal and corrupt police.
As tensions continue to rise nationally around our unwillingness to disarm, defund, and demilitarize the police, be assured that far from the liberal utopia is claims itself to be, Seattle is squarely at the center. Our city government, filled with nice Democrats who increase police funding and passive liberals who help shield the police department from reckoning, has failed us. As long as we continue to mimic the same problems in policing as the rest of the nation, we will see the same unrest being sparked in cities across the nation. No amount of White House photo-ops or mayoral platitudes about Black Lives Matter can hide the reality of a society that is not serious about ending police brutality.
So, as you watch the news over the coming days, weeks, and years only to witness the natural response to police violence in America, the fact no one on your street owns a confederate flag should not bring you contentment. Know that the uprisings we see across the nation are truly visions of our own backyard, of our own failings, and of our own desires. When the police come barging into your neighborhood with SWAT gear and assault rifles do not be unmoved. Someday their weapons may be pointed at you. For people like myself, they already have.
Featured photo is a cc licensed image by Joseph Silvercloud/Flickr