by Marilee Jolin
After three and a half hours in City Council Chambers yesterday afternoon, one thing is clear: people in Seattle feel very strongly about Blocking the Bunker.
I arrived at the Council a half hour early and walked immediately into an already half-full room. The Council was voting on a resolution concerning the construction of a new police precinct in North Seattle. As the meeting time grew closer, Matt Spekulation Watson, seated next to me, commented that the room wasn’t as full as he expected – especially compared to the crowd for Wednesday’s meeting.
The councilmembers’ side of the chambers looked somewhat empty too. Gonzalez, Juarez, and Sawant were all absent when Harrell called the meeting to order.
The public comment portion was as expected: overwhelming anti-Bunker. The other issues being raised at the meeting were hardly referenced – though Harrell did separate public comment on I-124 in order to be sure all were heard. One of the earliest speakers, South Seattle’s own Nikkita Oliver set the tone: calling out Councilmember Juarez specifically as a Woman of Color. Oliver said that Juarez’s support of the police precinct sends the message that the voices of the marginalized do not matter to her.
And while great emotion and powerful reasoning were on display from the anti-bunker speakers, the tone within the Chamber was relatively mellow; finger-snapping, enthusiastic clapping and Black Lives Matter signs were the primary means of protest.
Things took a turn when one man began shouting during another speaker’s public comment. From where I was, his words were mostly obscured as people around him began shouting to drown out his, apparently racist, white-supremacist comments. They chanted “Black Lives Matter!” and then, eventually, “Make Him Leave!” as the man continued to shout out of turn. Many minutes went by before security finally escorted the elderly white man slowly out.
After about 30 minutes of public comment, it became clear that the Chambers did not currently contain everyone who wanted to attend or speak. Activists pointed out that those signed up to speak were not being allowed to enter the Chamber but were being held in an overflow room, noting loudly that these voices were being “silenced”. In response, Council President Harrell instructed security to allow the two people signed up to enter the Chamber.
Not long after this, my eye caught quick movements outside the main entrance of the Chamber. The security guards noticed too and started rushing the doors. Suddenly, over 100 people crammed up at the doors demanding entrance. The overflow room had apparently overflowed and its inhabitants, in righteous anger, had stormed the City Council Chambers. Those gathered inside began chanting: “Let Them In!” over and over as the security officers refused to allow anyone to enter.
The next few minutes were very tense; the family seated behind me with 3 kids left and the woman in front noted aloud where our closest exit was. As the chants grew louder and louder, demanding the overflow room be allowed to enter, the Councilmembers filed out. Council President Harrell, ever calm, sauntered over to converse with the security guards and activists.
Soon, the chants faded and then exploded into deafening applause and cheers as all the overflow attendees were allowed into the Chamber. Back in his place at the microphone, Harrell agreed to allow everyone stay – despite his warning about exceeding fire code and that he should call the cops – by opening up the back wall to create more room.
Before long, over 300 people were in the Chambers and the tone of the room had decidedly shifted, pulsing with the forceful energy of the overflow protestors; finger-snaps and applause were replaced with spontaneous chants and shouted demands. As the overflow crowd filed into the chamber, the walls echoed with hundreds of voices at top volume chanting, “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”
With careful management from Council President Harrell, activists did their best to take control of the meeting. Negotiations began with activists demanding that all the overflow attenders be allowed to give public comment. They counted hands and told Harrell 9 more people needed to speak; he countered that 9 could speak but would only be given 30 seconds each and it had to be only 9: “…not 10 or 11”.
Throughout the extended public comment and remainder of the meeting, a clear power struggle played out between the Council and activists. Councilmembers struggled to complete sentences without intense heckling from the crowd. Activists were adamant that they not be passed over in favor of process and procedure, regularly reminding the Council (mostly through shouted interruptions) that the will of the people must trump “business as usual”.
Things began to settle down as the meeting shifted focus to a few procedural votes of little interest to activists and during the separate public comment period for I-124 for which a couple dozen proponents had waited patiently to make their voices heard.
But tension returned with a vengeance when Councilmembers tried to speak about the Bunker. Anger from activists rose and bubbled over into a nearly constant stream of shouted interruptions.
Councilmembers Gonzalez and Juarez received the greatest vitriol from the crowd, with frequent shouts of “Sell-out!” each time they spoke. The ostensibly personal nature of the comments clearly affected Juarez, who frequently addressed protestors directly, demanding they show her respect and even saying she “wasn’t raised the way you were apparently raised” to one particularly vocal protestor. Other Councilmembers entirely ignored protestors – most notably Councilmember Burgess, who read his statement in a quiet, controlled tone despite such loud heckling from activists that none of his words were discernable over the uproar.
Councilmember Gonzalez was able to speak about changes made to the resolution after public outcry at Wednesday’s meeting, repeatedly noting that there is no specific amount of money endorsed by the new version of the resolution and that the Racial Equity Toolkit’s implementation is a primary requirement before the Council will approve any money. The new resolution, she insisted, sets up a framework, based on information to be gathered by the Toolkit, for the police to be held accountable to the Council for the price tag of the new precinct.
Activists were nonplussed, shouting that the only acceptable cost for the Bunker is zero dollars and repeatedly demanding “just don’t build it!”.
Councilmember O’Brien acknowledged the intense fury of the community response evident in the Chambers. Though it’s a good resolution, he insisted, it is not an “urgent” resolution and the obvious concerns of the community compel him that the resolution should not be voted on that day. Council President Harrell ultimately agreed, noting that it wasn’t wise to “pass it and then sell it” when they could instead “sell it and pass it later.” Harrell seconded O’Brien’s motion to hold the resolution until the second meeting in September but the motion failed, as the remaining members all voted no.
To overwhelmingly loud jeers, chants and boos from the still riled-up crowd, Harrell called for the vote on the precinct resolution which easily passed 7 – 1, with O’Brien the only dissenting voice. The councilmembers filed out once again amid the loud boos of protestors – one activist voicing loudly that this was just the beginning; promising more and more protestors at every Council meeting “until [the cost of the precinct] is down to zero.”
As the Councilmembers completely disappeared from sight, activists gathered in the middle of the Chamber seats, encouraging each other to remain committed to the fight to Block the Bunker. Though numbers had dwindled somewhat after the 3+ hour meeting, approximately 100 protestors remained, gathering into an ever-tighter circle and repeating after Block the Bunker activist Palca Shibale with amplified voices: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom! It is our duty to win! We must love and protect each other! We have nothing to lose but our chains!”
The meeting had officially ended. The vote had gone through. The Councilmembers had left the Chamber. Many of the attendees had gone home. But these compelling words, these resounding voices, united in struggle were raised mightily to the rafters of Seattle City Hall that afternoon and, I expect, will be raised even more powerfully and louder in the coming months.
Marilee Jolin is a resident of Beacon Hill and the Emerald’s Executive Director