Opinion: How I Learned to Rightfully Occupy the City Council Chambers and Love #BlocktheBunker

by Clifford Cawthon

The Milwaukee Police’s killing of Slyville Smith was a fresh wound as over 300 people rallied in the City Council chambers yesterday. The public’s demand was simple: Block the construction of the new North Seattle Police Precinct bunker and fund essential services. Their message fell on deaf ears.

According to an anonymous source at City Hall, the room was barely at capacity at the start of the meeting but Council President, Bruce Harrell closed off the chambers. He didn’t consider the option of opening the southern-facing outflow doors to the chamber. Instead, he ordered the security detail to close the Chamber. In response, the opponents exercised their first amendment rights and marched up into the Council Chamber and reasonably demanded a place in the Chamber. In other words, this wave of protestors demanded to be heard and consulted; that the people have a role in this decision.  They demanded that the process be democratic.
Overwhelmingly, a sense of misrepresentation set the mood for the actions that took place in the City Council Chamber that day.  Florencia Ybarra, a board member with the Tenants Union of Washington remarked that “[the Latino community] knows that Councilmember Gonzalez isn’t representing the community because they’re not taking us into consideration”. She was referring to the fact that community meetings about the North Precinct were not advertised through community organizations and were held largely in the north end of the city. Florencia wasn’t alone, Gerald Hankerson, the President of the Seattle-King County NAACP also expressed disgust with council almost pathological insistence on supporting the bunker calling it, “despicable”.

This $149 million bunker would only serve to further a few interests. These interests are mostly tied up in real-estate development, construction, and the police union and department. Let’s not forget that the Seattle Police Department has not provided compelling evidence as to why their current North Seattle Police Precinct is unusable. Nor why they deserve the nation’s biggest police station!

The councilmembers of color’s later remarks about their experiences with racism, and their families and friend’s experiences of racism, were little comfort as the council voted -1 to approve the bunker resolution. The councilmembers of color’s sympathies with the public’s concerns were as tone-deaf as an old white man who denounces Black Lives Matter and, in the same breath, insists that he marched with King.

Ironically, the only dissenting vote came from white councilmember, Michael O’ Brien. The councilman has been a long-time opponent and skeptic of the bunker and, as one activist of color mused earlier this month, “I’ve never felt so represented by a white man in my life”. O’Brien offered an alternative to the council with a motion to delay the vote until September 12th, when his colleague and fellow bunker opponent, Councilwoman Kshama Sawant would return from her wedding in India; therefore, the full council would have been present. In addition to allowing the full council to be present, the vote would have allowed the community outside of North Seattle to provide their input.

The City Council Chambers were a space of protest yesterday as Councilman Harrell had to semi-threateningly negotiate the continuation of the meeting after protests disrupted it. During this protest, there were no conflicts from the floor, the community seemed unified behind a message that was loud and clear: the people of the City of Seattle need to Block the Bunker. This project would prioritize building a bunker over affordable housing, infrastructure, treating drug addiction (Police Chief O’ Toole cited it as the cause of 95% of the crime in North Seattle); and keeping the homeless safe, and transitioning them to stable housing situations.

The City Council, most notably Council President Harrell, and Councilmembers Burgess, Gonzalez, Johnson and Juarez seemed less interested in the will of the people than the wishes of the Seattle Police Officer’s guild – which donated to each one of their campaigns at the maximum amount.

For activists going forward, there was a distinct commitment to be present. Komalpreet Sahota outlined what communities of color needed to do: “We need to check ourselves as a community and we need to be here…Aurora Ave. leads throughout the entire city and from there their little ‘satellites’ can continue to terrorize our communities.” I’m with her.

If we allow the Council and their benefactors to continue operating as business-as-usual then we will be priced out of this city and Seattle will become a militarized fortress for the wealthy. The proposed North Seattle precinct will do nothing but support the continued militarization of the police by providing a surveillance and brute force platform against any dissent against the gentrification of the city.

If we, as the community, are going to meaningfully influence this decision then we have to take the conversation to the Bunker’s backers. And those ‘stakeholders’ are same ones that have raised rents throughout our city and build $1500/mo. studios along Rainier Ave.

Each and every politician has a support system, and their decisions reflect the financial and political supporters listed as contributors by the Ethics and Elections Commission. The Council today lacked accountability in the Chamber and many pledged to make them accountable in the ballot box. Still, their friends who are listed on the Ethics and Elections Commission website will go unaccountable as well if activists and concerned citizens don’t take action.

On Monday, hundreds passionately shut down city hall.  The question going forward is: Will they shut down the interests that run city hall? One Blocks the bunker by blocking the donors.