With Aspirations of Healing Community Divides, Youth Advocate Carries Forward with Peace Festival

by Marcus Harrison Green

Cortez Charles awoke Monday morning with a pain-soaked heart and a mind rumbling with confusion.

Like many in Seattle’s black community, the father of 4 was left reeling from the news that Charleena Lyles, 30-year-old pregnant mother of 3, was fatally shot by police officers in her Seattle apartment the previous day.

Awash in anguish and community outrage over the killing, Charles was struck by a dilemma.

After months of planning, connecting with community organizations, securing food, and finding entertainment, he faced a quandary: Should he go forward with Rainier Beach’s 2nd annual Peace Festival scheduled for the following Saturday or should he nix it?

Fueling the conundrum was an expressed goal of the Peace Festival in building better relations between communities of color and law enforcement.

After Sunday’s events, any bridge currently under construction between the two groups seemed imperiled. He also felt he might be perceived as betraying his community.

Charles well understood the rancor directed at police officers. The former gang member once harbored similar feelings during his time running the streets near his former home on 38th and Genesee, leaving community devastation in his wake;  as he puts it.

But that time, that life, and those thoughts are now long behind him.

A changed man for nearly a decade, the undeterred 34 year-old decided to press on with Saturday’s event after praying and consulting with mentors.  While initially discouraged from anticipating a deluge of criticism, he’s pressing ahead with the festival, viewing it as step toward community healing.

“With last year’s murder of Che Taylor, and now this year with Charleena Lyles, It’s really been discouraging at times to think about moving forward with this event. But I’ve been encouraged to keep pushing and promoting peace in our community and providing a platform for our community to be heard,” says Charles, who plans a tribute on Saturday for Lyles and others killed by police and community violence in the last year.

Reminiscent of the first Peace Festival, this year’s – again organized with members of community empowerment group T.O.K.E.N – will witness members of SPD participate in a basketball game alongside local area youth (SPD lost last year) and will also feature Detective Cookie Denise Bouldin, of South Seattle’s famed Detective Cookie’s Chess Club, appear on a panel discussing community violence.

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Cortez Charles (standing in center of room) in a Peace Festival strategy session with other members of TOKEN. [Photo: Susan Fried]
Though it would have been tempting to disinvite SPD given the current climate, Charles sees them as fulfilling a necessary role come Saturday.

“I could care less about what somebody thinks of me at this stage of my life.  Back in the day I would have never took a picture with the police. But now, I will go on record saying that not all police are bad or have evil intent. However, the reality is our justice system has failed us in so many ways, too many times, leaving us with a question: What are you going to do now??? Will justice be served? Those same questions apply to our community,” says Charles.

Willing to grapple with some of those questions are SPD Community Police Team members Monica Osborn and Heidi Tuttle who will be in attendance on Saturday. Both are Black and work out of the department’s South Precinct.  

“Now’s the time more than ever for SPD to show community engagement, but we don’t want people to not show up because SPD is there,” says Osborn.

However, SPDs involvement could be scaled back, depending on the community’s wishes.

“We don’t need to be at the forefront. While we can still be there and support, if it’s best to take a step back, then we’ll do so. This is ultimately all about how can we support the community, so maybe that means having fewer of us there,” Tuttle says, who has family roots in the South End.

Others are looking past the controversy, saying the motivations propelling the Peace Festival, including community cohesiveness, remain relevant.

“Some people might advise for the Peace Festival to be postponed or cancelled at this time, but I disagree. We need one at this time. It’s not for everybody, but the Rainier Beach community needs this. All the shootings, crime, consistent disinterest by elected officials, and stress of a long school year- we need some Peace,” says Jerrell Davis, better known under his stage name Rell Be Free.

Davis will be performing a set at the festival with his rap companion Essam, and also facilitate the community panel featuring police officers, local organizers, and freshly reformed gang members.

He adds, “A call for Peace isn’t passive – often it requires you to confront and fight back, that’s the process of reaching peace.  So as we gather on Saturday, knowing there will be police officers in attendance, I’m coming to the table with a mentality to confront, challenge and clap back with music  that sends a clear message to young folk and them SPD cops that there is a war happening in this country and all over the globe.”

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Cortez Charles (center) with Rainier Beach community members. [Photo: Susan Fried]
Charles, referred to affectionately as Tez by Rainier Beach community members, wants to make certain the police presence doesn’t overshadow the Peace Festival’s other primary goal, which is just as, if not more, important to him: narrowing the gap between communities.

Growing up in the South End of Seattle, Charles had a front row seat to beefs and animosity between kids in Rainier Beach and Renton, fueled by neighborhood and school pride. He was also privy to discord between the Black and Latino community.

 This led to his decision to split the Peace Festival in half, hosting one in Renton on June 2nd, complementing this Saturday’s.

“I really wanted to expand the festival into areas that were close to Rainier Beach, because kids who live in Renton might initially be put off by it being in Beach so it’s hard to get them out here,” he says.

Charles enlisted the help of Christian Bravo, Programs Manager of Cry Out, a Renton Based non-profit; empowering youth through music workshops to help get Renton’s Peace Festival off the ground. The two met via their respective work with community youth.

“I’m a Mexican guy and I’m working with Cortez. Kids [at the Renton Peace Festival] saw me as a guy from Renton talking to white folk, brown folk, and every type of folk from everywhere.  We’re both people who came out of the community and who see benefit in moving past the stereotypes, moving past all of the delineation we have created, and saying let’s come together. Let’s recognize and celebrate our differences, and making that the reason we come together,” says Bravo, who will provide 13 teenage performers from his organization for the festival.

Bravo, says that community driven events like the Peace Festival garner greater validity than municipality backed multi-cultural or music festival do because they organically originate from residents.

“The cool part of this is that this community doesn’t need the city to tell then they are special. We don’t need outside groups coming in to tell us that we’re multi-ethnic people, and this should be celebrated.” He adds.

Indeed, having community members at the helm assisted Charles with securing the sponsorship of South End based locations such as Skyway Solutions, LGBTQIA+ organizing 206 Forward, YMCA of King County, the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, and the Center for Children and Youth Justice (CCYJ).

“Much of our work is about changing the narrative of gang/group involvement and law enforcement/community relations so we are happy to participate in this event,” says Anica Stieve, of CCYJ

Stieve’s group will provide t-shirts and raffle prizes to compliment the food, games, music, resource booths, provided by other sponsors of the event. Seattle native Isaiah Anderson will be serving as MC.

Charles originally expected anywhere from 400 to 500 people for Saturday’s event at the Rainier Beach Community Center. But after recent events, he’s avoiding predictions, putting Saturday in God’s hands, and extending that faith to his community.

“I believe they’ll come out. I believe they’ll see what we’re trying to do, and I believe they’ll take pride in each other. I’m just really asking people to come together.  Let’s make our community better. Let’s stop bickering on the Facebook groups, and Nextdoor and collectively solve our problems and have fun doing it.”

Faith tested but intact, he believes South Seattle will.

The Second Annual Peace Festival will take place at the Rainier Beach Community Center from 12pm to 5pm on Saturday, June 24th.

MHG ColorMarcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be followed on Twitter @mhgreen3000


Featured image: Susan Fried