by DJ Martinez
On Saturday, July 8th, the North Precinct of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) held its annual community picnic.
Considering recent events within the city and King County, including the fact that the Seattle Police Department is currently under investigation for the killing of Charleena Lyles and her unborn child, community members felt there was nothing to celebrate.
Soon after Charleena Lyles was killed on June 18th, many community members felt compelled to do something: to create a space where where womxn and femmes of color could be centered- to feel free to grieve and heal and reach out without fear of being silenced. On June 22nd, Tranisha Arzah, one of the main organizers of Saturday’s action created a group on Facebook.
I asked Arzah what motivated her to create the group. “It was in response to me witnessing a lot of distress among Queer Black womxn on social media the same week as the recent Black Lives Matter march organized by the Black Freedom Front. A lot of us were upset and conflicted because of the lack of respect and space given to Black womxn to respond to all the recent trauma in our community.” The march she’s referencing took place on June 22nd and, as mentioned, was organized by the Black Freedom Front, whose sole member is viewed by many in the #BlackLivesMatter community and their allies as unaccountable, and a misogynist.
At their first meeting, a small group of Arzah’s friends gathered to grieve, heal, and discuss ways to organize an action that would center and be led by Black womxn. There, seeds were planted and what started as an idea grew into the action known as “No Justice, No Celebration.” In the coming days, and less than two weeks before the picnic, they coordinated with local street medics, legal observers, media, and community members who would march from the North Seattle College to the North Precinct.
I asked how the idea for this action came into fruition. “Someone posted the picnic flyer in a Facebook group I’m in, and I sent the flyer to Tranisha and suggested the picnic as a potential action target.” That’s Amanda E., another of the organizers.
I asked if they had organized actions in the city before. Those I spoke with admitted to having little organizing experience previously, but not letting that stop them.
Selena V: “I have participated in actions before, but this was the first one I supported in organizing. When called by Tranisha to meet up to support/plan in organizing this action I was grateful because I knew I had lots to learn and was committed to doing work in solidarity with Black Womxn and Femmes. As my first experience I was anxious and also eager to learn from those who had organized actions before. So I turned to many folx within my Queer, Trans People of Color community for advice.”
Tranisha Arzah: “Somewhat. This was my first time leading an action. Even though I was not present, I took on a lot of responsibility to make things fall into place. I am usually just a participant and or supporter in demonstrations, but recently it’s been hard for me to want to participate in actions because I don’t feel heard and I don’t leave feeling better.”
Amanda E. : “I have never organized an action quite like this one before. I’d done some feminist activism in college back in Texas, but nothing like this in Seattle. So for me, the experience was new and stressful as there were a lot of moving pieces with very little time, but it all came together so well, so quickly. I’m incredibly proud of what we’d accomplished together by the end of it, and grateful to Tranisha, Selena and the other womxn of color for allowing me to be a part of this work as a White person.”
The action began at North Seattle College where community members gathered with their signs, flowers, and sacred items to prepare and discuss the agenda for the day. Before marching, participants gathered for a prayer lead by Sweetwater Nannauck of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes of Southeast Alaska. From there marchers, led by a banner made by Nannuack that read “Justice 4 Charleena #SheCalledForHelp #TheyShotHer,” marched to the North Precinct and created an altar in honor of Charleena Lyles and all the people killed by the police in King County. A protective shield from possible violence by the police or aggressors was formed, mostly by White allies who linked arms and surrounded the queer, transgender, bisexual, people of color (QTBIPOC) creating the altar.
I asked Olsen Quinn, who was a part of the barrier, to talk a little bit about what they were doing and why they were there. “A protective shield is a way of using people less likely to be brutalized by the police, White people, to create a barrier between the police and the people of color (POC) who are doing their action – in this case, speaking and building an altar for Charleena Lyles and the other six People of Color who have been murdered by police this year in Washington State. The protective barrier can also talk to cops and people that are unhappy we’re there, so that the POC doing the action can continue their work.”
Quinn continued, “I came to this action because I have seen so many instances of White people holding guns or wielding weapons while talking to police and police use de-escalation to calm them down, but Black people and people of color frequently lose their lives even when not instigating violence. I showed up because I am tired of grieving for the deaths of POC in my community, and action against the police is one of the ways that I can funnel my grief. I am here because the idea of the police putting a celebration on for community outreach while killing Black and Brown people in Seattle made me sick – what community are they reaching out to here?”
Those with No Justice, No Celebration vastly outnumbered those who were there simply to attend the picnic. Organizers and activists were able to hold the space for over an hour: speaking the names of recent victims killed by police in King County, chanting, “She called for help and they shot her,” and singing “I Can’t Breathe”– a protest song written by Eric Garner’s family.
The response from those attending the picnic was mixed. Aside from a few attendees being visibly upset (a few head shakes, a man putting his fingers in his ears, and asking questions like “how long are you planning to be here?”) The action seemed to be well received and succeeded in meeting its goals. According to Quinn, “The community response was strange – there were many people who were supportive of us being there, so I was curious why they showed up to the event in the first place. But I heard a few White parents explain Charleena Lyles’ story to their kids and that felt hopeful.”
I reached out to the Seattle Police Department to ask what they thought of continuing their annual celebration despite recent tragedies. Seattle police spokesperson Mark Jamieson had this to say: “You would have to talk to the organizers, those individuals, and see what was in their mind, they have a right to come out and vocalize, like I said, it’s a public event, it’s open to the public, they were open to do that, and others were allowed to come to the picnic and enjoy that too. Both things can go on simultaneously.” Although he did not attend the picnic, he said he’d heard the picnic had been “a good time for all attending.”
When I asked the organizers how they felt over all, Selena V., who identifies as a queer Chamoru mother and organizer, replied “I was so grateful to have QTBIPOC present to consult with, to lean on, to make rapid decisions with collectively, And grateful to Tranisha who brought us together and this action to life. When I returned home after the action, I was able to hold my child and share about my experience. My child responded with ‘I wish I was there too!’ So we chanted ‘Say her name! Charleena Lyles’ while in bed. Then they called me the ‘bravest mommy ever!’ I taught them the “I Can’t Breathe” song that we sang throughout the action, it became a revolutionary lullaby. Ending my day after the action, I held my child with so much love.
As folks departed before and after the action’s debrief: we checked in to make sure they had transportation, felt safe to return home. Many embraces and gratitude were shared. I came home filled with gratitude as well as heaviness thinking of Charleena Lyles and the many names we said out loud, the many lives, stolen by police killings. I know that our work is not done – as the final verse of the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ song says – ‘We ain’t gonna stop till people are free!’”
Someone who asked to not be identified had this to say about the action: “I felt uneasy knowing there would be people coming to celebrate weapons used to harm communities. We reminded SPD that there are community members who aren’t buying their propaganda. We reminded SPD that there are community members that will hold them accountable. I believe our presence of dissent had impact on fellow community members with mixed feelings about policing in our city (& world). In a space that erased Tommy Le, Charleena Lyles, GiovannJoseph-McDade, and the many others killed by police, I believe we were able to create a space that put their lost lives back in the center. For that I am grateful to have shared in the work of this action.
Quinn: “The action was really inspiring and felt really spiritual for me – an outlet for our anger and grief.”
The action felt really spiritual for me, as well. I spoke with Sweetwater Nannauck about her involvement and why she was there. She responded,
“I am a Spiritual Activist and totally believe in the power of prayer. I was very happy to see an altar at this action and that the action started out in prayer. The people in our community are traumatized by the continued onslaught of police killings against POC. Long ago our ancestors had ways of healing and ceremony for our loved ones who passed on. Part of decolonization includes doing the spiritual work by honoring those who have died as a result of this undeclared war from the police against our relatives, friends, and family that are most impacted.
I appreciate seeing the young organizers yesterday focus on intersectional issues that bring front and center womxn of color that are often left out of conventional organizing even among our own POC community. Much of the work I do as an organizer has always been to focus first on the womxn and youth, for the very same reason as the work done at this action.
I raise my hands (honor) to the young organizers, and feel it is important to support them in this hard work. In the Native community, we call all ceremony and spiritual healing ‘work’. The young people are the reason I keep teaching about ‘Decolonizing Our Activism’ and why I continue doing the activism I do. After facing marginalization and tokenization from white organizers in Seattle, it’s always been the younger generation that brought me back and it is them who give me hope for our future.
I asked the Selena V. why they decided to create an altar. “We were very inspired by the No Justice, No Pride action during the pride parade. When I saw photos of their altar for Charleena Lyles covered in flowers, honoring and remembering the beauty of her life and others stolen from police brutality, I was moved spiritually to continue creating this sacred space with an altar so people [mainly the SPD at the action and the event’s attendees] remember the constellations of their existence — remember their humanity. We requested folks to bring altar materials – flowers, candles, photos, art, as well as the names of those murdered by police in Seattle and throughout WA state. Spirituality to me is ancestry.
Before we proceeded to the precinct, I also called upon my ancestors, specifically my grandmothers, and to Nanan Tasi, Pulan, Atdao, yan Langhet (Mothers of the water, moon, sun and sky in Chamoru) asking them to protect us. I felt a surge of energy rush through my body when Sweetwater prayed – I knew my ancestors – all the ancestors of those present were protecting us. Spirituality is deeply a part of my organizing because I know I come from resilient ancestors, and know that Indigenous, Black, Trans, Queer, womxn/femmes of color – who continue to be on the frontlines of our movements – come from the resilient seeds of our ancestors. It’s so important to remember them in every action we take towards collective liberation. As we resist and heal, so do our ancestors.”
In this current political climate, while many are still asking themselves “what can we do?” many others are finding the answer to this question. When people feel motivated and activated to do something, when people gather to grieve, heal, and support one another, ideas flow, connections are made, and trust is gained. If you are still plagued with this question, I would urge you to heed these organizers words and look to those most marginalized and affected by the issues you care most about, and follow their lead.
Statement put out by No Justice, No Celebration:
This action today has been organized collectively in the hopes that we can create a space that is truly led and center of womxn of color particularly black womxn. This action is in response to several violent events within and on the black community of Seattle. One being of the continual silencing of black and femme womxn from local known black men. Secondly, the recent brutal murder of Charleena Lyles from officers Steven McNew & Jason Anderson.
There is a remarkable lack of accountability happening in Seattle. Those two officers are on administrative paid leave now. We are sick and tired of being pushed out and being killed and then it being justified. We were made aware that the North Precinct Seattle Police Department which is where we are now have organized a community picnic to the neighborhoods that they serve in. In recent violence perpetuated by two officers from this very precinct, we are disgusted that they will be continuing this celebration. We will not be celebrating with them. They should not be celebrating at all especially with an current investigation on the SPD.
All photos courtesy of Naomi Ishisaka