Morales, Zahilay Take Part in Community Dialogue Addressing South End Gun Violence

by Carolyn Bick (updated at 9:00pm 1/30/20)

The lone media report about the Jan. 16 shooting that broke the chill, silent night along Renton Avenue South and South Kenyon Street is brief: “Several shots were fired across a South Seattle neighborhood Thursday night and police are still searching for the gunman.”

The shooting came just six days after the Seattle Police Department released its annual gun violence report, which showed an increase in gun violence throughout Seattle, and in five neighborhoods, in particular. Three of those five neighborhoods –– New Holly, Rainier Beach, and North Beacon Hill –– are located in South Seattle.

And yet, most Seattleites did not pick up their phones in chorus to call their lawmakers. Few politicians responded with public calls for solutions. Media outlets did not give frequent updates on the status of the investigation into the Jan. 16 shooting, though there were no fatalities or injuries reported.

Then, just under a week later, on Jan. 22, gunmen opened fire in the busy, metropolitan area of Downtown Seattle on 3rd Avenue and Pine, killing one and wounding seven others. Suddenly, Seattle was aflame. How could this happen? many wondered in online social platforms. Lawmakers at both the local and state levels took to Twitter to express their outrage and grief, and to further their arguments about gun control. Media outlets thoroughly covered the investigation, and, at the time of this writing, have continued to provide updates about the shooting.

So what was different about the downtown shooting, versus the tracked fatal shootings in South Seattle?

“People, I believe, just expect communities of color to have violence towards one another –– you know, the mindset of, ‘That’s just how it is, over there’ –– out of sight, out of mind, whereas, if it’s downtown where there are communities with proximity and access and resources and power, it’s affecting them now,” King County District 2 Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said. “If it’s happening down in South King County, it’s affecting people who are already marginalized, and not likely to have access to media outlets and lawmakers and powerful people who will listen to them.”

Zahilay is one of the South Seattle officials who had decided to respond to the uptick in gun violence before the Downtown shooting. He and Seattle City Councilmember Tammy J. Morales, who represents Seattle’s District 2, put out a press release the day after the Jan. 16 shooting in South Seattle, calling for a community-led dialogue to find better ways to address gun violence in South King County. The pair believe the only way viable solutions can be reached is to hear directly from those who live in the communities that suffer the greatest amount of gun violence. They plan to attend the meeting at the New Holly Gathering Hall on Friday, Jan. 31 from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. It is being organized by local residents concerned about gun violence.

“As somebody who grew up in Holly Park, I am probably only one or two degrees removed from some of the violence, and I know that holding a summit or doing a task force is not going to reach the intended audience,” Zahilay said. “So, we need to make sure we know who people, what their relationships are, and that we are supporting the programs that are working most closely with impacted communities –– organizations like Community Passageways, Credible Messengers, and Choose 180.”

One thing is clear, though: simply arresting people over and over again clearly isn’t helping, Morales said. She thinks gun violence should be treated as a public health crisis, and wants to focus on creating community-led pathways to interrupt the routes that lead to gun violence. These interruptions could include better after-school programming, opening community centers on the weekends, and involving young people in their communities. Restorative justice practices that can identify root causes of the issue are also central to the overall goal of reducing gun violence.

“I also think people want to know, if we’re going to move away from incarcerating people, then people want to know what are we doing instead, is there any accountability for folks?” Morales said. “Restorative justice circles use trauma-informed strategies to help figure out why people are engaging in the activities they are engaging in, and what we can do to support that individual, that family, and that community. Those need to be the kinds of things we are talking about. We want to resolve the issues that are leading to the activity, and just continuing to punish people doesn’t get at that deeper issue.”

While there are a number of grassroots organizations within South Seattle that work either directly or indirectly to combat gun violence, they are still relatively small, and could do with a substantial boost in funding, Morales said. These are the organizations with which she and Zahilay hope to work, and she’s grateful that the Seattle City Council voted last year to devote $1 million of its 2020 budget to funding community-based organizations dedicated to curbing gun violence. Still, she said, that isn’t nearly enough for the communities in which gun violence disproportionately occurs.

Though he didn’t speak to the funding, Zahilay pointed out that many of these communities are chronically under-resourced and overlooked. He’s sat with the King County Prosecutor’s Office, and has looked at maps that show high correlations between these neighborhoods and gun violence. And it makes sense, he said: if a young person’s parents work two or three low-wage jobs, just to keep a roof above the family’s head, and the young person attends a school whose resources reflect that of the neighborhood’s, where is that young person going to find structure and guidance?

“These are the things that lead to an environment where people are fighting for resources, young people draw their affiliation and safety in claiming their neighborhoods, rather than claiming their sports teams, or whatever other group we’ve invested in for them to participate in,” Zahilay said.

Zahilay said he has been advocating heavily in Olympia to create “robust changes,” and said that several anti-gun violence advocates have done “great work” on new gun control bills currently in talks at the legislative level.

Though nothing is set in stone, because the community town hall hasn’t yet happened, among the ideas on the table is a countywide office of gun violence prevention, Zahilay said. But whatever the councilmembers and community create or decide in collaboration, Zahilay doesn’t want to create yet another level of bureaucracy. Instead, he and Morales want to help create a coordinated and resourced effort to provide administrative support and funding for those within the community to go into situations and interrupt violence or violent pathways before they begin or mature.

Still, regardless of the councilmembers’ intentions or goodwill, Zahilay acknowledges that it’s sometimes hard to convince many South Seattleites to attend town halls due to past inaction on the issue. Many often walk away frustrated at officials’ response.

“I think this town hall, in particular, which is driven by communities who live in New Holly and [the area] will be powerful and useful. If I attend and I see that … young people aren’t there, then I would try and see if we could hold something that’s more targeted for them, if that’s something that people find useful,” Zahilay said.

The councilmembers will attend the gun violence town hall meeting on Friday, Jan. 31 organized by concerned community members at the New Holly Gathering Hall, 7054 32nd Ave. S., Seattle, WA 98118. The meeting starts at 6 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that the town hall was organized by the councilmembers. The town hall is being organized by local mothers and other community members looking for a response to gun violence.

Carolyn Bick is a South Seattle based journalist

Featured images by Chloe Collyer