by Erica C. Barnett
Seattle’s protests against police brutality, which began after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, continued into a sixth night on Wednesday as crowds moved throughout the day from City Hall in downtown Seattle to the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. And while it might seem as though little had changed since the night before, when police officers released tear gas and unloaded pepper spray, rubber bullets, and flash grenades on a crowd of hundreds of peaceful protesters, several things were materially different.
No, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle’s police chief, Carmen Best, hadn’t budged on their commitment to a version of the protests in which a few “bad people” throw objects at police, forcing them to deploy chemical weapons indiscriminately against large crowds. If anything, the list of projectiles that the police claim have been deployed against them only grew throughout the day and now includes urine, feces, “cans of food” and a fire extinguisher.
No, the mayor and police chief have not backed down from their contention that asking officers to remove “mourning bands” that conceal their badge numbers is something that “can’t happen overnight.” Asked about widespread calls to end the practice, Best responded, “we’re not going to do that right today,” but said SPD would come up with some way to make badge numbers visible in due time. During the meeting and throughout the day, Best herself wore a mourning band in the center of her badge, sending what could be seen as a message of solidarity to officers who continue to wear them during the protests.
And no, they wouldn’t commit to stop using tear gas and other chemical weapons against protesters or to try to focus their attention on the handful of people who are causing trouble. Although Durkan lifted the 9 p.m. curfew, which was supposed to be in effect every night until Saturday, by tweet at 7:05 p.m. (so much for “don’t believe what you read on social media”), she and Best pointedly refused to commit the city to no longer using these weapons against protesters. At the CPC meeting Wednesday morning, Best said, “At the moment we don’t have another tactic to disperse large crowds when we have people throwing rocks and bottles. … I just don’t have an answer better than what we’ve got at our fingertips.”
But there were some indications throughout the day that changes may be on their way, whether Durkan wants them or not. The first came at a morning meeting of the Community Police Commission (CPC), which was created to address unconstitutional policing in 2012, when Durkan was repeatedly cut off by commission members and staff when she attempted to use her time to speak in lofty terms about the ways in which the nation — not the city — had failed Black and brown Americans. When Durkan tried to refute complaints that she cried over broken windows downtown, but not about police violence in her own city, saying, “I cry for the generations that have been dispossessed … ” longtime CPC member Rev. Harriet Walden cut her off.
“We are here because Mr. Floyd, bless his heart, has made it into heaven by being murdered,” but also to address what is happening in Seattle right now, Rev. Walden said. The protests against police brutality aren’t just about lofty American ideals or generations of institutional racism in America, Walden said; they are also about “how the officers escalated” their tactics against lawful, peaceful protesters, by responding to a few thrown bottles by tear-gassing entire residential neighborhoods and wrestling umbrellas away from demonstrators trying to protect themselves from pepper spray.
Roxana Garcia, a CPC staffer, said the commission has repeatedly pushed for reforms to the way police officers deal with civilians, but that those efforts have “been halted for the last three years by city leadership … So I encourage you all to start voting these folks out.” A few moments later, Garcia got specific. “If I can give you all a name, her name is Mayor Jenny Durkan.”
The second sign that something in the air had shifted came when Durkan agreed to come outside and address the crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality and present her and the chief with a list of demands. Durkan got off on the wrong foot with the crowd right away by drawing a parallel between her own Irish ancestors and that of enslaved Africans, saying, “I know, as mayor, that I have enormous privilege, and that my ancestors came here from Ireland to seek freedom, but that many Black Americans’ ancestors came here in shackles.”
After a brief speech about the need for systemic change at the national level, Durkan briefly responded to a question about mourning bands and went inside, followed by raucous boos. Moments later, Nikkita Oliver told the crowd that the mayor hadn’t addressed any of the group’s three demands—defunding police, reinvesting the money into communities, and the release of people arrested during the protests. “In fact, she told us about how her family immigrated to the U.S. while Black people came in chains!”
The third possible turning point came late in the afternoon, when city attorney Pete Holmes announced that the city would withdraw its motion to terminate a “sustainment plan” under the federal consent decree that the police department has been under since 2012, a step that would have begun a path toward lifting federal oversight. At the CPC meeting, Durkan insisted that the motion had nothing to do with lifting the consent decree — even accusing an attorney for the commission, David Perez, of lying when Durkan was “trying to end the consent decree” — but by this afternoon, her tone had changed.
In a press release after Holmes announced his decision, Durkan said, “I oppose being released from the consent decree at this time,” a position she said she had “discussed with” Holmes before releasing her statement. The city’s reversal, though somewhat technical, is a clear concession to police reform advocates who have disagreed with Durkan’s contention that “Seattle police officers have become a national leader in policing and de-escalation with a commitment to true and lasting reform,” as she put it when the city filed the motion to lift the sustainment plan last month.
Materially, it would be going too far to say that the mayor and police chief’s positions have radically shifted, despite indications that the protests are having an impact. All day Wednesday, both Best and Durkan declined to offer any concrete concessions on issues like the use of tear gas and pepper spray on peaceful protesters. Instead, they repeatedly insisted that the protests this week have been different than anything the city of Seattle has ever seen before — scarier and more “volatile” than the WTO protests in 1999, or the Rodney King protests in 1992 — and that the Seattle Police Department simply didn’t “have another tactic to disperse large crowds when we have people throwing rocks and bottles,” as Best put it.
“Meaningful changes have happened at riots. Stonewall was a riot … What happened at recent events was not fighting back,” Best continued. “It was attacking. … It was igniting property just for the sake and joy of igniting property.”
As for the 15,000 or more complaints that have been filed with the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) since protests began, Best and Durkan said that they were really all about as few as eight isolated incidents, not 15,000 individual altercations with police. Those complaints, they said, would all be addressed in due time by the OPA, whose director, Andrew Myerberg, announced later in the day that OPA would delay work on any currently ongoing cases to focus exclusively on cases related to the protests.
All day, both Durkan and Best seemed to fixate on being vindicated about specific episodes inside the larger story of the protests. When asked why protesters were pepper sprayed, seemingly, at random, both the mayor and police chief narrowed their responses to the single, widely shared instance of a young girl who was pepper sprayed or tear-gassed by police and whose assailant was initially misidentified by some on social media. “Social media is social media. It’s not news,” Best said — as if “social media” was anything more than a platform for both facts and misinformation, like websites and the printed word.
Later, during a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee, Best pivoted from the unreliability of social media to the incomplete nature of videos, suggesting that the livestreams and clips that eyewitnesses to the recent police actions against protesters had posted online, that have since been widely shared, told an incomplete and inconclusive story.
Council members, however, said that they were basing their concerns on eyewitness accounts of people they knew personally or their own personal experience at protests. Council member Lisa Herbold, for example, countered Best’s claim that the city has seen nothing like the ongoing protests by telling the chief, “I have never, in 25 years of participating in protests in the City of Seattle, experienced such an indiscriminate use of tear gas, pepper spray and flash bombs against demonstrators who are not doing anything wrong.”
At times, Best, who is Black, appeared to side with the protesters. Speaking to the CPC, she alternated between frustration at the slow pace of progress on police violence nationally with defending her department against charges of excessive use of force. “We’re tired of waiting, and I have been pushing for the Seattle Police Department to move forward. … There is much work that needs to be done to remove racism from the system and I hope we all agree” that looting won’t create change, Best said. “You can’t tear down your own house.”
Earlier in the day, CPC member Brandy Grant accused the mayor of putting Chief Best “in the gap” to answer questions about city policies that would be more appropriate for the mayor herself to address. “Black folks always have to stand up and speak and be in the front, in the middle, protecting white folks and the folks that are enforcing this injustice,” Grant said. “I don’t want to talk to Chief Best. I don’t want to hear from Chief Best. I don’t want to hear from someone who the mayor didn’t want to have the job in the first place.”
Best was initially excluded from a list of finalists for the position. She was put back in the running, and ultimately got the appointment, after community leaders vehemently protested her exclusion. Last night, she appeared at the protest near the police department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill and chanted George Floyd’s name along with protesters. Mayor Durkan was not there.
Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle politics since 2001 for print and online media. Read her latest at The C Is for Crank.
Featured image: Mayor Jenny Durkan briefly addressed a crowd from the back steps of Seattle City Hall where thousands of protesters gathered after a march from Capitol Hill. (Photo: Jessie McKenna)