by Susan Fried
Dozens of leaders from Seattle’s Black clergy and other members of the community gathered on Sunday, June 14 at Goodwill Baptist Church to talk about the current call for an end to police brutality sweeping Seattle and the nation and how to support Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best in carrying out meaningful reforms.
Speakers included Bishop Garry L. Tyson, Dr. Kenneth Ransford, Bishop Reggie Witherspoon, Rabbi Will Berkowitz, Reverend Harriet Walden, Dr. Carl Livingston, Andre Taylor, and Chief Carmen Best. All the speakers cited the history of the Black clergy’s involvement in the fight for social justice and the importance of supporting the city’s first Black Police Chief at this unprecedented moment in history.
Bishop Garry L. Tyson, the pastor at Goodwill Baptist Church and the President of General Baptist Convention Northwest, opened the event by saying this was the first of a series of conversations among the Black clergy on social justice and police reform and how they can support and offer recommendations for positive solutions for Seattle to the Police Chief.
Bishop Tyson pointed out that Black preachers have always been on the front lines for social justice and reform in this country. “So today you will get an opportunity to hear the voices of Seattle’s Black clergy. We are taking back our rightful place and space in the many conversations that are happening around Puget Sound. We are not sure what America wants. We gave you Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a nonviolent protest, and you killed him. We gave you Malcolm X, who led some violent protests, and you killed him too. We are not promoting violence and destruction in our cities. As pastors, we’ve been called to build up and not tear down. So we are not promoting violence and destruction — but we do understand why this is happening.
“There is a multiplicity of mixed emotions and downright disappointment in the system here in our city that we want to speak to today,” Bishop Tyson continued. This is not a moment, this is not a minute, this is not a month, this is a movement that will start here at the Goodwill Baptist Church and move from church to church in our city. We’re going to keep this momentum going.”
Pastor Lawerence Ricky Willis from United Black Clergy and Truevine Holiness Baptist Church said one of the main things his congregation wanted to do was hold law enforcement accountable for excessive force. “We want to hold the police department and law enforcement — and the upper leadership, supervisors, and lieutenants and captains…accountable.”
Willis went on to say that the clergy expected the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to implement a strong policy that disciplines officers and holds them accountable for misconduct.
Reverend Harriet Walden spoke about her connection with the East Precinct, and how she and her organization, Mothers For Police Accountability, fully supported Chief Best. “The East Precinct belongs to us, because you couldn’t get any service in the Central District because the police didn’t come. You had to call the Fire Department to get help in the Central area. We’re not going back to those days.”
Dr. Kenneth Ransford, of Greater Mount Baker Baptist Church, opened his remarks by inviting his fellow pastors and the audience to join him in a cheer: “Chief Best, You’re the Best.” He talked about how Chief Best, as the first Black woman to run Seattle’s Police Department, understands better than most what it is like to be Black in American society and to know the history of policing in the Black community.
Ransford talked about how as a Black woman, Carmen Best had struggled to become the first Black Police Chief in Seattle history. He said that “change in the system of a racist society that has flourished for 400 years is tedious and difficult and it doesn’t come overnight. But under Chief Best’s leadership, we have seen improvement.” “…what she gets for trying to work with the community is folks that don’t look like us hollering and screaming for her resignation,” Ransford said. “Well, we’re here to tell you: oh, no. This is our chief — we worked too hard and too diligently, and God placed her where she is. This is our movement — this is an African American movement. It always has been, and we want people to know that we’re not going to tolerate it.
“We’re tired of White folk trying to tell us who ought to be our leaders,” Ransford continued. “We have enough sense to know who we need to help us in this situation. So if you want to help us, and we appreciate our White brothers and sisters who do, hallelujah. We got to do it together — but we’re the main focus. When it came to slavery, when it came to Jim Crow, and when it came to the Civil War and right now, we are the main focus of abuse. We are the main focus of police brutality. We are the main focus of brutality and persecution, so if you want to know what we need ask us — and we need Chief Best. This is about George Floyd and getting justice for him. This is about the dismantling of a 400-year racist, White supremacist system of killing unarmed Black citizens.
“We have to remember the police have been violent because America is violent,” Ransford said. “They are the products of the system that was set up to slave-catch Black folk. They are violent to Black people because America is violent to Black people. They oppress because America oppresses. The police did not give birth to American violence and inhumanity — America’s violence and inhumanity gave birth to the police.”
Andre Taylor, whose brother was killed by SPD and who started the organization Not This Time, said that Chief Best is a friend of his. He asked the audience to put themselves in the Chief’s shoes and to imagine what it’s like to try to figure out how you’re supposed to stop somebody from burning cars and looting businesses after they run back into a crowd of peaceful protesters. Taylor asked the crowd to consider: do you arrest everyone? He said the people calling for Best’s resignation have no answers. Taylor also said the city shouldn’t be distracted by things like taxing Amazon — that this is about a whole system that is barbaric. “This is about the original sin and the monsters that it has created,” Taylor said. He noted that Chief Best’s job was impacted by American history and he suggested that maybe America was finally coming to terms with itself and with its “original sin.”
All the pastors talked about the significance of the current movement. Carl Livingston, Pastor of Kingdom Christian Center, said that the protesters weren’t just demanding an end to the killing of unarmed Black and Brown people but also an end to institutional racism. He said that everyone present was in support of the peaceful movement to abolish racism, that this is not going to be another brief moment in history, but a movement, and that the protesters are asking for not just an end to police violence, but an end to economic injustice. Livingston talked about the history of policing against Black people in Seattle and observed that after many different Police Chiefs in Seattle’s 140-year history, the Black community finally had a person such as Chief Best who was “sympathetic and effective in representing the African American Community and all people,” he said. “If it had not been for officers like John Hayes and officer Cookie and Chief Best, our community would have totally lost confidence in the Police Department.”
Pastor Carey Anderson of First AME Church then introduced Chief Best to the crowd. She received a standing ovation and shouts of “we love you Carmen!”
She thanked the pastors and others in the audience for their kind words and all the support they had given her over the years. Best then talked about how just two years ago she was sworn in as the Police Chief and said she appreciated the continued support of the Black clergy and organizations such as Mothers for Police Accountability. She said as she walked with the sixty thousand people in the Black Lives Matter march from Judkins Park on Friday that the “silent message was loud and clear. I hear the community. I hear you. I hear those who are telling their stories of having suffered at the hands of injustice, and I hear those who are demanding change. Just as you stood by me over the last several years, I stand by you.
“It was an epiphany moment for me,” Best went on to say, “while I was watching people go by with all their signs: Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police, Question Qualified Immunity, Support Young People. The message was clear: we are at a pivotal moment in our history. This is so much bigger than just Seattle or Washington — it is a movement across the nation. As the Bishop said, ‘it is a movement not a moment.’”
Best said it was time for people to move forward with reconciliation: “I don’t even think about the word reform anymore, because how can an institution that was already built with its own problems and oppression reform another institution that has problems and oppression?” She said, “when I came out of the womb I was a Black woman and when I leave this earth I will be a Black woman. This is just a moment in time where I have this position and I want to use it for good, and I mean that on behalf of the officers, too. We have a lot of good, wonderful officers who are working hard to make a difference and those who aren’t, let’s figure out a way to move them out of the system.”
Susan Fried has been a Seattle-based photojournalist for more than 25 years.