Seattle Police Killing of Charleena Lyles Localizes Black Lives Matter Protests and Amasses Similar Stories, Three Years Later

by Ashley Archibald

(This article was originally published by Real Change News and has been reprinted with permission.)

Three years ago, two Seattle police officers arrived at the home of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother of four. Lyles had called them — she was afraid that there was a burglary in progress at her housing complex in Sand Point.

The Seattle Police Department would later report that Lyles — a 100-pound woman, potentially experiencing a mental health crisis — was armed with a knife. Both officers shot, killing her in front of three of her children.

On June 18, close to the three-year anniversary of her death, Lyles’ family gathered on a soundstage in Magnuson Park, backed by a huge image of Lyles, and told the hundreds of people present to turn and look at a building across the street.

Two women cheer in solidary with hundreds of people gathered on June 18 at Seattle’s Magnuson Park for a Remembrance Vigil in honor of Charleena Lyles, on the third anniversary of her death at the hands of two Seattle police officers. (Photo: Susan Fried)

“See that building right behind us? That’s where they took her out,” said Lyles’ second cousin, Shaenae Isabell. “So, we’re going to let them know we’re here today, right?”

Isabell called out, “Say her name!”

“Charleena Lyles!” the crowd boomed back, their voices reaching across the field, past the road to the building Lyles called home. There’s little chance someone inside wouldn’t have heard it.

But reliving Lyles’ death wasn’t what the family had come for. They came to reclaim the narrative built by incomplete media characterizations about her life, to build one of their own and to call for justice.

They were not alone.

The family members of 19 different people killed during encounters with the police across the country joined them. The Forced Trajectory Project, as they’re known, had traveled from their respective home towns with the stories of their loved ones. They came to support the Lyles family, as many of them had been supported in their time of grief.

Because, as the Forced Trajectory Project says, “families are the frontlines.”

“I started fighting because I didn’t have a choice,” said Victor Dempsey, of New York. His brother was killed on July 4, 2016, in front of Dempsey’s three-month-old nephew. He reached out to grieving families who knew the pain that he was going through.

That pain is loss, but for many of the families — who had held a press conference earlier the same day — it was also watching the names and histories of their loved ones dragged through the media, distorted into caricatures that they could not recognize.

The drip, drip, drip of public documents that show people at their worst. The families believe law enforcement laundered outright lies through newspapers and television programs, accepted by an industry dominated by white people who don’t question police reports and were looking for a story.

“When the police get done, you kill their character,” said Kimberly Handy-Jones on the morning of June 18.

Jerrell Davis and Nikkita Oliver speak at the June 18 Remembrance Vigil in honor of Charleena Lyles. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Her son, Cordale Quinn-Handy, was shot and killed by police in St. Paul, Minnesota, when he was 29 years old.  Handy-Jones started a foundation in his memory — they give headstones for families with children lost to police and community violence. They’ve distributed 14 headstones since September 2019.

To those who knew her, Charleena Lyles was Leena, a cousin, sister, daughter and friend.

“For one, Charleena loved to smile, so when you are out there chanting her name, please put a smile on your face,” Isabell said. “Another thing about Charleena, she loved to dance. She didn’t have all of the best moves, but she would do a little something-something. So, when you’re saying her name, put a little something-something, something with it.”

As the sun dipped slowly down, holding stubbornly onto the June sky, the night air was filled with remembrances of Lyles, an ode to George Floyd, and calls for change. Lyles’ family has very specific demands.

First, they want Kent, Federal Way, Auburn, and Renton, as well as the two police officers who shot Lyles, to drop lawsuits that are preventing a full inquest into Lyles’ death. King County sought to reform the inquest process, which had not been updated in 15 years, but various cities and individuals sued.

“You are the only ones who know what happened that day in that building where you snuffed out her life, and our family deserves answers,” said Katrina Johnson, referencing officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew.

Second, they signed onto the demand to defund SPD by 50%, a demand echoed by protesters in the city and a handful of Seattle City Councilmembers.

Finally, they want the resignation of Mayor Jenny Durkan. Durkan came to them before she won the 2017 mayoral race and promised to be different, Johnson said.

“She lied.”

A young girl holds up a sign in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement at the June 18 Remembrance Vigil for Charleena Lyles. (Photo: Susan Fried)

Fred Thomas, whose son Leonard Thomas was killed by Lakewood police, said he did not have a demand. But he had a request.

“Families are the frontline, but there is no frontline without people behind us,” Thomas said.

In that moment, surrounded by hundreds of people, it seemed like someone was now, finally, behind them.

Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter at Real Change covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.

Featured image by Susan Fried.