OPINION: Beware the Bootleg Rolex (A Response to Mayor Durkan’s $100 Million Proposal for BIPOC Communities)

by Sean Goode

When I was 16 years old, I bought a fake Rolex. I remember the evening clearly: the gas station where I was, the man who approached, and the $50 I gave him in exchange for what I thought was a priceless timepiece. I also remember the shame I felt when I brought it to the jeweler, who, much to their credit, held back a smile as they saw the disappointment on my face when they told me it wasn’t real. I desperately wanted to believe that the watch was real and the story that man told me was true. 

The reality was — as it is in the case of the $100 million proposed to go out to BIPOC communities from Mayor Durkan’s office — the deal was too good to be true. Let me be clear: the proposed $100,000,000 isn’t fake — it is definitely real. The process of how it gets out to community, however, is where it becomes a problem. I know this because I was asked to be one of the chairs who would be responsible for the distribution of these dollars. 

When the mayor’s office called me on September 11 and asked me to join three others in chairing a task force to distribute these dollars, I was admittedly shocked, honored, and excited by the possibility. I’ve watched the wealth gap widen in Seattle, with rising taxes pushing families out of their homes and schools that continue to poorly serve black children. I’ve also witnessed the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) propensity to criminalize black adolescence. For these reasons and many more, the prospect of allocating $100 million a year for 10 years in an effort to offset these inequities was promising. In my excitement, I told the mayor I was interested but would need a few days so I could make sure that the people who I work with in the community would want to join in this effort. We ended the call with a promise to follow up at the beginning of the week. 

Despite the concerns I heard from those who I reached out to, I decided to say yes, in the hope that I could be a bridge and help close the divide between the mayor’s office and the community while facilitating access to these necessary resources. I did say yes with a promise to those trusted co-laborers who I consulted with that if I was unable to be that bridge and the effort didn’t honor our community, I would remove myself and give voice to the problems in the process. After meeting with the co-chairs, hearing from the mayor, and receiving additional feedback from leaders who share in this journey toward justice, it became clear that the role I had been asked to serve was not to bake the cake or to identify the ingredients the community would like to be included but to merely put the icing on so that it would be palatable to my people. With that, I chose to resign and in doing so, continue my commitment to serve community in ways that bring us together rather than dividing us. In honoring the promise that I made to those I consulted with, I am writing this to share with you the three main problems with the process. 

First, any investment that does not align with a corresponding divestment in policing doesn’t actually create the change we need. Imagine Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center funding both cancer research and the spread of the disease. Sounds ridiculous, right? Yet the mayor plans to spend $100 million to resource BIPOC communities while continuing to spend several times as much on the very thing that perpetuates inequity throughout BIPOC communities. We’d be spending $100 million each year on trying to create true public health and safety,  while SPD received more than four times that amount in 2020 alone. We will never accomplish the task of creating true public health and safety without intentionally divesting from the status quo. Our mayor has stated unequivocally that she wants to keep the divestment and investment conversations separate, so requesting that this $100 million be a part of a strategic divestment from policing is a non-starter in her office. With that, there is no possibility for an investment strategy that is coupled with a strategic divestment, which virtually nullifies the effectiveness of these dollars. 

Second, this process seems designed to divide communities of color, given the way the $100 million is likely to be sourced. If the money to support BIPOC communities doesn’t come from divestments from our failed policing model, where will it come from? All signs point to the mayor pulling from the recently passed JumpStart tax revenue. JumpStart was passed due to the efforts of a broad coalition, including racial justice, environmental justice, and climate justice organizations. The City Council intended the money to be spent on much-needed COVID relief, affordable housing, and equitable development. JumpStart passed despite the mayor’s veto, and now the mayor seems to be planning to spend that revenue to fill her $100 million promise — thus pitting those who fought for JumpStart against those fighting to divest from SPD and invest in Black communities. Meanwhile, the mayor refuses to contemplate serious cuts to the City’s bloated policing budget, leaving BIPOC communities to fight each other for $100 million while SPD receives that amount nearly four times over. 

Third, a task force hand-picked by the mayor is not a participatory budgeting process. Too often, the people who are most impacted by the city’s investments have no say in how the dollars are spent. Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. For the outcome of the process to truly reflect community needs, the process itself needs to be community designed and controlled, with the City playing a supporting role. This means that you can’t begin with chairs selected by the mayor and then eventually get to the community voice part on the back-end. Also, participatory budgeting done well is a months-long process, which would take at least through the end of mid-2021. It’s a process for which the groundwork is already being laid, with the Black-led research soon to be funded by City Council. This timeline doesn’t align with the mayor’s desire for the dollars to be committed to projects by the end of February. What the mayor is suggesting is this: she selects the co-chairs and the areas of investment, and then the community can have a voice. This is a modified “Seattle Process” and doesn’t give power to those who will benefit the most if this money is well spent. 

We are at a unique time in our country, in our county, and certainly in the city of Seattle where our collective voices and actions are finally beginning to influence the direction our government goes. No community is a monolith, so it is not in our homogeneity but in our harmony that we hold our elected officials accountable to what is best for the collective “us.” I am not the only person who has been asked to join the task force and has declined. There have been others and I hope there will continue to be more who also see this for what it is. 

Can our communities benefit from this investment? Yes! Let’s just make sure that the process is the equivalent to a Rolex and not the bootleg Seattle Process with a gold crown.      

Sean Goode is the Executive Director of Choose 180.

Featured image: I Want to Live March at the Rainier Beach Safeway June 7, 2020. (Photo: Alex Garland)