Rainier Beach Eyes Multifaceted Solutions to Ending Violence in the Safeway Parking Lot

by Ari Robin McKenna


After a late-January in which three, high-volume shooting incidents in or near the Rainier Beach Safeway parking lot left almost 100 bullet casings scattered about — and fortunately no one injured or killed — there appears to be a broader sense of community purpose around preventing further gun violence. 

Nestled between 52nd Avenue South, South Fisher Place, and a 90-degree curve in Rainier Avenue South, the parking lot area also serves Beach Veterinary Hospital, King Donuts, a gas station, a long-abandoned building, formerly Pho Van (listed as being owned by Tam Dinh Nguyen), and Rainier Beach Liquor & Wine. While an important local nexus, busy most hours of the day and many hours of the night, the lot’s principal draw is the area’s only grocery store: Safeway. 

Though Rainier Beach is not technically a food desert, the neighborhood could be described as food insecure, with the only neighborhood grocery store surrounded by five fast-food restaurants. Should shopping at the Rainier Beach Safeway be untenable or a necessary product unavailable, residents — many without cars — would need to travel two miles west to Othello to get groceries at either Ba Mien Seafood Market or another subpar Safeway or two miles south into unincorporated Skyway to Grocery Outlet.

On February 3, during their expansive celebration of Black History Month, Rainier Avenue Radio held a virtual town hall meeting with five panelists about “Recent Violence at Rainier Beach Safeway Parking Lot.” Tony Benton, Rainier Avenue Radio’s founder and a prolific host on the multi-media platform, said of the topic, “It’s worthy of a larger discussion for the entire community because that parking lot impacts a lot of people, and things that go on in this community extend beyond that parking lot.”

Former Pho Van restaurant in Rainier Beach. (Photo: Ari McKenna)

At the kick-off of the town hall, Benton described two principle, macro factors that underlie the recent uptick in South End shootings. “We watched the Central District become gentrified, and now we’re watching South Seattle become gentrified. There are a lot of things that are happening in this community, and they may ultimately all be connected to this violence. … We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s impacting and affecting everything. Whether you’re talking about jobs, child care, essential workers, small businesses, public transportation, people being at home and isolated and not being able to connect. Your mental health is being impacted, so of course violence would be something that would be exacerbated during a pandemic.”

Panelist Alicia Dassa’s son, Conner Dassa-Holland — a University of Washington freshman and former Rainier Beach Safeway employee, was shot and killed a block and a half away from Safeway on Mother’s Day 2020. A little more than a week later, Dassa lost her nephew Christopher De’Andre Roberts to gun violence in a dimly lit corner of the Rainier Beach Safeway parking lot. Dassa advocated for a long-term solution for that noisiest area of the parking lot and said, “There’s definitely an area behind the vet and the gas station and in front of the liquor store that is what I would consider a problem area.”

Panelist Chukundi Salisbury, runner-up in the recent 37th Legislative District race, comic book author, nightclub DJ, sustainability and environmental manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation, and member of 100 Black Parents did not contradict Dassa (who he has collaborated with on community initiatives) but stressed the need for balance between respecting the community’s desire to congregate and establishing limits. “As a young person, I might have been hanging out in the parking lot too, to tell you the truth. And oftentimes, I might stop and talk and from a distance, somebody might think I’m hanging out in the parking lot, because everybody there [hanging out in the Safeway parking lot], they are also a part of this community.”

Salisbury spoke about how people go to the Rainier Beach Safeway either for groceries or “for fellowshipping.” While he doesn’t see anything wrong with either, he said sometimes, later at night in particular, people catching up with each other can resemble the “let out” of night clubs because people don’t move on. “And all of that’s fine, until it’s not,” said Salisbury. 

He went on to reference increased tension between police and the community complicating police involvement in a solution, saying, “So it’s a fine line, are we being profiled or is this really, truly public safety?” Panelist Chelle Jackson, the store manager and a native of Rainier Beach, said that while Safeway does sometimes call the cops, she is often the one asking people to move along, and said, “It’s to the point where we do all try to do our part in keeping the community safe. But at the same time, if the people that do come and collect in the parking lot, or do come and hang out and choose to do things that aren’t necessarily savory, and shoot off guns, what is it that we can do?”

Seattle Public Schools bus driver and Rainier Beach Safeway Courtesy Clerk Jerry Cole is sometimes tasked with picking up the trash left behind by people who have assembled in this area of the parking lot the night before. Here are his thoughts: “I see a lot of despair, anger, and apathy that is driving this. When I look at all those liquor bottles, if you’re drinking that much, you’re trying to medicate your lack of joy, and you’re trying to find it through intoxication. It works temporarily, but long term it just doesn’t work. that’s my feeling.” (Photo: Ari McKenna)

Although there is some variance between proposed and ongoing solutions, there is growing pressure on Safeway Inc. and other proximal corporations and land owners to be part of the multifaceted community solution. Many of those calling in to the virtual town hall meeting with questions were focused on the ownership of the property and making place-based improvements to it, such as lighting up the section of the parking lot Dassa mentioned. Their questions went mostly unanswered. 

Panelist Magalie LaFont, Safeway District Asset Protection Manager, said, “As far as anything structural or any major changes, that will have to come from the property management [company], but is something definitely we could help be a voice for.” Yet when pressed for the name of that property management company, she said she didn’t know, and at the time of this writing, Safeway had not responded to a request for this information. Though the main parking area is owned by Safeway, the area of the Safeway Parking lot Dassa identified as a “problem area” is, in fact, listed as owned by five different members of the Yee family, since 1992, and rented out to Safeway on a triple net lease. According to Investopedia, this would mean that the tenant (Safeway Inc.) would traditionally be responsible for “the cost of any maintenance or repairs.”

While LaFont discussed their “enhanced camera system” that “can now read license plates,” questions remain about the role the Safeway corporation will play in solving problems in the Rainier Beach community, beyond petty theft, during a pandemic. 

Besides spatial improvement solutions involving physical changes to the property, another ongoing community approach to making the parking lot safer involves “space activation.” Rainier Beach Action Coalition (RBAC) is the second-largest employer in Rainier Beach after Safeway, employing mostly Black youth from the local area. They have been partnering with the Boys and Girls Club SE Network on an initiative called Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth. Using an evidence-based approach to curbing incidents that contribute to youth violence, RBAC engages community members at the Safeway parking lot using three of their youth programs: the Clean Crew, the Corner Greeters, and Young Adults Transitioning to Adulthood (YATTA) Rising. Corner Greeters survey residents on their perceptions of crime in the area, engage community members by providing resource information, pick up litter, and hold healing circles. RBAC’s budget for these programs only supports them being at the Safeway parking lot one day a week. Though they took the month of January off due to concerns about COVID-19 and the weather, as of January 29 they have resumed their Friday afternoon activities.

Gregory Davis, RBAC Managing Strategist, had this to say about the recent shootings: “If you understand that incidents like this are a result of historical and continued underinvestment, and you have this plethora of multinational corporations nearby; it would be unfortunate if they didn’t rise to the occasion to help close that gap.” While acknowledging working alongside Rainier Beach Safeway store managers Larry Wilmore and Chelle Jackson, Davis says he would like to see Safeway’s regional corporate office “lean in” on an issue as important as this and adds, “As a community we’re being asked to solve problems that we didn’t have anything to do with.”

Co-coordinator for RBAC’s Corner Greeter program, Gabbie Price, says she’s, “Proud of us for being committed,” and she draws hope from the meaningful engagement work these youth from the community are involved in. “It’s really awesome to give space and time for young folks to really speak on how they feel about their neighborhood, because a lot of times they feel like they don’t have a voice or they can’t make change. Seeing them in a circle talking about the problems and coming up with solutions, it’s very empowering and makes you feel like there is going to be an end to this. This is the generation that’s going to break that curse that’s going on in this area.”

There will be a Town Hall Part 2, Wednesday, Feb. 17 on Rainier Avenue Radio with the following panelists:

  • King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay
  • Seattle City Council President, Lorena González
  • Aklilu Gebreyesus, owner of Rainier Beach Liquor & Wine
  • Hong Chhour, owner of King Donuts
  • Joseph D. Everett, South Precinct Liaison Attorney
  • SPD representative (TBD per confirmation from Chief Diaz or designee)
  • Magalie LaFont, District Asset Protection Manager for Albertsons/Safeway

Editor’s Note: Ari Robin McKenna is currently volunteering at RBAC —mostly as a mentor.


Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.

Featured image by Alex Garland.

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