A young attendee a the Vigil of Remembrance for Charleena Lyles, June 18 at Magnuson Park. (photo by Susan Fried)

OPINION — Say Her Name: Charleena Lyles

Four years after she was killed by police, her family still seeks answers.

by Katrina Johnson, Jesse Hagopian, and Michael Bennett

The broadest protests in U.S. history occurred last spring and summer in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. While this uprising around the country — in all 50 states, in rural and urban areas — was certainly about those widely publicized horrific murders at the hands of police, masses of people rose up around the country in large part because they had seen similar police violence in their own communities — including here in Seattle. 

Four years ago, Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old Black pregnant mother of four, was fatally shot by two white Seattle police officers.

Charleena was gunned down on June 18, 2017 in a hail of seven bullets — including some in the back — at her own apartment in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle. Three of her children, ages 1, 4, and 11, witnessed her murder and had to be taken out of the apartment over her body. 

Charleena believed that someone had broken into her apartment that day and had called the police for help. But instead of help, she got officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew. According to a police audio recording, McNew asked Anderson, right before shooting Charleena, to “Tase her.” But Anderson responded, “I don’t have a Taser.” His failure to carry a Taser is a violation of department policy. While tasing a pregnant mother is also unacceptable, the fact that she could still be alive today had Anderson not violated department policy is an outrage that he still hasn’t been held fully accountable for.

Adding insult to killing, the inquest process — a basic fact-finding process that would determine what exactly happened to Charleena on that day — has been tied up in court for years. In 2018 the inquest process into deaths caused by law enforcement was changed by King County to be more equitable and less sided with law enforcement. But since then, lawsuits from several south County departments and Seattle police sued to stop the changes. Inquests still have not begun while the state Supreme Court decision is pending. At least 36 families of victims killed by police since 2017 await inquests. The fact that it has now been four years since Charleena’s death and there still hasn’t been an inquest is a glaring abdication of justice.

At every turn, the City of Seattle and court system has worked to impede justice and shield the police from accountability. But Charleena’s family has not surrendered. On the occasion of the third anniversary of Charleena’s killing, last June, they organized a rally outside of Charleena’s apartment complex where they issued the following demands:

  1. Drop the lawsuits that seek to destroy King County’s inquest process (Renton, Federal Way, Kent, Auburn, and the King County Sheriff’s Office).
  2. Officer Jason Anderson and Steven McNew: Drop your lawsuit against King County prohibiting our family from getting answers.
  3. Defund the Police and Reinvest in Community.
  4. Mayor Durkan resign.

Over and over again — from Emmett Till, to Michael Brown, to Tony McDade, to Sandra Bland, to Breonna Taylor — the legal punishment system has argued that Black lives don’t matter. The City of Seattle has an opportunity to begin to reverse the course of anti-Blackness that has characterized so much of the long history of our country by meeting the demands of Lyles’ family. We have an opportunity to build a more empathetic and compassionate city. We have an opportunity to build a world where Charleena’s children know their lives matter because money that was previously spent on brutalizing people is now invested in the education, affordable housing, and the trauma counseling that they will need to thrive as they grow up.

Say her name: Charleena Lyles!

Katrina Johnson is the cousin of Charleena Lyles, a community organizer, and advocate for families impacted by police violence locally in Washington and nationally.

Jesse Hagopian is a high school ethnic studies teacher and co-editor of the book Black Lives Matter at School.

Michael Bennett is the author of Things That Make White People Uncomfortable and former defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks.

📸 Featured Image: A young attendee a the Vigil of Remembrance for Charleena Lyles, June 18 at Magnuson Park. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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