Photo depicting the 2021 Seattle mayoral candidates Harrell and Gonzalez debating on the Rainier Arts Center stage with a banner that reads "2021 South Seattle Great Debate" in orange text on a blue background behind them.

OPINION: It’s Possible to Both Stand Up for Survivors and Against Racism

by M. Anthony Davis

It’s okay for two things to be true at the same time. We don’t have to conflate topics. We can recognize nuances within conversations, and even split topics and have multiple discussions simultaneously. Seattle mayoral candidate M. Lorena González has every right to question Bruce Harrell’s stance on sexual abuse, which she has done in debates. 

She has the right to question statements Harrell made in support of former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray who had been accused of sexual abuse by multiple victims. While these statements are true, they do not excuse the use of racially charged tropes in a campaign ad. And while it is our duty to stand up for victims of sexual abuse, it is also our duty to take a hard stand against racism. 

In a last minute attempt to gain ground after recent polls showed Harrell leading the Seattle mayoral race, González’s campaign team released a 30-second ad accusing Harrell of repeatedly siding with sexual abusers. 

In the ad, a white woman, identified by her first name, says she was sexually assaulted five years ago and the person responsible for her assault was never prosecuted. The women then cites a 2017 clip from KING 5 where Harrell infamously declined to call for the resignation of Murray. 

The ad also displays a graphic of an image of Harrell imposed over text from an August article in the South Seattle Emerald, in which contributor Lola Peters alleges that Harrell told local nonprofit organization CAMP (Central Area Motivation Program) to “discredit the reputations” of sexual harassment victims instead of holding the perpetrator accountable. In doing this, the 30-second spot also misleadingly presents a clearly labeled opinion piece published by this publication as a hard-news article.

The intent of the ad is clear: González aims to paint Harrell in a negative light by rehashing multiple allegations of Harrell siding with sexual abusers. The clips surrounding former Mayor Ed Murray are used as a slam dunk. Harrell publicly supported Murray, even as allegations of sexual abuse continued to amass. While this scrutiny is valid, the ad itself misses the mark at discrediting Harrell by instead conjuring up problematic racial overtones. 

The imagery of a young-appearing white woman, voicing accusations of sexual assault toward a Black man, is a long-standing dangerous and racist trope we have seen in America for generations. Historically, white women accusing Black men of rape has led to Black men and boys being lynched, beaten, or imprisoned. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was brutally murdered after being falsely accused of sexually harassing a white woman in a grocery store. 

In González’s ad, the white woman who speaks in the ad has no connection to Harrell whatsoever. By having her speak about her specific incident of abuse in an attempt to monger fear of sexual violence aimed at Harrell — a Black man who has not been accused directly of committing sexual abuse — González’s ad clearly uses the trope of a white women in distress to paint Harrell as a dangerous Black man.

The Harrell campaign quickly moved to condemn the ad as racist. On Saturday, Oct. 23, the Harrell campaign hosted a virtual Zoom conference where multiple leaders in the Black community addressed the racial tones of the ad and demanded the González campaign team remove it immediately. 

In the conference call, Lincoln Beauregard, an attorney who represented one of Murray’s accusers and also formerly worked for the same law firm as González, says the González team used “inflammatory rhetoric” to “falsely portray” Harrell. Beauregard also claims the representations of the Murray litigation were “unfair” and “incomplete.” According to Beauregard, while González publicly spoke against Murray in 2017, in the background, her directions to her staff regarding the Murray case were, “don’t touch this.” He also claims to have heard words and seen text messages relating to the Murray situation where González says, “I’m not carrying this torch.”

Elma Horton, a leader in Seattle’s Black community who served on the board of Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP) for 20 years, also spoke in the conference. Horton was on the board at CAMP at the same time as Peters, who alleges Harrell, as attorney for CAMP, encouraged the organization to discredit the reputations of sexual abuse accusers. Horton says that Harrell directed CAMP to “investigate the situation and interview any employee who made complaints.” She also says Harrell advised them to hire an outside party to conduct the interviews if they were uncomfortable doing so internally. 

Whether Harrell actually advised CAMP to discredit survivors could have been a point of conversation. However, when the González campaign chose to run a racially charged ad, it shifted the conversation away from Harrell’s advice to CAMP to yet another attempt to use negative racial tropes to win an election. 

Gerald Hankerson, regional president of the NAACP, said this situation is reminiscent of a recent incident in which King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert sent a flyer to constituents featuring an image of her opponent in the King County Council District 3 race, Sarah Perry, as a stringed puppet being controlled by “socialists,” with images of fellow King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay (District 2) holding the strings. Lambert first doubled down after receiving accusations that the flyer was racist by citing her “work in Africa.” She later apologized but was stripped of her committee chairmanships. 

Later that day, the Harrell campaign released a letter to González demanding the ad be removed. The letter, signed by 40 leaders in the Black community, describes the González ad as “factually inaccurate” and “racially charged.” 

In response to Harrell’s letter, González initially released a statement Saturday afternoon via an email from campaign manager Alex Koren that not only doubled down on the current allegations against Harrell, but completely ignored addressing the blatant racial tones of the ad. “Bruce Harrell has a troubling history of discrediting survivors of abuse and harassment,” González said via statement in her email. “As Council President, he used his position to defend Ed Murray, even after multiple, credible accusations of child rape. His response to this ad is another example of him denying the facts and discrediting a victim.”

The underlying issue of the ad is valid. If we want to call a candidate’s record on sexual abuse into question, that is a fair thing to do. The statements Harrell made refusing to call for the termination of Murray were deliberate and public. González has a right to question that stance, as Harrell has fairly scrutinized many of González’s past positions in the course of this mayoral campaign. 

However, the use of racist tropes and trivializing the experience of a sexual assault survivor as a last-minute Hail Mary attempt to regain standing in the polls is unacceptable. The racial tropes in this ad were a deliberate choice. González could have reached out to a former board member from CAMP, many of whom are still in our community. If González wanted to highlight the statements Harrell made in defense of Murray, why not use someone in the ad that was on the City Council at that time? Or any one of a number of people who were directly involved? Instead of using voices that were actually connected to these allegations against Harrell, the González team purposely chose to use the voice and face of a random white woman from North Seattle, with no direct connection to Harrell. 

As a former civil rights attorney, González should have understood how this ad would land on the Black community. By running this ad, and doubling down once asked to remove it, González has shifted the conversation away from Harrell’s past actions regarding the handling of sexual abuse, and instead highlighted racism and dog-whistling within our political system and positioned herself as someone who is willing to harm Black folks in exchange for political opportunities. 

As the letter from Harrell’s campaign continued to grow and amass signatures in the community from folks demanding the ad be removed, González finally responded Monday evening with a video statement to address the ad. González committed to pulling the harmful ad and replacing it with a new ad that will run in the final week of her campaign. The former ad was pulled in direct response to leaders in the Black community calling the video racist, but González declined to address the racial tropes in her response. Instead, she acknowledged, “as a Woman of Color with a record of anti-racism work, I bear a greater responsibility for centering the voices of People of Color.” So, instead of an apology for the use of a racist trope to monger fear of her Black opponent, she decided to focus only on her decision to use the voice of a white sexual assault survivor instead of using the voice of a survivor who is BIPOC. 

There are two issues at play at the root of this situation. Bruce Harrell, who has not been directly accused of sexual assault, is being fairly pressured to explain his stance of refusing to call for Murray’s resignation in 2017. We can also scrutinize Harrell’s actions while associated with CAMP where we have conflicting stories on Harrell’s advice to the organization while a man in power there was accused of sexual harassment. All of this is fair game during a campaign. But we also need to scrutinize González’s use of a racially charged campaign ad and her subsequent refusal to acknowledge the racial tropes even after numerous members of the Black community pointed out how the ad was received in the Black community. 

There is no need to “take sides’’ here. Both candidates need to take responsibility for their words and actions. It is our duty to take a stand against sexual assault. It is also our duty to call out racism when we see it. 

The Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

Story Note: Lola Peters maintains her account and says that Elma Horton was not present at the Jan. 16, 2002 meeting where the conversation with Harrell took place.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referenced a man in power associated with CAMP being accused of sexual assault. It was actually an accusation sexual harassment. The Emerald regrets this error.

M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.

📸 Featured Image: Bruce Harrell (left) and M. Lorena González (right) debate at the Rainier Arts Center on Oct. 23, 2021. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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