by Johnny Mao
For many in today’s Little Saigon and Chinatown-International District (CID) — if you are hanging out in front of a building, sitting on benches, or at a bus stop — the police can stop and search you with a “stop and frisk.”
Each Sunday, in Little Saigon and the CID, I organize with a mutual aid group, dubbed the “Egg Rolls,” working with ChuMinh Tofu, where everyone is welcome. We work to recognize humanity in everyone, where no one is undeserving of aid. This includes distributing vegan Vietnamese food, supplies, and building a community network of care.
In the last three months, as if someone flipped a switch, police began circling the block like clockwork, jumping in and out of their cars, stopping and questioning people, “What are you doing here?” On this block in Little Saigon, people could no longer feel welcome.
In New York, Mayor Mike Bloomberg could not shake his own legacy of stop and frisk, in which police stopped 4.4 million innocent people, mostly Black and Brown, from 2003–2013. The practice was implemented to “instill fear” in communities where police officers patrolled. Stop and frisk in New York violated the 4th and 14th Amendments due to “racial profiling,” and a judge delclared the practice unconstitutional in 2013.
In Seattle, Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration has recently taken up a policy in Little Saigon and the CID that feels frighteningly similar to NYC’s stop and frisks. Recently, Harrell announced Operation New Day, in which “dozens of felonies and more than 100 charges have been filed” in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood at 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street. This has included additional foot patrols, police cruisers circling the area, and deployment of a mobile Seattle Police Department (SPD) van.
What Is Stop and Frisk?
Stop and frisk is a controversial policy allowing police officers to stop, interrogate, and search pedestrians on the sole basis of “reasonable suspicion.”
Stop and frisk has two parts: To stop a person on the street, a police officer must have a reasonable suspicion of crime. To frisk or search a person, a police officer must have reason to believe they have a weapon.
Proponents of stop and frisk” say it reduces crime. However, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s analysis of 5 million stops over 12 years found that as stops dropped dramatically, violent crime also dropped dramatically.
Other researchers found that Black and Latino people were more likely to experience stops and use of force, despite police having less “reasonable suspicion” to stop, and less likelihood of finding “contraband.” At the same time, the level of crime in respective precincts had “little to do” with these racial disparities in stop and frisk.
The recent legacy of stop and frisk in Seattle includes the 2010 police killing of Native American artist John T. Williams, in which public protest spurred the Department of Justice (DOJ) to conduct a civil rights investigation into the SPD. The DOJ found “unconstitutional patterns in SPD’s use of force” and “serious concerns about biased policing” where over half of excessive-force cases involved minorities.
Under federal oversight in 2012, or “consent decree,” SPD officers are required to “specifically and clearly articulate reasonable suspicion” when conducting stops.
Also outlined in this federal oversight, to prevent allegations of discriminatory policing, officers “will not engage in, ignore, or condone bias based policing,” “should treat all members of the Seattle community with courtesy, professionalism, and respect,” and “should not use harassing, intimidating, or derogatory language.”
Despite this, an analysis found that Black and Native American people were up to nine times more likely to be stopped by SPD, from 2015 to 2019.
Experiences of Police Interactions in Little Saigon
To explore the impact of Operation New Day in Little Saigon in the two weeks after its announcement, I randomly approached people walking or standing within a one-block radius of 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, asking, “What have been your interactions with police in this area lately? Have you been stopped or harassed by the police?”
These are the reports I received within a period of two hours on a Sunday, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
“Last week, Thursday, the police stopped me and were asking me questions: ‘What are you doing here, what do you do, do you have any drugs?’ I am Somali. I am just walking.” —Anonymous
“Police grabbed me, asked me what I was smoking, started searching my bag without asking, and put me in handcuffs, told me to get a job, and ran my name.” —Eric
“The police stopped me last week three times. I have a kid and the police threaten me with CPS [Child Protective Services] when they stop me. Anytime I drive through or visit the neighborhood, they say my tabs are expired, or my tires are low, or there’s a problem with my windshield tint, though it’s legal.” —Debra N.
“They chose to harass me, and they are not helping me or anyone. I have a son and help clean up the street. I go to stores just like anyone else and no one bothers me there. I like going to Little Saigon because of the diversity, and I am part of the Somalian and Ethiopian communities in Seattle; we’re not bad people, no one is breaking windows or stealing.” —Mohammed
“I was minding my own business and police asked me for my ID. I don’t carry ID for that very reason. I can’t count how many times I’ve been stopped this month. I’ve just been passing through.” —Byrd
“The police stopped me three times today. They thought I was using at the bus stop. They told me to clean the bus stop or they would run my name.” —Alec
“Police asked me what’s in my bags. I wish cops would stop harassing me and talking mad [expletive]. Police say they can question me, saying it’s freedom of speech. They abuse their power.” —Dillon
In each of these seven reports, police officers stopped people on the street who engaged in no unlawful behavior, as evidenced by the fact they were not issued a summons nor arrested. In two instances, police officers frisked or searched people, but with no justification that a concealed weapon posed a threat to the officers’ safety.
A Legacy of Public Safety — Or Fear?
In a State of the City address in February, on public safety, Mayor Bruce Harrell remarked his administration would “make sure constitutional rights are protected” and that “a militarized or racialized approach will not be tolerated.” However, New York is already a 12-year case study in how policy can fail in practice, where one police officer testified there was “a difference between the department’s policies on paper and what goes on out there, on the city’s streets.”
Just as administrators in New York City ordered subordinates to stop “the right people, the right time, the right location,” Bruce Harrell has directed police to deploy their boots on the ground to “hot spot policing,” where police officers simply patrol a given place, more than others. This tactic is not new, and has been deployed by former Seattle Mayors Mike McGinn and Ed Murray. 911 calls also simply moved and rose into surrounding areas. The problem is that, again, “hot spot” designated locations have more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and police are most likely to stop Black and Latino people.
In Little Saigon’s “hot spot,” the nonprofit-run Navigation Center offers “pathways to permanent housing, income, healthcare, and stability.” As Little Saigon acts as a hub for bus connections, people across Seattle must bus in and walk through a gauntlet of police patrols to arrive at the Navigation Center, as well as the Seattle Indian Health Board, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and International Community Health Services, amongst other service providers.
Seattle Police Monitor’s report has already identified racial disparities in stops, frisks, arrests, and rate of finding “contraband,” for Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American people from 2015 to 2020. What will be the toll of stop and frisk and Operation New Day on this generation in Seattle?
As we continue the mission of mutual aid to see to it that people’s basic needs are met, we will continue to reduce harm in the face of harm. Today, the Seattle Solidarity Budget calls for a new vision for public safety through community-led budgeting, by asking: “What can we do instead of punish?”
One Sunday, in Little Saigon, one of our visitors remarked that there is just “nowhere else to go.” This still sticks with me to this day, as the City of Seattle and the Mayor’s Office persists in sweeping every encampment it can find.
Where else are people supposed to go? The City and mayor’s answer for Little Saigon and the CID is currently: “anywhere else but here.”
The South Seattle 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.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Johnny Mao is a community organizer busy putting theory into practice, or maybe the other way around. Johnny organizes with the mutual aid crew dubbed the “Egg Rolls,” working with ChuMinh Tofu in Little Saigon and the Chinatown-International District. He reminds us, “This account represents my opinion as an individual, not the opinions of the diverse volunteers and staff who make up ChuMinh Tofu.”
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