Over the past several days, as protests against systemic racism, as well as police and vigilante violence against Black people, took hold in Seattle, some demonstrators noticed two surprising things.
First, they did not expect the momentum of Seattle’s protests, which began on May 29, followed by a massive downtown rally on May 30, to last so long. Second, several have been surprised at the variety of participants.
“It wasn’t like this in the ’90s and early 2000s, when it was mostly Black people,” said Jamal Layne, a young, Black tech worker. “To see how the world is evolving — just, wow.”
Others, like Dr. Estell Williams, have noted that diversity among demonstrators is good, but it’s only a starting place for more work that needs to be done. Here is a very small sampling of some folks who have been out in the streets (some protest organizers, some first-time demonstrators), what pulled them there and the change they want to see.
Dr. Estell Williams
Despite being a surgeon, despite being on the faculty of the University of Washington’s medical school, Dr. Estell Williams felt like the open letter she wrote last week to UW Medicine was a big risk.
She wrote about painful memories — including the childhood day her dad, a single father who once picked cotton as a sharecropper in Louisiana, was taken from his car by police and held for two days without charges — and the imperative for health care workers to stand “in solidarity with a community that has been brutalized for far too long.” She announced a June 6 demonstration.
Her colleagues, she said, don’t tend to talk about those uncomfortable subjects. How would they take it?
“I never expected it to resonate the way it did,” Dr. Williams said.
“But by no means do I consider that march a win,” she said. “It’s a start.”
Dr. Williams wants to see the medical profession use and organize its clout (the degrees, the prestige) to advocate for patients who don’t have as much power. She wants resources siphoned away from police and toward health and human services. And she wants people to demand police accountability — even if they’re close to individual cops.
“We don’t dislike a person, we dislike the inefficiencies of the system,” she said. “And we reward that system with more and more funding while not rewarding the system we know will have more impact.”
Does she think this moment will translate to real change?
“Time will tell,” she said. “The best way I’ve heard it described was: ‘This must be what it felt like when people started talking about abolishing slavery.’ It seemed like such a radical idea at the time. Now we look back and say it’s a no-brainer.”
Jamal Layne, a 28-year-old Seattle tech worker, didn’t expect to join the protests that have been disrupting everyday Seattle life since May 30.
But, to his own surprise, Layne found himself joining a June 6 demonstration of hundreds marching its way through Belltown.
“It was my first protest ever for anything,” Layne said. “What hit me was, I cried.”
When the protesters knelt in the street, he knelt, too. When they lay on the ground for about nine minutes — the duration white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed on the neck of George Floyd, killing him — Layne hit the pavement.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “All these people out there, all from different backgrounds and walks of life, supporting me as a Black person. It was America being what America should be.”
Originally from Boston, Layne moved to Seattle in 2015 to work for a very large tech company, and now works for a smaller firm that helps businesses with e-commerce on sites like Amazon.
Historically, he said, he’s tried to keep out of politics — he’s typically the only Black person on his team and doesn’t want to be seen, in his words, “as playing the race card.”
“In the tech world, people are just trying to protect where they are,” he said. “They don’t want to get in trouble, because there’s a lot of risk. I don’t think they’re disconnected — they’re just doing their due diligence to get their everyday work done.”
But on June 6, he and a friend felt compelled to join — and he’s glad they did.
“I think if you’re a Black person, any person of color, you should go march,” he said. “It’s like voting. So many people are down and willing to ride for you, all different colors, that you should help out.”
Normally, when Amanda Morgan appears before an audience, it’s with the corps de ballet at Pacific Northwest Ballet, but lately, she’s done it as an act of resistance.
The only Black ballerina in the company, Morgan is determined to use her platform to speak out for Black lives. A June 2 video taken of her speaking before a crowd of protesters in front of McCaw Hall, where PNB performs, traveled widely on Instagram and Twitter. “I hope for a world in which people are held accountable for their actions and their inactions,” she said to cheers and applause. “I hope for a world in which I will not have to explain to my children how they will have to act in public and around police for fear of their lives being taken away.”
Morgan, who is from Tacoma, studied dance alongside the sister of Manuel Ellis, who died of respiratory arrest after police violently restrained him. She said that when George Floyd was killed under similar circumstances, she noticed that many arts institutions were silent or slow to react.
“That infuriated me, because, obviously, I’m part of an arts organization,” she said. “I’m just as much part of it as anyone else, and so it was very hurtful, the hesitation to make a statement.”
Morgan posted her own statement to Instagram. “As a dancer I give so much of myself to institutions, spaces and the community, but why do you remain silent when individuals like me are killed?” PNB shared Morgan’s post, and eventually put out its own statement expressing support for Black lives and a commitment to addressing racial disparities in dance.
Morgan’s demands go well beyond the ballet world. “I want the funding for the police to decrease, and I want it invested in Black and Brown communities and in education and in health care … I don’t think they’re privileges. They’re rights,” she said.
She also wants to see Black artists uplifted, in a city that often fails to support them. She described the dissonant experience of being hugely impressed by Dani Tirrell’s “Black Bois,” only to see it covered inadequately in local media. “It was one of the best shows I’ve seen in the past few years … and they just deserve so much more credit than what they’ve received,” she said. “And I think partially that’s because of the color of their skin and who they are; they just are not valued as much.”
James Pendergraft Jr.
To James Pendergraft, “defund the police” looks like this: a 20% budget cut every year for five years.
“I would only save a little itty bit because of violent crime,” he said. “And you need federal oversight — cops aren’t going to tell on cops.”
Originally from Anchorage, Pendergraft came to Seattle in 2016, working in the restaurant industry. He got laid off when coronavirus hit and has been protesting every day since the big downtown march on May 30.
Lately, he’s been a regular at the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, established on the blocks around 12th Avenue and East Pine Street after the Seattle Police Department abandoned its East Precinct building on June 8.
“It’s a good vibe up there,” Pendergraft said. “You’ve got your nighttime weirdos of the city, which is normal. But nobody’s fighting — a little arguing, but that’s nothing — or stealing or shooting, doing dumb stuff. As long as we keep ourselves regulated, we’re good. These are the small steps showing we don’t need the police. We can take care of ourselves. There’s a lot of love.”
He doesn’t recall many Alaska protests — his first demonstration was a 2016 anti-Trump march in Seattle — but the police there also have a history of violence. “There were a lot of cops from out of state, young cops, just out of the military and scared,” he said. “I don’t know why someone who’s scared of people would take that job. If you’re scared, go be a firefighter! You’d still get to save people!”
Pendergraft has a court record, including criminal mischief, and was released from prison in 2013. Those experiences, he said, influenced his politics — not least because it gave him time to study. “I got my GED when I was locked up,” he said. “And I began to see the bigger picture.”
He is cautiously optimistic that these protests will lead to substantive change. “Who are you going to be, the empire or the rebellion?” he said. “All we want is some damn justice.”
When he goes to protests in the Seattle area, J.R. Ramos marches with a gorgeous flag of his own making: It’s an upside-down Filipino flag with a Black Power fist in front of the sun. “When the Filipino flag is flown upside down,” he said, “it means we’re in a state of war.” Combined with the symbol for Black Power, Ramos’ flag signifies that “Filipinos and Filipino Americans are in this fight for equality together.”
The flag, and his employment of the hashtag #filipinxforblacklives, reflects Ramos’ effort to engage his Filipinx community in the Black Lives Matter movement through acknowledging moments of convergence in Black and Filipinx history. “Black American soldiers fought in solidarity during the Philippine-American war and along with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers, the Black Panthers helped the Filipinos to fight for employment, education, housing and legal rights,” he said. “And I urge my family, friends and the Filipino community to stand in solidarity with the Black community because they’ve done the same for us.”
“I wanted to show my support for the Black community other than posting about it,” he said of his decision to join in-person protests. “I wanted to be out there to listen and learn.”
Listening has helped him to understand the goals of the movement, and his place within it. At first, said Ramos, the idea of something like defunding the police seemed frightening to him, but he said that as he attended the protests and learned more about it, his response shifted. “Defund means to take that money that was budgeted for the police and use that for the community,” he said. “I saw a post that really put into perspective: ‘Defunding the police sounds like a radical idea until you realize they’ve been defunding education for years.’”
After careful deliberation, Tara Bacher took her teenage daughter and a friend to a protest at Westlake Center five days after George Floyd was killed. Bacher, a teacher, felt compelled to take a stand against police violence, and at the protest, she bore witness to it firsthand when police threw flash-bang grenades at activists.
She called it a horrifying experience, one that felt disproportionate to the situation. “The police were not respecting the wishes of the protesters in keeping it peaceful,” she said. She took the girls home. “The entire drive home was just a conversation about how they couldn’t believe what they had witnessed, and it made them even more angry,” she said.
Bacher, who is white, said the experience had reshaped her own view of law enforcement. “I think we had an intellectual understanding and appreciation for what the Black community has been saying their experience with police officers has been, but in that moment, it gave us a visceral personal understanding of what has been happening and the degree to which the power of the police force is being abused and the voices of the people are not being heard,” she said.
Bacher and her daughter plan to continue attending protests. “I come from a place of privilege in the fact that I am white,” she said. She’d had other advantages and so did her children, she said, “but all of that is worth nothing if we don’t use the privilege and the power that we haven’t earned — and frankly don’t deserve — to lift others.”
She hoped to see major changes to policing and community resources bolstered. “‘Defund’ seems to be confusing for people but I am very firmly on the side of reallocating the money that has previously gone to police forces,” she said. She hoped it could instead go toward social goods like education and mental health care.