It took the ripples of outrage over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May about three days to reach Seattle, driving thousands of protesters into the streets in solidarity with demands to end police violence against people of color and address, finally, the institutional racism that feeds it.
Seven months later, those tear gas-filled early days of Seattle’s tumultuous summer have led to a standoff between a public clamoring for racial justice, embattled city leaders, a police department that’s faced heavy criticism for its handling of the protests, and a battered business community — all in agreement racism must end, but at loggerheads at just how to get there from here.
At the same time, the protests — sometimes involving tens of thousands of demonstrators — have given voice and momentum to an emerging social movement that has been embraced here in Seattle and neighboring Portland with an urgency and passion that made the Pacific Northwest a poster child for both ends of the political spectrum.
Seattle saw the birth of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, an eclectic police-free zone with an abandoned precinct house at its heart, that was ultimately dismantled by the city after two fatal shootings. Portland saw massive crowds nightly and growing violence between police, protesters and emboldened adherents to armed alt-right and quasi-racist movements such as Patriot Prayer and the Three Percenters.
Both cities saw repeated incidents of vandalism and violence, spurring debate about protest tactics as some smaller groups of demonstrators continued to damage property for weeks on end.
Seattle police were unprepared for the anti-cop anger expressed by the massive crowds that moved into the downtown core the weekend after Floyd was killed. Some vandals moved within the thousands of peaceful protesters, burning five police cars and throwing rocks and bottles at officers. Police rifles were stolen from at least two of the abandoned cruisers. Businesses were vandalized and looted.
Beginning that first weekend, police often retaliated against the crowds with every less-lethal weapon at their disposal, including tear gas. The strategy spurred public outrage, political backlash and a Black Lives Matter lawsuit that combined have rattled the department to its foundation.
The turmoil’s fallout prompted the city’s police chief to retire and almost certainly influenced Mayor Jenny Durkan to not seek a second term.
Now, the department faces piecemeal cuts by the city council, reforms or no. The protest response also stalled hopes that SPD would finally find its way out from a consent decree that placed it under federal court oversight in 2012. Instead, more than seven years of police reforms and tens of millions of dollars to support and adopt them have been overshadowed by what a federal judge described as officers lashing out indiscriminately against demonstrators, in violation of the court and Constitution, and then doing it again and again, in contempt of the court’s order.
As Seattle closes the door on a 2020 full of conflict, pain and racial reckoning, the protests have spurred changes, both tangible and intangible, that will affect policing and politics in the city for years to come.
Push to defund Seattle police
The Seattle Police Department’s budget grew 68% from 2010 to 2020, reaching $409 million. Had the protests not erupted, it likely would have continued to grow. Instead, SPD’s budget will shrink in 2021, with City Hall allocating tens of millions for non-police responses and investments in communities of color.
Though Seattle’s protests were initially stirred by police killings in Minneapolis and Louisville, social justice advocates who had for years been urging officials to shift resources from policing and incarceration to restorative justice and social services seized the moment and brought their message to the streets.
In many cities, such advocates took aim at police budgets, arguing reforms had failed to stop officer abuses. In Seattle, defunding the police by 50% quickly became a top demand at demonstrations. In early June, thousands confronted Durkan outside City Hall. (Protesters later took their demonstrations to Durkan’s home and spray-painted obscenities at her property.)
Durkan raised concerns about budget cuts, warning that an immediate 50% reduction would decimate the city’s ability to answer 911 calls. She did, however, propose about $20 million in mid-year cuts to SPD’s 2020 budget, partly because the COVID-19 pandemic was choking the city’s revenues.
While considering Durkan’s plan, the City Council spent weeks grilling SPD. Under pressure from protesters and activists, seven council members pledged to support a defunding plan laid out by the advocacy groups Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now.
In August, the council adopted additional cuts to SPD’s budget, including actions meant to trim up to 100 officers through layoffs and attrition. The hotly-debated moves were vehemently opposed by Durkan, who vetoed the legislation, and then-police Chief Carmen Best, who abruptly retired.
The council overrode Durkan’s veto, but the changes were mostly symbolic, adding up to only a few million dollars. Because the council requested that officers with records of misconduct be laid off, triggering union bargaining, and because the changes came so late in the year, none of the layoffs actually occurred.
The debate continued in late September, when Durkan released her 2021 budget plan. It included more than $20 million in cuts and more than $30 million in transfers, moving SPD’s civilian 911 call-center workers and parking enforcement officers to other departments. But defunding advocates urged the council to cut deeper and stop SPD from hiring officers.
The council ultimately cut about $12 million more, mostly by eliminating vacant officer positions rather than through mass layoffs. SPD plans to hire more than 100 officers in 2021 — to replace the many officers have resigned or retired this year.
Businesses caught at the center
For many Seattle area businesses, the protests of 2020 brought challenges that went well beyond shattered windows and scared-off customers.
In the wake of the chaotic, destructive demonstrations of May 29 and 30, when scores of businesses were hit by looting and vandalism in Seattle, Bellevue, Auburn, Renton, Tacoma and other Puget Sound-area communities, some businesses already reeling from the pandemic had a new obstacle.
Even after the protests shrank in size and destructiveness, they still brought financial risks — and, often, a political dilemma — for business owners in a city that prides itself on a progressive business community.
Most Seattle-area business owners recognize “how much racism we all live under,” says Louise Chernin, outgoing president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Business Association and Capitol Hill Business Alliance. “Yet sometimes, the interest of wanting to survive and be able to be open as a business can feel in conflict to making sure everybody has their First Amendment rights and is able to speak.”
Sometimes, those conflicts were in-house. When employees at some local businesses wanted to wear Black Lives Matter symbols at work, some employers felt they had to choose between offending customers and alienating their own staff.
“They’re not standing together with us,” Sam Dancy, a union shop steward and a supervisor at Westwood Village QFC in Southwest Seattle, told the Times in September after some employees said they were asked by store managers not to wear Black Lives Matter buttons.
For large businesses, weathering the year’s crises arguably was made easier by deep financial resources and years of experience dealing with public relations emergencies.
Seattle-based Starbucks, which has suffered routine vandalism during the protests and was criticized for its short-lived ban on employees wearing BLM symbols at work, has also stepped up its support for diversity and social justice . In October, it rolled out an ambitious initiative that aims to ensure that people of color are represented in at least 30% of roles in its corporate operations and 40% of retail and manufacturing roles by 2025.
Likewise, Seattle-based retailer Nordstrom, whose downtown flagship store was ransacked during the May demonstration, was quick to emphasize its priority on people, not property. “We can fix the damage to our stores,” the company noted in a June 1 statement. “We continue to believe as strongly as ever that tremendous change is needed to address the issues facing Black people in our country today.”
Boeing and Issaquah-based Costco (another local firm criticized for its BLM workplace policies), also rolled out substantial social justice initiatives in the wake of the protests.
But those carefully calibrated responses weren’t always an option for smaller businesses — even as they, too, labored to keep customers and employees happy while signaling support to protesters and to stay open during a pandemic.
“Trying to wrestle with all those different perspectives, I think, is something that a lot of small businesses maybe had not reckoned with in the way that larger organizations had the opportunities to or, in some ways, [already had been] called upon to do in recent years,” said Ines Jurcevic, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy & Governance and an expert in diversity management.
Yet even during the darkest days of protests, some business owners said they were heartened by the community’s response.
After his International District eatery, Fortuna Cafe 2.0, was damaged in the May protests, David Leong was stunned by how many people showed up to help him and other shop owners clean up. “There were so many, you know, non-Asian faces down there,” Leong said recently. “It was great — like a United Nations of concerned individuals and groups.”
Like many Seattle-area businesses, Leong hopes that initial response, coupled with meaningful efforts by local and state lawmakers to address systemic injustices, means that 2021 might be less volatile — and might allow businesses to focus on recovery. “Let’s come together and make this…a vibrant city again,” he said.
Advocacy groups gain clout, funding
The protests also inspired new work by community organizers and spotlighted work already underway, helping several Black-led advocacy groups gain political clout and funding.
Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County won widespread attention early on, securing meetings with elected officials ranging from King County Executive Dow Constantine to Gov. Jay Inslee. The group led a silent march in June that drew an estimated 60,000 people, including Durkan and Best.
As the uprising moved from the streets to the political realm, King County Equity Now took center stage, using demonstrations and social media to spread the word about budget decisions in Seattle and beyond. Many protesters rallied behind the coalition of Black-led organizations, which includes former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver’s Creative Justice and Central District community organizer Wyking Garrett’s Africatown, forcing politicians to take notice.
City Council members invited King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle representatives to present on budget questions and pledged to follow their lead, embracing the coalition’s argument that Seattle should redirect policing funds to community programs through a bottom-up “participatory budgeting process.”
Ultimately, the council allocated $3 million for a King County Equity Now research project that’s supposed to lay the groundwork for a participatory budgeting process in 2021 and appropriated $30 million for programs selected via that process.
Meanwhile, the protests energized a campaign by a group of Black pastors to reverse displacement in the Central District. In July, the council incorporated that aim into the spending plan for a new tax on big businesses, promising millions of dollars for affordable housing in the neighborhood in 2022 and beyond.
In addition, four nonprofit leaders — all Black women — were motivated to launch the Black Future Co-op Fund. Determined to raise resources for health care, education, housing and economic needs, Andrea Caupain, Angela Jones, Michelle Merriweather and T’wina Nobles raised $5 million off the bat from corporations, philanthropies and individuals.
Durkan later named Caupain and Merriweather to serve on an Equitable Communities Initiative task force that will issue recommendations on how the city should spend an additional $30 million for communities of color. The mayor and council members have said the participatory budgeting process and the task force should complement each other next year.
New scrutiny of police weapons
Despite years of watchdog groups warning about SPD’s use of flash-bang grenades, this year’s protests drew more widespread scrutiny of the various weapons police use on protesters than at any time in recent memory. But that attention has so far translated to limited permanent change.
Blast balls, flash-bang grenades, pepper spray and other weapons sometimes referred to as “less lethal” can nevertheless cause serious injuries. Seattle demonstrators have documented bruises, cuts and burns — and, in one case, a partial thumb amputation — from the weapons. A protester hit in the chest with a flash-bang said her doctor told her she went into cardiac arrest.
Still, oversight groups have rejected a total ban on the weapons, warning that in some cases the devices can help prevent deadly force. Efforts to curb police use of the weapons have been disregarded or hung up in court.
In early June, after police used tear gas and pepper spray on Capitol Hill, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced officers would stop using tear gas on protesters. But a little over two days later, police deployed the gas anyway.
As protesters continued to gather daily on Capitol Hill, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington sued the city, arguing the police response violated protesters’ constitutional rights and amounted to “unnecessary violence.”
That case has resulted in some temporary limits on “indiscriminate” use of the weapons, but police are still able to use them in response to immediate threats. That has proven difficult to parse in many instances, and the lawsuit is still winding through federal court.
When the City Council voted unanimously to ban almost all uses of crowd-control weapons, that effort was quickly hung up in court, too.
Beyond the city budget, more promises for change
Beyond the Seattle budget, the demonstrations laid the groundwork for changes at virtually every level of government. The extent of that change remains to be seen in future years’ budgets and debates.
The protests led the Martin Luther King County Labor Council to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild in June, removing political cover for the union ahead of negotiations with the city for a new contract that will occur in 2021. Reformers want to chip away at provisions that shield officers from accountability for misconduct.
In one of the most significant shifts of this year, King County voters backed two charter amendments that could reshape the King County Sheriff’s Office. One changed the position of the sheriff from elected to appointed; another will allow the county council to adjust the “structure and duties” of the sheriff’s office.
For reformers, this creates an opening to redirect sheriff’s office funds to non-police responses or to scale back the types of calls to which sheriff’s deputies respond.
The county also opted to make Juneteenth and Indigenous Peoples’ Day paid holidays for county employees (Indigenous Peoples’ Day will be contingent on available funding) and shifted $4.6 million in marijuana tax money from the sheriff’s office to other programs. But that cut was slightly less than King County Executive Dow Constantine originally proposed, as the council opted to add sheriff personnel outside the county courthouse.
Early in the protests, Constantine said the county would plan to convert the juvenile detention center to other uses within five years and would look to eventually begin a “phased closing” of the adult jail downtown. For now, those remain pledges.
Elsewhere, local governments reconsidered the role of police and made new movement on old promises. The Seattle School Board voted to suspend a program that places armed police officers in schools. Seattle announced plans to transfer an old firehouse to the Africatown Community Land Trust. The city first designated the firehouse as a possible site for a new cultural innovation center in 2016, but that stalled until this year’s sudden announcement.
Heading into 2021, protesters and community organizers have argued far more must be done.