Hundreds of people gathered Thursday evening in a field within shouting distance of the Brettler Family Place Apartments, where Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old Black, pregnant woman, was fatally shot by two white Seattle police officers on June 18, 2017.
The third anniversary of Lyles’ death was marked with a remembrance vigil on the western border of Seattle’s Warren G. Magnuson Park, a month after protests erupted across the globe over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — and the many Black people killed by law enforcement before him.
“This has to stop. This has gone on for hundreds of years and it has to stop,” Pastor Kenneth Isabell said in an opening prayer.
In a nod to the times, Isabell said “this coronavirus is no joke” and exhorted attendees without masks to “cover up.”
“We thank you, God, for all your blessings. Protect us from police brutality and everything else going on today,” Isabell said.
Music, poetry and dance filled the evening. Lyles, a mother of four, was remembered for her radiant smile and magnetic personality. A cousin, Tramaine Isabell, who makes music under the moniker Maine1, took the stage along with Lyles’ children and performed a rap song, “I Can’t Breathe.” The lyrics invoke some of the final words spoken by Floyd and Eric Garner, a Black man killed by New York City police in 2014.
“Mama, please. They’re killing me. I can’t breathe,” he rapped.
Shaenae Isabell, Lyles’ second cousin and the vigil’s emcee, asked the crowd to stand and face the building where Lyles was killed.
“Say her name!” Shaenae Isabell called out.
“CHARLEENA LYLES,” the crowd responded, yelling Lyles’ name more than a dozen times.
Seattle police Officers Steven McNew and Jason Anderson shot Lyles seven times after she called 911 on a Sunday morning to report a burglary at her apartment.
The officers said she had suddenly threatened them with one or two knives and that they didn’t find evidence of a burglary.
Lyles had turned to Seattle police for help in the past, and the department knew she struggled with mental-health issues, according to her family and court records. A lawyer for Lyles’ estate accused police of mishandling her call by failing to recognize and prepare for “some sort of an involuntary mental-illness outburst.”
The shooting unleashed a storm of public protest, with many — including Lyles’ family members — seeing it as another example of unnecessary deadly force being used against Black people. Questions were raised over why neither officer was armed with a Taser, although officers are generally taught not to use a Taser, baton or pepper spray to disarm people posing a deadly threat with a knife.
An inquest to determine the facts and circumstances of Lyles’ death has yet to be held. In December 2017, King County Executive Dow Constantine called a halt on inquests because of perceptions that they were held to clear officers, instead of being fact-finding hearings, and were unfair to families.
Lawsuits have been filed in King County Superior Court over Constantine’s changes to the inquest process, but legal proceedings have stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The possibility of appeals to higher courts could leave inquests languishing for years to come. Lining up behind the Lyles case, more than 20 other inquests into the deaths of people killed by police have yet to be scheduled.
On June 5, Constantine called on cities to withdraw their legal challenges to the new inquest rules, KING 5 reported. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced four days later that the city intends to do so.
On Thursday, Lyles’ family issued a list of demands, one of them calling for the King County Sheriff’s Office and the cities of Kent, Renton, Federal Way and Auburn to also drop their legal challenges so Lyles’ loved ones can get answers about the events that led up to her death.
In a poignant display of support, at least a dozen family members of people killed by police, both locally and from states including New York, Ohio and California, along with a family from Jamaica, stood together Thursday as representatives of a group they call Families on the Front Line. Former Seahawk Michael Bennett paid for the out-of-towners to be flown to Seattle.
“It’s sad, all the stories,” said Alexis François, who is better known by her maiden name, Alexis Dunlap, before the vigil got underway.
She is the mother of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, a high-school senior who was killed as he tried to flee from three plainclothes King County sheriff’s detectives who sprang from the back of an unmarked van on a darkened Des Moines street the night of Jan. 27, 2017.
Last month, King County agreed to pay the Dunlap-Gittens family a $2.25 million settlement, which includes a provision for dash and body cameras.
But any efforts to implement dash or body cameras into the King County Sheriff’s Office — one of the largest agencies in the state that doesn’t require video recordings of its officers’ actions — would require approval by the King County Police Officer’s Guild, which has opposed such reforms in the past.
“It’s a lonely process. There’s no manual to tell you how to deal with this, there’s no blueprint. It’s like being a deer caught in headlights,” said François, who vowed to keep pushing for the Sheriff’s Office to make changes.
“So many families go through it and there’s no recording — it’s your word against theirs,” said François, whose son’s fatal shooting wasn’t video-recorded. “I think it will be good for both sides. I think the community wants it.”
Ixtli White Hawk, program director for Indigenous wellness at Unkitawa, a Seattle nonprofit established in 2018 that seeks to heal Indigenous people through culture and ceremony, said Native communities have also been disproportionately affected by police killings and been targets of white violence — including homicides, beatings and rapes — for hundreds of years.
“The Native and Black community, we know what it’s like to be targeted and that the color of our skin can dictate if we live or die,” said White Hawk, noting that modern policing is rooted in groups formed to track down runaway slaves. “It’s important to be here today because of the families carrying the pain, day in and day out. It’s important to embrace the families and let them know community is behind them.”
Information from The Seattle Times’ archives is included in this report.