On the sunbaked parking lot of a Central District church on Sunday, Seattle’s top law enforcement officer stepped up to a podium at a racial justice vigil, flanked by placards bearing the names of people killed by the city’s police officers.
Chief Carmen Best hadn’t prepared any remarks. She wore a white dress instead of a uniform.
“I just wanted to be here, just as an African American woman, as a member of the community, and as a person who strongly believes in my faith,” she said in the shade of the Immaculate Conception Church.
While acknowledging that she’d made her share of mistakes, Best said, “I absolutely believe it’s a calling for me to be here at this moment, at this time, and this place, working on behalf of the many, many, many people who want racial equity, who want justice, who want fairness.”
Sunday’s prayer vigil for racial justice brought together religious and political leaders as well as about 100 people, who called for an end to systemic racism and the translation of these pledges into action. It also testified to the disruptive events that are coursing through communities across the country — the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Virtually everyone at the vigil wore masks and spread out across Immaculate Conception’s parking lot in folding chairs to comply with social distancing requirements. At one edge of the parking lot were Black Lives Matter placards, bearing handwritten names of those killed by police that have become rallying cries nationwide — Trayvon. Philando. Rayshard. Breonna. On the opposite side, behind the speaker podium, were other signs with the names of people killed by Seattle officers.
Carina Schoen, of Des Moines, brought her family to the vigil to stand up for diverse communities and sustain momentum for social justice. Schoen and her husband have six children, including two they adopted, who are African American. She said she believes it’s “our job to sit in conversation with others and hear their stories.”
Gregg Alex, executive director of the Matt Talbot Center, an addiction-treatment program, described the event as a salve for the community carrying trauma amid a pandemic that has constrained people from dialogue. He also called on those assembled to ensure that pledges of action are “not just an exercise.”
State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, a Democrat representing the 37th District, spoke to how people of color have been harmed disproportionately by police and COVID-19, declaring “the way we have constructed our societies and our institutions and our governments must be undone.”
Paul Etienne, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle, reflected that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t diminish the value of other lives but rather recognizes the injustice of Black men dying at the hands of law enforcement officers. “There is something drastically wrong in our society today,” he said.
Protests of varying size have taken place almost every day in Seattle since the May 25 killing of George Floyd. Protesters returned to Seattle streets on Sunday, marching through downtown and Capitol Hill. The most significant presence in the past several days, demonstrators chanted “No justice, no peace,” as they called for racial justice and an end to police brutality.
Some demonstrators also vandalized property: Among other damage, windows at the police department’s East Precinct and the Municipal Courthouse were broken, and police said a small fire was started inside the East Precinct. Two people were arrested, and a police officer was taken to the hospital after some protesters threw rocks, bottles and other objects at officers, according to Seattle police.
Near the conclusion of the vigil at Immaculate Conception, Dr. Ngozi Oleru read the names of more than two dozen people she said were killed by Seattle police, each followed by a bell. Oleru, who chairs a health and social justice commission at the parish, said later that it is important to educate the community about those who have died here.
“We don’t have George Floyd, but we have the same thing happening here,” she said. Of Best’s remarks, she said, “I truly appreciate what she’s having to handle at this time.”
Asked about the placards behind the podium, Best said “Of course I believe in the sanctity of life. Any death is a tragedy.” She said she had come to the vigil in the hope that the community will come together, and for there to be no more names adorning such placards.
Seattle Times reporter Mike Carter contributed to this article.