The mass protests against police brutality and for racial equity that have dominated Seattle and the nation for the past two months are like few others in American history — a sustained, daily movement, in major cities, sleepy suburbs and rural towns, with no central organizing hub, driven by social media and word-of-mouth.
Locally, the protests have already won significant policy changes. Seattle police are out of Seattle schools. Seven of nine Seattle City Council members have generally pledged to cut Seattle police funding by half. The Police Department is being stripped of some of its duties. An old city fire station will become a Black cultural center. King County has pledged to re-purpose its just-completed youth jail and close an old adult jail. The governor wants to ban police choke holds. Juneteenth will be a paid county holiday. Black Lives Matter won a significant court injunction limiting police force.
There are many more. This is an incomplete list.
But activists and organizers say their work is far from done. Many of their victories remain intangible pledges. The average white family in America has 10 times the wealth of the average Black family. The wage gap between Black men and white men is as wide as it was in 1950. A Black preschooler is nearly four-times as likely to be suspended as a white preschooler.
“If you’re actually thinking about the on-the-ground conditions of Black folks in King County and around the nation, the conditions are going downward,” said Isaac Joy, an organizer with King County Equity Now, a coalition of longstanding community groups that has sprung up to try to harness the energy of the protests. “That’s incredibly important to contextualize, just to show how much more we need to do.”
“There’s been conversations and announcements and negotiations,” said K. Wyking Garrett, CEO of Africatown Community Land Trust, which works to reestablish Black ownership in the historically Black Central District. “But as far as measurable things, in terms of dollars and in terms of square feet, we can’t say we’ve moved things.”
New groups are sprouting up to sustain the movement’s momentum, linking up with those that have been around for years.
The new protest organizing groups, such as Engage, Black Collective Voice, Morning March Seattle, Seattle Evening March, the Every Day March, the Black Indigenous Coalition, have built up social media followings, particularly on Instagram, that direct crowds to events and rallies.
On Wednesday evening, a group of demonstrators went to the home of Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis. On Thursday evening, about 100 went to the home of King County Executive Dow Constantine. At least three protests are scheduled in Seattle this weekend.
“Every day. Every day there will be some form of education, every day there will be some kind of rally,” said Garin “Peyday” Peyton, an Engage leader. “Now, we move on to the knowledge, the education, now we move on to the demands.”
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who before she was an elected official was an immigrant-rights organizer and activist, said the death of George Floyd has been a catalyzing moment after years of building the Black Lives Matter movement.
“A lot of what organizing is about is building the infrastructure you need, but then you never know when that tipping point moment is going to come where you might actually be able to make significant change,” Jayapal said. “I think that’s what’s happened here.”
‘Day after day’
James Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Washington who studies social movements, is among scholars who say the Black Lives Matter movement stood as the largest, sustained protest event in American history.
The closest comparison, Gregory said, might be the summer of 1932, as the Great Depression intensified, unemployed marchers hit the streets in U.S. cities, farmers went on strike throughout the Midwest and World War I veterans camped out in Washington, D.C., to demand war bonuses before the Army violently cleared them out.
“The ability to sustain these demonstrations across months now is unique,” Gregory said. “That has never happened before on this scale. Millions of people who have participated and can come back night after night, day after day, that’s totally new in this country.”
Seattle has a long history of demonstrations and protests, most evident in recent years in the annual May Day labor march and post-march vandalism and shenanigans that have been a virtual rite of spring.
While the past few May Day marches (this year’s was canceled due to COVID-19) have been low-key affairs, the wandering vandalism and violence of past years is where the Seattle Police Department sharpened the crowd-control skills used to varying effects during the past two months.
The expanding use of body armor, the deployment of long-range industrial-sized cans of pepper spray, flash bangs and concussion grenades, the advent of baton- and moving-bike formations and barricades intended to herd the crowds, all made their first appearances during May Day demonstrations of the past decade. Sometimes, it worked. Sometimes, not so much.
Then, of course, there was The Battle of Seattle — the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference in 1999 that devolved into three days of massive demonstrations, protests and a police department that was ill-prepared for what it was asked to do, and eventually overwhelmed. WTO was perhaps the longest sustained protest in the city’s recent history until this summer’s demonstrations.
‘It galvanizes folks’
Since the shutdown of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area, the protests have largely been peaceful. But that changed last weekend, when people within a protest burned construction trailers at the youth jail site and broke windows on Capitol Hill. Seattle police responded with pepper spray and “less lethal” ammunition, despite a court order limiting their use of crowd-control weapons.
Police say 59 officers suffered injuries, one of whom was hospitalized with a torn meniscus. Protesters, in a legal filing accompanied by 24 sworn declarations laying out details of injuries suffered at the hands of police, accused police of brutality and seeking vengeance.
Mayor Jenny Durkan this week said the fires and broken windows were the result of just a few people among thousands of protesters and pleaded for peace. Police say they found a van at the weekend protests filled with fireworks, smoke bombs, stun guns, bear and pepper spray and makeshift spike strips.
“Acts of destruction, violence and hateful speech — none of that gets us where we need to be,” Durkan said. “It’s not just a distraction, it undermines the central message and actions we want to take together as a city.”
Some protesters, while not endorsing violence, say the images of police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters, using their bikes as weapons and lobbing flash-bang grenades into crowds only hardens their resolve.
“It is funny to see that the response to protesting against police brutality was police brutality,” said Jason Beverly a demonstrator and a founder of Engage.
“One thing we’ve learned is that if you start shooting and gassing people, it’s not likely they’re going to go home,” said Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, and author of “American Resistance,” a book on recent protest movements and politics. “There’s not a lot of precedence showing that tamping down a protest will help.”
The Trump administration’s decision to deploy federal agents to Portland, along with threats to do the same in Seattle, served to outrage even more people.
“Once that cycle starts, it’s very hard to stop it,” Fisher said. “Then what you have is people showing up because they are angry about the police reaction, where Black Lives Matter may not have been the primary reason for them to demonstrate.”
There is also a long history of violence in protests, and it doesn’t always play out the same way.
In eulogizing Rep. John Lewis on Thursday, former President Barack Obama recalled 1965’s Bloody Sunday, when Lewis marched with civil rights protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, only to be beaten by state troopers, his skull broken.
“That day, the troopers thought they’d won the battle,” Obama said. “Except this time there were some cameras there, this time the world saw what happened.”
Those protests led directly to some of the strongest civil rights legislation the U.S. has ever passed, including the Voting Rights Act.
“Those pieces of legislation would have remained in draft form without the nationwide, organized protests,” said David Perez, a lawyer in two separate lawsuits attempting to stop Seattle police’s use of crowd control weapons. “Protesters were labeled as not peaceful, as violent. But you can’t label an entire protest movement based on the actions of a few who attended that protest.”
But later in the 1960s, a shift to more militant protesting strategies, Gregory said, “alienated lots and lots of people — white people — and certainly enabled or helped Richard Nixon become president.”
‘They will find a way’
The novel coronavirus pandemic has ironically provided fertile ground for the protest movement, even as it makes every gathering more dangerous. People were cooped up for months, in a heightened state of anxiety, before the nation erupted at the video of Floyd’s death.
Millions remain out of work and out of school, with time on their hands. Others are working from home, with flexible schedules.
Joy, the King County Equity Now organizer, said the virus had given people not only time to get involved, but a prompt to reevaluate society.
“There’s something incredibly powerful about certain rhythms being disrupted, you’re not getting hit by the same stimuli,” he said. “It comes around once a generation where you get a little more time to just think critically about larger issues. I feel like that’s what’s happening now.”
Fisher predicted sustained protests through the election.
“People watching police beat people up will bring more people into the streets. As a result, we are primed for all of this to continue,” she said. “Think of it as the summer of our discontent.”
Nyasha Sarju, an organizer with Black Collective Voice and a paraeducator at Interagency Academy, an alternative public high school in Seattle, said the future of the movement will depend on people’s willingness to do the work when circumstances are less convenient.
When school starts in the fall, she’ll have a lot less time to plan and attend protests. Still, she says, the movement isn’t confined to rallies and marches. She’ll work to agitate Seattle Public Schools from within, “call them out on their progressive language that doesn’t turn into actual action.”
“If this matters to folks, they will find a way, they will cut back on their hours at work if they make a lot of money,” Sarju said. “People have to give things up if they want to stay in this movement in meaningful way.”