Thousands of activists and community leaders gathered June 5 in front of the decommissioned Fire Station 6 to discuss the future of Seattle. The 1930s building represented a juncture in the Central District’s past and present: Its art deco façade stood at the corner of a once-thriving Black neighborhood dating back to the 1800s that, largely due to displacement, had dwindled by 60% in 50 years.
In the eyes of community leaders, the fire station served as a potential story of redemption.
King County Equity Now, the recently formed coalition that rallied at 23rd Avenue South and East Yesler Way that day, demanded that the city follow through on a 2016 proposal to transform the building into an innovation center that would bolster Black-owned businesses.
The coalition — of groups such as Africatown Community Land Trust, WA-BLOC, and Puget Sound Sage — saw the fire station as integral to their plan of creating a pipeline for Black people to stay and thrive in Seattle. The city responded, agreeing to transfer ownership of the defunct fire station to the community. Just two months after King County Equity Now was founded, the newly formed coalition had moved the needle on what was previously a community organizer’s dream.
In the following weeks, as protests for racial justice continued throughout Seattle, King County Equity Now partnered with another coalition, Decriminalize Seattle, and developed a plan backed collectively by decades of research and community building. Together, the coalitions — consisting of organizations led by Black, Indigenous and people of color, and individuals ranging from data analysts to community builders and lawyers — unified under the same mission: to improve conditions on the ground for marginalized communities.
The two groups used their political sway to persuade the Seattle City Council to propose cutting the Seattle police budget and reallocating funding to scale up community-led public safety programming.
Now, with budget discussions at the Seattle City Council set to resume, the organizations will likely be at the center of continued heated debate over police funding in coming weeks.
How it all started
At the fire station rally in June, King County Equity Now’s platform centered around community ownership of land, along with acquiring funding to address the root of inequities. At the crux of the group’s vision was a solution that community members had sought for many years without success: to defund the police and reallocate that funding to Black-led organizations.
Organizers invited the crowd to reimagine public safety: to engage in a vision where gentrification, over-policing, violence and poverty were eradicated in the Black community.
King County Equity Now’s genesis followed the fallout from COVID-19 and its disproportionate toll on the state’s Black community. Although Black people make up 4% of the state’s population, they constitute the second-highest rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases, following Latinos. A Pew Research study showed that across the nation, Black and Latino people also were hit hardest by job and wage losses due to COVID-19. The local and federal governments were not doing enough to help the most vulnerable people, the coalition argued.
The coalition’s work was years in the making and formed through pre-existing partnerships among organizations, said TraeAnna Holiday of Africatown Community Land Trust and King County Equity Now. At the end of May, community leaders decided to “come together with a set of demands that showcased the efforts of the organizations that make up the coalition,” she added.
The coalition is decidedly leaderless; members liken it to an ecosystem in its scope and reach. It is currently fiscally sponsored by Africatown Community Land Trust — an organization that holds and stewards land — but the coalition is in the process of becoming a nonprofit.
Its formation was as simple as one community leader calling another until the idea spread. Inye Wokoma, co-founder of the art center Wa Na Wari and King County Equity Now member, received the call to join the coalition from his daughter, Teme Wokoma, who had been involved in its genesis.
For Wokoma, a Seattle native and longtime organizer, it made sense to unify with other organizations fighting gentrification and anti-Black racism. Wokoma’s family was among the 6 million Black people who moved from the South to Seattle and other parts of the U.S. during the Great Migration.
In 1947, his grandfather purchased his first house in the Central District, which at the time was one of the only neighborhoods where Black people could own homes due to racial deed restrictions that segregated the city. Through the years, his family purchased 10 more homes in the area. But by the early 2000s, his family had sold all 11 houses due to rising housing prices and property taxes. Determined to maintain a piece of his family’s legacy in the Central District, Wokoma purchased his grandfather’s first home in 2005.
In the eyes of Wokoma and the coalition, community land ownership could be the key to building strong Black communities and mitigating gentrification. “There hasn’t been much resolve within city government around the core issues in the Black community,” said Wokoma.
During the coalition’s June 5 launch event, he and other members shared their vision for the future of Seattle. “It was clear that there was some low-hanging fruit that we would already be able to demand,” said Holiday.
Shortly after the rally, the city announced that the Fire Station 6 would become William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation, the namesake of a 19th century Black pioneer and successful businessman whose house in the Central District ushered in a Black residential neighborhood.
“We want to incubate business ideas with young people who have amazing ideas, and yet nowhere within the community to help them flourish,” said Holiday. She believed the fire house held the promise of addressing racial wealth inequality, which is often overlooked in discussions around public safety.
“When we see this uptick in gun violence — particularly among Black youth — we want to create opportunities and a different environment that will allow them to grow,” she added. The center would be equipped with 3-D printers, students would be trained in computer coding and the center would develop partnerships with technological hubs to “create a pipeline that doesn’t exist right now,” said Holiday.
The work and results
While King County Equity Now focused on investing within communities, the Decriminalize Seattle coalition had spent the past year researching and crafting proposals to defund the police.
Formed in fall 2019, Decriminalize Seattle consists of groups that had spent several years working on campaigns aimed at abolishing the incarceration system and policing, such as No New Youth Jail and Block the Bunker. Members of the groups included a range of organizers, from attorneys and law professors, to people who had been imprisoned. Coalition partners such as nonprofit Creative Justice, which encourages youth to examine the causes of incarceration through their artwork, were already looking creatively at complex issues.
Last fall, the groups came together as Decriminalize Seattle to present the city with public safety solutions for the 2020 budget. In their platform, Decriminalize Seattle targeted programs such as hiring incentives for sworn police officers in a proposal to divest over $8.5 million from the Seattle Municipal Court and the Seattle Police Department (SPD). They seek to reallocate funding toprograms such as peer-led groups that advocate for decriminalizing sex work, and forming anti-racist initiatives for low-barrier housing. A study released last fall showed that some assessment tools used to prioritize people for housing are racially biased.
King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle officially joined forces “to best organize and leverage our already long-standing alignment to make structural, transformative change,” said Angélica Cházaro, Decriminalize Seattle’s core organizer and a University of Washington law professor who focuses on immigration and refugee law.
One of the main collaborative efforts has been the creation of a blueprint focused on divesting funds from the police and reallocating the money to communities. Shaun Glaze, King County Equity Now’s research director and data adviser for the city of Seattle, helped spearhead the creation of the blueprint. Nearly all of the coalition’s efforts have drawn from a volunteer base of 600 people, according to King County Equity Now.
The 13-page document called “2020 Blueprint for Police Divestment/Community Reinvestment” outlined a plan that would involve gathering data from the city of Seattle, holding focus groups and interviewing residents, as well as examining community safety models.
“Without community voice and leadership, any proposed solutions are likely to be short-sighted, incomplete, and actively harmful,” the coalitions wrote in the blueprint.
Along with community input, the blueprint served as a guiding document in the City Council’s decision to slash police funding during budget rebalancing last month, said City Councilmember Lisa Herbold. City councilmembers also voted to allocate $17 million, mostly on loan from the city’s construction and inspections department, toward public safety programs and budget research.
A majority of residents also expressed support for police defunding: As of Aug. 7, Herbold said she had received about 8,300 emails on the issue, with 5,078 in favor and 3,285 opposed. A phone poll conducted by Patinkin Research Strategies in July found that 48% of potential voters were in favor of cutting the police budget by half and redirecting funding to social services, while 44% opposed it.
In response to the coalitions’ proposals, then-police Chief Carmen Best penned a July 21 missive to the City Council in which she said an $85 million cut to the SPD budget between now and December would “require a simply irresponsible number of layoffs.” Reducing patrol staffing would result in slower response times to emergencies, and the closure of precincts. While she reiterated that the department supports investing in social services to address the roots of systemic issues, she also urged the council to include the Police Department in discussions about potential cuts that would impact public safety and labor.
“I am gravely concerned… that by creating a false dichotomy between funding police services and investing in the community — where investments in services upstream of police intervention necessarily come at the expense of depleting police resources — Council is omitting from its analysis the decades of experience that so many in SPD have.”
Best, the first Black woman to lead SPD, ultimately retired as a result of the proposals.
Some veteran police reformers — including former SPD chief Kathleen O’Toole, and the Rev. Harriett Walden, the co-chair of the Community Police Commission — believed that the City Council’s actions were misguided.
“This council is making irresponsible decisions based on knee-jerk reactions,” O’Toole told The Seattle Times after Best’s retirement.
But in the coalition’s eyes, SPD was already granted enough time to improve its relationship with the communities it serves: Even though the department has been under a federal consent decree for nearly a decade, coalition members felt positive changes were not happening fast enough. “It still wasn’t moving the needle in regard to incidents with Black people in this city,” said Holiday.
For instance, SPD’s 2019 Use of Force report showed that cases disproportionately affected Black residents. While Black people make up about 7% of the city’s population, Black men represented 32% of the use-of-force cases involving men; and Black women made up 22% of cases among females.
On Aug. 21, the groups’ visions for community-based resources halted when Mayor Jenny Durkan vetoed the City Council’s budget proposals to begin divesting from police. The council had “no plan for how the city will bridge gaps in the police response that will be caused if we lose 100 police officers” and “no plans for how the city will address encampments or RVs that pose a public safety risk,” said Durkan at a news conference. In response, the coalitions argued that Durkan rejected a solution that would create safe and healthy communities.
“We will continue our fight, both to secure the investments that were voted on by council despite the Mayor’s rash and unprincipled veto, and to demand that Ccouncil meet their promise to cut SPD’s budget by at least 50%,” said Cházaro.
Now, with the City Council recently returned from a two-week break and budget talks resuming, the council and the mayor’s office “have made progress toward” establishing a joint-led task force for participatory budgeting, a process that would enable residents to have a say in funding priorities for public safety, said Herbold. According to the divestment blueprint and the City Council’s resolution, anti-racist organizations would oversee focus groups and interviews with community members.
“Agreement on the Participatory Budgeting Process is the most important near term next step,” Herbold added. “It will identify the necessary investments in public safety that will support creating a new civilian-led Department of Community Safety & Violence Prevention and civilianization of the 911 system.”
Herbold expressed confidence that the City Council has a chance at funding a participatory budgeting process and meeting other public safety goals proposed in the resolution if they enter negotiations with Durkan.
“I believe before entering into negotiations with the Mayor it is critical that the Council and community together identify necessary principles as prerequisites to the negotiations,” Herbold said.
While the defunding initiative fell short of the coalitions’ goal, Cházaro said they remain steadfast in their demand that the city slash the police budget by half.
“BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities have always had the expertise and knowledge on how to generate true community safety, and have been creating models outside of state institutions for years,” Cházaro, of the UW law school, said. “Our coalitions are operating from a base understanding that when people have their basic needs met — housing, healthy food, child care, health care, etc. — they are safer.”