Andrè Taylor is an ex-con who came to Seattle saying he was going to start a war. What he actually did was a remarkable feat of community organizing that just led to changes in the police deadly-force law.
Andrè Taylor’s first words to Seattle were intended as a rallying cry. But they dropped more like a bomb.
“I’m here to go to war,” he said at a heated news conference two years ago. “I will be unrelenting to get justice for my little brother.”
At the time, it felt like the police shooting of Che Taylor in northeast Seattle might explode into our Ferguson moment. Here was the NAACP accusing police of “coldblooded murder.” And here was the brother, a fierce, dynamic ex-con up from Los Angeles, seemingly vowing to take it to the streets.
But the war Andrè Taylor ended up fighting — the one he says he envisioned all along — turned out to be a tour de force of bridge-building and community organizing.
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It culminated this past week in the state Legislature’s surprise agreement to change the police deadly-force law, making it easier to prosecute officers in the case of a bad shooting.
“From breaking laws to making laws!” Taylor wrote on a YouTube video of his testimony in Olympia on Initiative 940, the measure he spearheaded to force the changes.
Wrote one of his friends in the comments: “From pimp to political activist.”
Wait, pimp? Yes, the man who just helped push a compromise solution to one of the more incendiary political issues of our day was once an escort hustler known as “Gorgeous Dre.” He was sentenced in 2000 in Las Vegas to more than five years in prison (he served a little more than one.). He also appeared in the 2000 documentary “American Pimp.”
“Let’s just say that in my previous life I did learn some life skills, such as how to keep my composure,” Taylor said when I asked him about his past.
Taylor, 49 and now a life coach, says he knew that despite the heated beginning in Seattle after his brother’s killing, keeping cool would prove to be crucial.
“I was immediately against any kind of response that involved physical violence,” he says.
Though at times he used sweeping anti-police language, such as calling his brother’s death “an execution,” what he actually spent most of his time doing was brokering meetings with “the system“ — police, prosecutors, lawmakers and countless community groups.
He formed Not This Time, a group that meets each Wednesday in the Central District. I went to one session, where I watched Taylor hug King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who then announced his support for Taylor’s call to soften the state’s restrictive deadly-force law.
Two months later, Satterberg would also announce he was not filing charges against the two officers who shot Taylor’s brother.
“It was difficult at times to stay my emotions,” Taylor says. “But I knew that if I just lashed out that I would be written off as just some angry person. I worked very hard to work with and listen to absolutely anybody.”
At times within the police-protest movements, Taylor was seen as selling out. He got heckled by his own side at one protest rally for naively expecting to ever win justice from the law.
But he kept at it. His tiny 40-member group introduced an initiative in 2016 to make it easier to prosecute police, but it didn’t get enough signatures. He was back last year with Initiative 940, and a new name: De-Escalate Washington. By then the movement had grown far beyond him to include big-money backers such as Indian tribes, the ACLU, even the Seattle Seahawks.
“When the Seahawks gave $25,000, I knew we had achieved the big tent I was after,” Taylor says.
This initiative got more than 350,000 signatures and went to the Legislature. Because police groups adamantly opposed it, nobody expected lawmakers to touch it. That meant it would go on the fall ballot, launching what most assumed would be a brutal “are you for the police or against ’em” type of campaign.
But early polls showed the measure up by as much as 40 points. So law enforcement came to the negotiating table.
The compromise deletes the longstanding requirement that there be proof of “malice” to convict police of wrongful shootings. The new law instead seeks to define if a reasonable officer would have used deadly force in the same circumstances. It also calls for more training in de-escalation techniques.
In the end, the police and the activists did what was so hard to envision two years ago when Taylor first invoked his war: They sat down and talked it out.
Ironically the new law still probably wouldn’t have resulted in charges in his brother’s shooting. So has Andrè Taylor gotten justice? Well he’s not done, he says. Example: On Wednesday his group is hosting Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan for a forum about the hiring of the city’s next police chief.
He’s also talking about taking his police-reform efforts national, helping activists in other states.
“What I have learned is the system does not respond to the people’s pain,” Taylor says. “All the blood that’s been spilled, the system isn’t going to budge one inch over that.
“But what the system will respond to is the people’s organizing. That’s the greatness of our country, and of our citizens — that no matter how broken it seems, we have the means to make a change.”
It makes a certain sense an ex-con might feel that, deep down, more powerfully than anybody.