Andre Taylor knew the situation was volatile when he set out to organize a peaceful demonstration in Seattle on Saturday for people to voice sadness and anger over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after being pinned under a white police officer’s knee pressed to his throat.
Floyd’s killing “is bad enough, and you mix it with COVID and people who were isolated for two months, it is already so much worse,” said Taylor, who with his wife Dove founded the non-profit Not This Time after his brother Che’ Taylor was killed by Seattle police in 2016.
But the gathering this weekend was essential, Taylor said, “to create space for people to cry and yell and heal. And they were able to do that, we accomplished that.”
Floyd’s death “lit gasoline already poured all over the ground,” said Rev. Dr. Leslie Braxton, senior pastor of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship of Kent. For years people have been suffering hardships made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, killing more people in the U.S. than any other nation and putting millions out of work. “We are a grieving nation,” Braxton said.
No one should be surprised demonstrations about Floyd vented anger about so much more, Braxton said. “People say, ‘this is not about Floyd anymore,’ you are right. It is about an American public that is fed up.”
But at the center of the demonstrations and their message is the inescapable and unchanging fact that Black people are policed differently, Braxton said.
“We have seen it over and over and over again,” Braxton said. “So this is the rawest nerve. It is really about institutionalized racism.”
The message of healing and need for police reform was not overshadowed by the looting and other criminal activity that erupted Saturday, Taylor said. And it must not be now.
“The idea that it could be overshadowed is laughable,” Taylor said, “No, not one little bit. The message of unity and coming together and healing and love and unity, and creating a place where everyone can feel the same pain and hurt, that can never be overshadowed.”
The message of yesterday, today and tomorrow is “Washington and Seattle, don’t forget who you are. What you have already accomplished. We are going to need that to lead the rest of the country,” Taylor said.
The protests continued for a third night in Seattle on Sunday, with demonstrators gathering in Westlake Park before marching through downtown streets. There were a couple of tense moments, with police setting off flash bangs and pepper spray on Fourth Avenue, but the protests were mostly peaceful as of Sunday evening, though looting and vandalism were reported in Bellevue.
During a 45-minute standoff Sunday on Capitol Hill, where police had closed off Pine Street, Rashyla Levitt told people “this is a peaceful protest and we’re going to keep it that way,” as she directed people to kneel in the street.
“Yesterday, they burned cop cars and shattered windows and that’s not OK,” said Maurice Cola, 30, who worries the Black community will be blamed for the destruction he believes was caused by a mostly white crowd.
The fact that 62% of Washington voters in 2018 passed I-940, an initiative to increase police accountability, shows the bigger picture, Taylor said. “That is a mandate and we need to build on that. We need to implement our law.” It’s work everyone needs to be involved in, said Taylor, who did not let three-times-a-week dialysis treatments keep him home Saturday.
It’s not a new fight, said Rev. Harriett Walden, a 30-year veteran of the fight for police reform who now serves on the Community Police Commission.
The commission was formed after the 2010 shooting death of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams and a series of other cases involving police and people of color ignited public concern about bias and use of excessive force in the Seattle Police Department.
After a federal investigation, the City of Seattle signed a settlement agreement and a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to reform SPD practices, entering a consent decree intended to correct unconstitutional policing by SPD. The city recently asked to be removed from most of the federal oversight, arguing it’s successfully completed reforms.
Reform work must be continued, Walden said.
“The country has had a history of hunting and killing Black men and it is throughout our history,” Walden said. “We have known no safety in North America.”
The criminal activity she saw unfold Saturday was familiar, Walden said, to what happened during the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) riots. “The looting and destruction downtown was not by African Americans, it was the children of the people of privilege,” she said of the violence Saturday.
“We as Black people have to be very clear, this was not African Americans. We have not called for this violence. We have not called for this setting things on fire.”
What’s needed now, said the Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown, lead pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ, is a deep listening to one another. “The disparity of how Black bodies are policed is something that is so obvious,” Brown said. “There has to be that awareness that the militarization of policing has been very one-sided toward Black and brown and indigenous.”
So common have become the tragedies involving police violence that she noted some demonstrators already had an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt on hand for Saturday, from demonstrations over the death of Eric Garner, who died on July 16, 2014, when a New York City Police Department officer put him in a chokehold while arresting him.
“You don’t even need a new logo, you don’t need to fashion a new shirt,” Brown said. “Can you imagine the heartbreak?
“This is about breaking open the system and the institutions that are death-dealing to Black bodies.”
Racism and white supremacy are America’s original sin, Brown said. “Until we deal with this rightly and honestly and get to a place of reconciliation where we are able to hear one another, then the other manifestations of oppressions will not be healed.”
Bishop Reggie Witherspoon Sr., senior pastor at Mt. Calvary Christian Center in Seattle’s Central District, said, “Anarchists are going to do what anarchists will do.” But Saturday’s message was not drowned out.
“People are saying, ‘I have absolutely, unequivocally had enough of this.’ The powers that be, the judicial system is broken.” For change to happen, everyone must demand it, Witherspoon said.
“How we are going to fix it is when white America comes to the table and says this is categorically wrong and we are not standing for it anymore,” Witherspoon said.
Some do feel a hopeful shift toward change. Media coverage of events Saturday missed that, said Girmay Zahilay of the Metropolitan King County Council.
“Overall, something feels different about this moment that we’re experiencing,” Zahilay wrote in an email to the Seattle Times. “2020 is only 5 months old but has bore the fruits of generations of unjust and unsustainable systems and policies. It feels like big changes are coming and protesters want to make sure the new normal we’re entering is one where Black people will not only survive, but thrive.
“We as elected officials, decision-makers in our criminal justice systems, and business and community leaders should channel this energy into true reforms that prioritize humanity.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this report.