Marchers filled blocks of Seattle streets chanting “No Jim Crow!” and carrying signs beckoning others to “Say Their Names” and acknowledge Black people killed by police.
At one of several events in the Seattle area to commemorate Juneteenth, the crowd at DeCharlene’s Beauty Salon in Seattle’s Central District swelled to more than 1,000 as people gathered to commemorate slavery’s end, celebrate Black lives and protest the racism and inequality that continue to pervade American society, some 155 years after the Civil War’s end.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free, a message delayed several months after the end of the war and several years after the Emancipation Proclamation had declared them free.
Speakers said the celebration of Black freedom in Seattle on Friday, which comes amid nationwide demonstrations and a reckoning over America’s racist past and present, serves as a reminder that equality is all too often denied to Black people.
“It also reminds me we aren’t free,” said Rita Green, whose mother, DeCharlene Williams, brought Juneteenth celebrations to Seattle 37 years ago and helped organize them until her death in 2018. “Because of all the Jim Crow laws, discrimination and obstacles put in our way. We were free, but America found ways to enslave us.”
Now, after weeks of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Seattle over police brutality and inequality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, “more people are seeing and understanding what we’ve been talking about for years,” Green said.
Rally for reform
The Seattle area commemorated the day with a handful of events. Some of the largest were the Juneteenth Freedom March through the Central District; a Blackout at Cal Anderson Park, near the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone; and a rally for criminal justice reform at Judkins Park, where a number of local politicians made appearances.
At Judkins, Andrè Taylor, the founder of Not This Time!, a community group that works to reduce the number of fatal police shootings, rallied the crowd during the three-hour-plus event to push for criminal justice reform and hold officials accountable.
The event featured emotional testimony from local speakers whose family members were killed by police.
“As families, we’re sick and tired of being the victims and the false narratives being put out there,” said Sonia Joseph, the mother of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, who was fatally shot in June 2017 by a Kent police officer. “All of our families are fighting for accountability.”
Taylor urged the crowd to support Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle police Chief Carmen Best, citing collaboration on reform policies.
“I’m not giving up on Carmen Best, the first Black woman chief of police in the history of this city and state,” Taylor said. “Who is coming after her? … The system was given to her corrupt.”
Durkan, who received a smattering of boos from critics and was lampooned by a demonstrator wearing a costume that read “Mayor Teargas,” also spoke.
“These last two weeks have been so hard, but so inspiring,” Durkan said. “We can’t miss this opportunity. Tens of thousands of people in Seattle taking the streets, but millions across America raising their voices who have not been heard by me and other people in government. We need to do more and I need to do more. I need to do more. I’m here not because I’m Seattle’s mayor, but because I’m your mayor.”
Taylor said Black people have suffered under “evil” leadership for 400 years and that he did not expect perfection out of local leaders.
“This powerful woman beside me, we don’t agree all the time,” Taylor said of Durkan. “I don’t have to agree 100% of the time to build with you.”
“I feel safe. I feel heard.”
It felt like summer on the edges of the Capitol Hill protest zone, where joyous music played from a small loudspeaker and 50 Black people of varying ages, shades and gender expressions picnicked on the Cal Anderson Park soccer field. It was designated as a healing space for Black people and guarded by allies trained in de-escalation tactics.
The attendees looked comfortable and at peace as the sun shone on crowns of floral garlands haloing natural hair.
“I’ve seen a lot of love,” said musician Elisha Ewing. “As a Black woman in Seattle, it’s hard to find places just for Black people. I feel safe. I feel heard.”
Following weeks of protests, Friday’s display of Black joy was extraordinary in its ordinariness.
Free meals of jerk chicken, black beans, carrots, yams and brown rice were available throughout the day.
“Black people need space and time to grieve, to heal, and to reclaim and remember our own humanity,” said organizer Reagan Jackson, who wore a flowing white dress that reached her ankles.
The zone has been criticized by many in the Black community, who say the area is overwhelmingly white and that it makes them feel uncomfortable and concerned they could become the target of violence. Event co-creator Mary Hall-Williams shared the idea for the space Monday night in an open letter to the zone on Instagram, calling for three days in which the area would be open only to Black people.
Jackson led participants in a healing ceremony to connect with their ancestors Friday morning. She said she was exhausted from the killings of past years, and having to explain to people who aren’t Black the meaning of oppression.
But even amid the respite, she found herself fighting to maintain peace in the corner of the field that the group had occupied. “Allies, allies!” Jackson said, as a white man bouncing a basketball walked through the field and shouted a racial slur.
Jahffa Amadhi said it was refreshing to take a break from news of Black deaths and to gather. “There’s a lot of negative energy, and it’s just nice to focus on joy, supporting the body and the breath,” said Amadhi, who uses the pronouns they/them.
An ancestors ceremony and grieving space was the most powerful aspect of the day for Amadhi, who shouted out their ancestor’s names along with the rest of the group that sat around a red quilt.
“We’re all here together. Everyone needs to heal, and we’re all impacted by the trauma,” Amadhi said.
A unified march
The gathering space for the freedom march, just outside the salon and Central Area Chamber of Commerce founded by DeCharlene Williams, recalled a time before gentrification displaced many Black residents there, and it represented both history and aspiration for some organizers.
“It’s reminiscent of the days how it was,” said Green, Williams’ daughter. “Before gentrification, the annual Black parade started here.”
The neighborhood is among those transformed in the past decade as the cost of living skyrocketed and the city’s population ballooned, yet the number of Black people remained flat. In Seattle, the percentage of Black residents is now its lowest in decades.
Wyking Garrett, the president of Africatown Community Land Trust, told the crowd there would be no plaque for Williams, but that they were “a living memorial” to the woman who built community and bolstered Black businesses. “We’ve got to get some of these buildings to come back under our ownership.”
Lawrence Pitre, president of the Central Area Chamber of Commerce, said Williams’ boutique was among the oldest Black-owned businesses and gathering spaces remaining in the district.
“How do you bring community back? How do you make a community thrive? For me, that’s been the struggle,” Pitre said.
Green said Floyd’s death had newly galvanized people of different backgrounds.
“It’s sad people had to die, but them getting murdered has awakened people who haven’t been paying attention. There’s more white and other allies,” said Green, who is education chair for the regional NAACP unit. Green also said it was encouraging to see young leaders taking up the mantle of the civil rights movement in recent weeks.
“This is history,” said Don McCray, a young marcher from Everett, citing bans on Seattle police actions and their departure from the East Precinct.
Now, the challenge is to “change the paradigm” for good, McCray said, recalling abuses of Black Americans decades ago, including the Tulsa and Wilmington massacres.
“This is not a new page in the history book. My mom went through it. My dad went through it. My grandma went through it,” McCray said, adding that marchers had to keep momentum going, “all gas, no brakes.”
The march ended with a celebration replete with music, speakers and dancers at Jimi Hendrix Park. The diverse crowd bounced along to a dance performance by Black youth who wore shirts that read “My Life Matters.”
In that moment, the only emotion present was Black joy.