Michael Cook, a homeless man who wants police accountability.
“We’re protesting the militarization of the police,” says Michael Cook. He’s 40, homeless, and just finished delivering an impromptu speech to the small crowd that has been marching in circles around downtown for the past hour. “This situation with Michael Brown in Ferguson, and all these other types of situations where the police are getting blood on their hands and are walking away without a slap on the wrist—it’s ridiculous, man,” says Cook. “It’s ridiculous.
“Every person should be accountable for their own actions.”
The date is Monday, December 8. Early evening. Since droves of riot cops chased a handful of protesters off the street earlier, a second group has begun marching on the sidewalk, chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and similar refrains. A row of bike cops trundles down the road beside them, their rear wheels spitting up rainwater. When the group stops on a corner for a “speak out,” Cook takes the megaphone and delivers an impassioned speech against ruthless policing. When he finishes, I ask him to explain exactly what it is he’s protesting.
“Officers who are armed and supposedly trained to handle these types of situations,” Cook replies, “but they’re going horribly wrong every time. Some people have addiction issues, mental health issues, and other types of issues that prevent them from acting in a rational manner. If the police cannot handle these kinds of situations, then what did they sign on to their jobs for?”
Another protester, wearing an “Anonymous” Guy Fawkes mask, agrees. “I see…a lack of police accountability,” he says. “It seems very apparent that they’re allowed to do whatever they want, unpunished, and I think a common theme amongst all of us is we just want accountability. We just want police to be held to the same standards as the rest of us are.”
. . .
But these protests are not only about police accountability.
“There are more black men incarcerated [or on parole or probation] right now than there were in slavery at emancipation,” says Bennett Taylor, his voice taking on the slow cadence people reserve for hard truths. “The system actually hasn’t changed at all.
“It’s just taken on a new face.”
Taylor is one of the thousands of marchers who have taken Seattle’s streets for nearly every night of the past two weeks—ever since the news broke that white police officer Darren Wilson will not be tried for shooting black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. “I’m not surprised by the police getting off,” Taylor says of Wilson and similar cases, “…because I’ve studied the history of this country.”
Such cynicism towards the American policing system is widespread among marchers, who see cops as anything from misguided public servants to soldiers of white supremacy. Many say that problems of Ferguson also exist in Seattle: a good-ol’-boys network of croney cops who cover up each others’ abuses. As evidence, they point to the killing of John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver who was wrongfully shot to death by Seattle police in 2010, as well as the department’s ongoing consent decree with the Department of Justice, which three years ago found a “pattern…of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law” and possible “discriminatory policing.” Michael Brown, the Seattle police union’s consistent opposition to reform, and the deaths of Eric Garner (choked to death by New York police), 12-year-old Tamir Rice (shot by Cleveland police while holding a realistic-looking toy pistol) and others, have stoked a growing perception that, locally and nationally, police are violent and unaccountable —particularly in black communities.
“Do we always have to pull out our phones and record every situation that we have with police officers?” asks protester Chris Levaughn, who is black. “I’m afraid to walk down the street. I have to have my hands out of my pocket when I see a cop, ‘cause who knows what could happen?
“When I grew up, I was told to obey the officer,” he adds. “Because if not, they could fire six warning shots into your back.”
Marchers Chris Levaughn (white cap) and Bennett Taylor (black cap).
“When I’m marching, I honestly can say that I’m frightened,” says Nikkita, a “mixed black” community organizer who asked that her last name and photo not be used for safety. “My grandparents used to tell me stories about growing up in the South.
“Those stories kind of make more sense now.”
Concerns about the growth of unaccountable police power are not ridiculous. As investigative journalist Radley Balko outlines in his recent book Rise of the Warrior Cop, police departments have—in tandem with the War on Drugs—gained vastly more latitude in the past half-century to use searches, surveillance, and force to “fight crime,” often with essentially no community oversight. Balko highlights Seattle police’s iron-fisted response to 1999’s anti-capitalism protests as a “landmark” event in the history of American policing, after which…
… ‘control’ would be the prevailing objective for police handling protests…the Darth Vader look would become the standard police presence at large protests. Cities and police officials would commit mass violations of civil and constitutional rights and deal with the consequences later. There would be violent, preemptive SWAT raids, mass arrests, and sweeping use of police powers that ensnared violent protesters, peaceful protesters, and people who had nothing to do with the protest at all.
The Darth Vader look, still fashionable fifteen years later.
Nor are the claims of systemically racist policing baseless. Black men are nearly six times more likely to be imprisoned than white (click through for a slew of similarly damning statistics from the Sentencing Project). And despite white perceptions that this correlates with higher crime rates, independent evidence suggests that blacks and whites commit drug and violent crimes at about the same rate.
In her 2010 book The New Jim Crow, law professor Michelle Alexander argues that “like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” Showing the extent to which ex-convicts face legalized discrimination, Alexander’s book has become a sort of bible among critics of racist policing. City council president and former cop Tim Burgess has referred to it as a way to “learn more about the role municipal and state police have played in the ill-conceived mass incarceration policies that have made America the world’s largest jailer.”
. . .
Jesse Hagopian, advisor to Garfield High’s Black Student Union.
“We’re [at the] beginning a new revolt against the new Jim Crow,” says Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian. “Ferguson is not special,” he adds. “It’s something that is horrifically mundane.”
Hagopian, whose students led last Saturday’s 1,200-person march from the Central District to Seattle Police Headquarters, sees the Ferguson protests as the birth of a new generation of anti-racist activists. “There’s a new dynamic happening now,” he says. “These handful of young women of color are fed up with what they’re seeing: police basically having a license to kill in our society [and] getting off scot-free.
“I think where this is going is a mass escalation of protest,” he continues. “I think that young people of color today are developing a consciousness that police are not there to protect them, they’re there to brutalize them…I think we’re at the beginning of a process of people of color realizing that the fact that they have to say ‘Black lives matter’ shows that there’s a problem.
“And no one’s gonna come save them.”
Marissa Johnson’s Twitter photo. Used with permission.
One of those young people of color leading the revolt is Marissa Johnson. The first time I met her—during the second night of protests following Wilson’s non-indictment—she told me that, despite Seattle’s self-image as an island of enlightened social progress, our racism is simply less overt than that of the Deep South. Taylor, whose father is African American and mother is white, agrees: “[People in the South] are very direct about it. They have bumper stickers, they have tattoos. They’re brave about their racism…People are more passive aggressive here, because Seattle’s very concerned with its image.”
“Seattleites don’t care about black lives,” Johnson said then. “If one of my brothers [was shot to death by police], I don’t think these ‘Seattle progressives’ would come march.”
In the past two weeks, she’s been vindicated: while police have herded protesters around the city, largely white crowds of holiday shoppers have ignored protesters’ calls for racial justice and the Seattle Times’ editorial board has equated the protests to “the behavior they’re protesting” (racist violence).
And don’t forget the news. “Anything we say to KIRO 7 or [other mainstream sources] will be spun,” says organizer Isaac Robinson, voicing a sentiment shared by many.
Much of mainstream coverage has treated police as factual sources rather than potentially biased players, while holding protesters’ claims at arm’s length. “The police have controlled the whole narrative of what’s going on at the demonstrations,” says Johnson, who has become a leading organizer within the movement.
This tension between protesters and corporate media has boiled over at least once. While covering Saturday’s massive march from Garfield High to Seattle Police Headquarters, a KOMO 4 reporter and camera operator were ejected by marchers due to the channel’s affiliation with ABC news, rumored to have paid Darren Wilson the better part of a million dollars for an exclusive interview. (Aside from issues of police racism, it’s worth noting that the kinds of payments ABC is accused of making are formally prohibited by journalistic ethics.)
“KOMO is not owned by ABC,” narrates reporter Gaard Swanson in the segment. He’s right, but only technically: both ABC and KOMO are owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, pretty much the archetype of the corporate media Johnson and others distrust. Swanson goes on to mock the protesters’ objection: “Earlier in the march [before being ejected], we talked with protesters about more important issues other than network affiliation.”
KOMO 4: Disowning its own ownership.
Johnson points out the fairly obvious problem with reporters deferring to cops as arbiters of truth: “When you’re at a protest about police conduct and police brutality, it doesn’t make sense to have all of your information come from police.”
. . .
It’s not just black lives that are at stake in the Ferguson protests. “We have to acknowledge each other,” says Taylor. “We have to acknowledge what we’ve done to each other.”
“We all went through slavery together,” he continues, even though “we were on different sides of it.
“So for white Americans, we have to acknowledge the suffering we have inflicted around the world…[And for black Americans], we need to acknowledge that slavery was very damaging to white America, especially in the south, especially the slaveowners…It tore apart their families, it tore apart their morality…and it’s torn apart the north as well, who profited off it.
“Someday, there needs to be truth and reconciliation.”
Writer Ta-Nehesi Coates has compared America’s racism to an alcoholic’s addiction. Like the alcoholic, Coates says, we’ll never be free of our past, but we can manage and move past it—if we have the courage to face it.
For some, that’s these protests’ bottom line: beseeching their neighbors to pay attention to slavery’s enduring legacy and how it is compounded by an increasingly belligerent police force.