EDITOR’S NOTE: Seattle Bike Blog supports the Defund Seattle Police effort being led by a large group of community organizations and leaders, including No New Youth Jail, Decriminalize Seattle, Block the Bunker, Seattle Peoples Party, COVID-19 Mutual Aid, Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network, BAYAN, La Resistencia, PARISOL, CID Coalition, Asians for Black Lives, APICAG. View the demands and sign on here. We support the protestors and respect the risks you are taking to speak your truths and hold government accountable.
Tear gas causes respiratory distress, severe pain and skin irritation. It could also make the effects of covid-19 worse. Pepper spray causes extreme pain and terrifying temporary blindness. Flash-bang grenades explode, and can cause serious burns, abrasions and permanent hearing loss. Seattle’s Community Police Commission recommended against using them four years ago, a reform the Seattle Police Department decided to ignore.
Seattle Police have employed all these weapons against people of Seattle many times in recent days. Their use is indiscriminate, disproportionate and often without warning. The police use of these weapons has escalated tension into chaos and preceded Saturday’s fires and property destruction shown on screen across the city and nation.
Seattle Police seemed somewhat successful at spinning the story of Saturday’s initial use of these weapons, saying that some members of the crowd were throwing things at them. And Mayor Durkan fully supported their actions. Meanwhile, people on the ground have said consistently that the crowd was peaceful when SPD officers fired these weapons.
When Mayor Jenny Durkan spoke Sunday, she reserved her words of sadness for the property that was destroyed. She did not express empathy for the hundreds of people who were hurt by her police force the evening before. The use of these weapons against people has been so normalized that it hardly seemed worth commenting about, as though they were acceptable civilian casualties in a war zone. Go file a complaint, she said to anyone who was a victim of or witnessed police misconduct. And 10,000 complaints were filed just about problems Saturday.
Her speech was hopelessly out of touch and callous. As someone who has reported about Seattle government for the past decade, my immediate takeaway after watching was that her mayorship is over. She had failed her basic duty to prioritize the health and rights of the people of her city, and she had grossly underestimated the power of the people in the streets.
The city needed someone who would stand up for people who are hurting, whether from the immediate pain of police weaponry or the generations-deep pain of violent racism. The city needed her to declare changes, both in the way her police would respond to future protests and in policies and laws governing policing in general. Instead, she offered some platitudes about systemic racism before defending SPD and showing more empathy for panes of glass than people’s lungs, eyes and basic rights to freedom of speech.
She then went further to limit people’s rights to assemble by declaring a bizarre and confusing city-wide curfew, curbing every resident’s rights and giving SPD more excuses to escalate to violence. And she did this because SPD asked her to, she said.
This is exactly the opposite of what our city needed. We needed our mayor to stand up for our rights and create space for freedom of expression. We needed our mayor to create space for real change. Instead, she tried to shut it down.
But she failed to stop it. People kept gathering to protest racist and violent policing, and they had no respect for her curfew. Nor should they. She lost public confidence.
Mayor Durkan’s speech Sunday was the biggest test of her term as mayor, and she failed. It was a chance to do the right thing and learn from the mistakes of the night before, to deescalate tensions and to layout a clear path for change. Instead, she doubled down on Saturday’s mistakes. Because of that failure, Monday happened.
After Monday, any possible confusion about whether the police have been the aggressors was cleared up. There was no provocation that led to the use of explosive and chemical weapons against people gathered outside the East Precinct on Capitol Hill. Multiple video angles, including video taken from above the barricade and on the ground captured the whole thing. Seattle Police attacked people en masse. There’s no denying what happened. Hearing Omari Salisbury, whose protest streams have been powerful and important, trying so hard to get the police to deescalate right before they began their attack clearly encapsulates what is wrong with SPD’s protest response:
— Converge (@WWConverge) June 2, 2020
So the mayor had another chance Tuesday to try to salvage things and do the right thing. And she failed again. She said she had “concerns” about the Monday police response, but that’s the farthest she would go.
“The use of force must be rare, it must be necessary and it must be proportional,” she said without even noting that the police use of force Monday obviously broke all those rules. She didn’t condemn it, she didn’t direct them to stop, and she didn’t take away their explosives and gas canisters. So of course police used them again Tuesday night, once again blanketing Capitol Hill with explosives and tear gas.
Mayor Durkan does not appear to have control over SPD, which raises serious questions about whether she should be mayor of Seattle anymore. For a small and clear example, she noted in her Tuesday speech that she knows people are concerned about officers covering their badge numbers with tape, so one of the few seemingly concrete changes she offered was that she would direct officers to stop doing that.
“But that won’t happen overnight,” she said. The badge number issue is a simple test: Can Mayor Durkan make any change at all regarding police? Removing pieces of tape (or at least moving them so they don’t cover the number) is the easiest imaginable police reform, and there is no reason it can’t happen overnight. Hell, there’s no reason it can’t happen in five seconds. If she can’t get that done, then how can she get anything done?
I don’t know how Mayor Durkan can save her job at this point, whether at the ballot in 2021 or sooner. She has followed the same police-defending stance that too many other mayors of liberal cities have followed this week, including New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. And de Blasio was just booed off stage, the people of his city turning their backs to him while he tried to speak. He’s not company she wants to keep right now.
After Wednesday afternoon’s powerful and pointed Defund Seattle Police protest, the Mayor did change her posture a bit. She spoke with some leaders involved in the protest, including her former mayoral opponent Nikkita Oliver, and came outside City Hall to address the protesters personally. It didn’t go great for her, but at least she was there to show everyone she heard the demands and to take her well-earned boos. And shortly after, she cancelled the curfew, and City Attorney Pete Holmes dropped the city’s effort to withdraw from SPD’s Federal consent decree. Those are a couple easy but meaningful wins for the protest efforts.
And direction finally seemed to reach the police front line that they are to deescalate tensions rather than attack crowds. Wednesday’s protest on Capitol Hill went late into the night without major incident. But not gassing her own people is really the lowest possible bar to set for a mayor.
Mayor Durkan did not voice support for the more substantial changes protesters are demanding, including reducing the SPD budget by 50 percent, using those funds to invest in community and dropping charges against protesters who have been arrested. Her stance on these demands and other long-sought reforms (PDF) by so many hard-working community leaders will be perhaps her final hope to make it through this.
Thankfully, we have several strong leaders on City Council who are standing up for the people they represent. Unless Mayor Durkan asserts some level of power over our police department, the Council may need to take extraordinary action to assert the will of the people. We did not vote to have SPD run our city. Seattle is not a police state even if the police are treating it like one. The crisis this week is existential for our city’s democracy. And it’s far from over.
CM Tammy Morales posted a strong and passionate speech calling for an end to the curfews and calling on her fellow councilmembers to join her in seeking “a drastic reduction in the department’s budget.”
A message to my constituents 1/2 pic.twitter.com/7OuV3duW2w
— Tammy J. Morales (@CMTammyMorales) June 3, 2020
Mayor Durkan’s response to a media question about cutting SPD’s budget was that it was difficult to do because so much of it is salaries. Well, conveniently enough, many officers are making strong cases that they should be fired this week, starting with the officer seen here kneeling on multiple people’s heads and necks in the exact same way Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. I’m sure the thousands of complaints will highlight more officers who would better serve our city by joining the millions of unemployed people across the nation.
CM Teresa Mosqueda has been a consistent voice of leadership, saying basically all the things that Mayor Durkan has failed to say. She has been calling out police efforts to silence people and the media in real time. And she has had the guts to contradict police gaslighting:
THIS IS NOT A RIOT https://t.co/tI924r4dTS
— Teresa Mosqueda (@TeresaCMosqueda) June 2, 2020
CM Kshama Sawant has been a strong voice of support as always. She has proposed a ban on police use of chemical weapons and other dangerous tactics:
I just announced that I'll bring legislation banning police use of chemical weapons (including teargas, mace, pepper spray), rubber bullets/bean bags, water cannons, sonic/ultra-sonic weapons, and banning purchase of weapons, along with their use.
We'll need a movement to win.
— Kshama Sawant (@cmkshama) June 3, 2020
CM Lisa Herbold and Council President Lorena González organized a Council hearing to discuss the protests and solutions.
If covering badge numbers was a small test of the Mayor’s ability to control the police, the protests are themselves large tests of whether the police are able to resist violence against the people they have sworn to protect. And the department failed spectacularly. If officers are behaving this way in front of so many people and so many cameras, how are they treating people, especially Black people, when nobody is looking? The fact that all know the answer to that question is exactly why drastic, institutional change is needed.
Mayor Durkan was absolutely right about one thing she said Tuesday: “The denial of truth is the lifeblood and the oxygen that injustice needs to continue.” The people are out in our streets speaking their truths. Seattle must stop denying them.
— Lindsey Wasson (@lindseywasson) June 4, 2020
(Shout out to the folks with bikes who got organized and used their bikes in a support role during the protests, forming barriers and controlling traffic to keep the marchers safe.)