Many called her Leena. Charleena Lyles was a 30-year-old Black woman, a pregnant mother of four, a sister, a neighbor, a daughter, a friend. Her neighbor at her Sand Point apartment complex, Lorna Murray, used to yell at Lyles when her kids got too loud or rode too near Murray’s car on their bicycles.
On June 27, at a public hearing about Charleena Lyles’ death at the hands of Seattle police officers, Murray wished for those days back.
“We have a mother who’s dead, we have four children and we have an unborn baby who went along for that ride, and that is unacceptable,” Murray told the Seattle City Council.
The council attended a hearing convened at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus for community members to express their emotions about Lyles’ death and demand change of the systems that allowed it to happen.
What came out was pain, anger and frustration. Pain that another life was lost. Anger that Lyles asked for help and died as a result. Frustration that people in that very room have been fighting for decades to effect change that would have prevented this outcome, and still it happened.
“I’m outraged,” said Rev. Harriett Walden, a longtime police reform advocate.
“We’ve had no safety for 500 years.”
Two Seattle police officers shot and killed Charleena Lyles on Father’s Day. They responded to a call she placed about a burglary at her apartment at a Solid Ground complex in Sand Point. They say that she was armed with a knife, and one officer did not have less lethal tools to subdue her, a woman who reportedly weighed less than 100 pounds.
So they shot her.
The response from the SPD and other officials in the wake of the incident fell flat. They released video footage, recordings of the officers involved, transcripts and even diagrams of the incident that some in Seattle perceived as victim shaming and stigmatizing of people with mental illness. A public relations officer discussed the shooting over a feed on Twitch, a video game-streaming platform, while he played Destiny, a first-person shooter.
That broadcast has since been discontinued.
The Lyles family, friends, community members and Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office publicly demanded a civilian-led investigation into the shooting. The message: This time has to be different. It has to be different from the shooting of Che Taylor. Of John T. Williams. Of Michael Layton Taylor. Of so many Black and Brown people here and in the rest of the United States. That now, while Judge James Robart weighs SPD’s progress on its longstanding problems around use of force and racial bias, is a critical time to push and push hard.
The hearing, facilitated by Michele Storms, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, brought those sentiments to electeds’ ears. It did so in a unique way, prioritizing those who were impacted the most by Lyles’ shooting.
That meant putting members of the family and self-identified women of color first. If time remained, men of color and then all others could follow.
They did not have a chance.
Charles Lyles, Charleena’s father, opened the public discussion with a heartbreaking statement.
“She died on Father’s Day,” he said. “That’s the worst part about it. Every day on Father’s Day, I’m going to be thinking about that.”
After the family finished, predominately Black women held the space. They told stories about the racism they’ve experienced, about the stigma of mental illness, about their anger that progressive Seattle was just another place they could be victimized.
They asked for help. They asked for protection.
“See us,” said Sheley Secrest, who shed her professional identity as a Seattle City Council candidate and leader in the NAACP to speak to the council. “We are here.”
Story upon story, exhortation upon plea for something to change seemed to affect the nine city councilmembers present.
Council President Bruce Harrell recommitted to his bias-free policing initiative, and several said that they would sign on to a letter pushing Robart, the federal judge, to move swiftly so that the city can implement planned police reforms.
Don Alexander, the final speaker before councilmembers had a chance to make their comments, told the audience that events like this would never be enough to make the change that could have saved Charleena Lyles’ life, but he knows what will.
“If you think you’re going to get something from them from sitting here and smiling and hollering, ha, it ain’t going to happen,” he said. “You’re going to have to go and knock on their doors, and if they’re not going to open them, knock the … doors down.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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