The defendant walked from the wooden pew and through glass doors to stand before Seattle Municipal Judge Steve Rosen, as a crowd of more than 30 people strained to hear the muffled voices in the high-security courtroom.
Matthew Erickson — he prefers Matt E. or his emcee stage name Bypolar — had been found guilty in late October of resisting arrest and unlawful use of weapons. He was at the King County Jail Courtroom 2 on Nov. 13 for his sentencing. As Matt E., 28, approached his attorney and the hearing started, 30 supporters stood up in solidarity.
Matt E.’s case has drawn support from dozens of activists in the area who say the charges are inappropriate and that he was acting in self-defense one summer afternoon in 2013. Matt E., who belongs to a police watchdog group called Seattle Cop Watch, said he was downtown and surrounded by a group of 20 to 30 people brandishing skateboards and chains, so he pulled a knife to defend himself. Police arrested Matt E., who said he was kicked and struck by crowd members. Officers did not arrest anyone else involved.
His supporters say he was racially profiled by police — Matt E. is black — and is being treated like a criminal for defending himself against this crowd, which they described as a “lynch mob.”
“I was being charged and arrested for not dying,” Matt E. said.
To some, his case is a sign that despite the reforms enacted by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the city of Seattle, the relationship between law enforcement and people of color — and activists — remains the same.
The tension was palpable in October when Matt E. received the guilty verdict. A friend of his, Cody Lestelle, said one person in the courtroom cried and another shouted, “It’s OK for black people to be murdered.”
Rosen found three of the people involved in the outbursts in contempt of court. During Matt E.’s recent sentencing, one person was still in custody serving an eight-day sentence while two others were in custody for 30 days, the maximum allowed for contempt charges in Seattle Municipal Court.
“That is wrong; it’s totally wrong,” said KL Shannon, a police accountability activist with the Seattle/King County NAACP “That [the contempt charges] tells you that there’s a great deal of tension between the police and this young man that they would react the way they did, putting three people in jail.”
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SPD is under a slate of court-ordered reforms following a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation that found a pattern and practice of excessive force. Community members who asked the DOJ to intervene complained that officers use force excessively and escalate routine encounters. The people who asked the DOJ to investigate also argued that the SPD has problems with racial bias, though the report was unable to make a definitive conclusion.
Under the court-ordered reforms, there are now review boards that investigate whenever officers use force or shoot a firearm. Mayor Ed Murray has moved the Office of Professional Accountability, an internal law-enforcement watchdog headed by a civilian investigator, into a separate building away from police headquarters.
After Matt E.’s Nov. 13 sentencing, he and a group of supporters delivered a letter to Murray asking him to make a public statement that “black lives matter.” Murray met with the group briefly, highlighting a recent announcement to improve police accountability and how the department responds to complaints against officers.
“We’ve set up a whole new protocol for how complaints against the police will be handled,” Murray told group members, one of whom filmed the conversation. “There will be a level of transparency that wasn’t there before.”
Shannon said SPD and SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole need to do more to meet with communities of color who are dealing with day-to-day police harassment.
Matt E.’s supporters say he was targeted by police. He was in Westlake Park on June 10, 2013, when he observed two Seattle police officers talking with a youth. As a participant of Seattle Cop Watch, Matt E. took out his camera and started filming the interaction.
Matt E. said the officers questioned him while he maintained his ground and explained that he had a right to film police interactions. The officers spoke with some young people nearby before announcing that they had to take a call at the Nordstrom store just a few blocks away, he said.
Matt E. followed them. He said after a while realized that he was being followed by a crowd of 20 to 30 people with skateboards and chains. Near Pacific Place, Matt E. said he pulled out his knife and maintained a defensive stance. The crowd moved into Pacific Place, where the officers saw Matt E. and arrested him.
“It was a fight-or-flight survival thing at that point,” he said, adding that at the moment he thought, “I need to get out of this situation as fast as possible.”
Security footage posted online showed officers holding Matt E. down while others in the crowd moved in on him. Some appear to hit and kick him while officers attempt to handcuff him, though the actions are partially obscured in the video. Matt E. said he took his own video footage on his phone, but said when he received his phone after he was released from custody, the SIM card, which stores data, was gone.
Matt E. contends that the officers encouraged the group to come after him.
City attorney spokesperson Kimberly Mills said she did not have any information to support Matt E.’s claims. She said the charges against other people involved in the incident were not viable.
“We have no knowledge that SPD officers egged on or encouraged people in the group surrounding Mr. Erickson during the initial incident,” she said.
At sentencing, Matt E. received four months jail time with no monetary penalties. He said it was better than he expected, but he’s still appealing the case, which will send it to King County Superior Court. He has a new attorney, Philip Chinn, who is working on the case pro bono.
Matt E. said he will contest a number of items, particularly challenging the verdict that the knife he was carrying is an illegal weapon.
Court records described the weapon as a knife with attached brass knuckles. Matt E.’s supporters said the knife had an attached guard, but not brass knuckles. A knife with brass knuckles would be illegal, they said, but not a knife with a hand guard.
His supporters will be at those hearings, too, said Lestelle.
He and Matt E. agreed that the sentence could have been worse, but they are not satisfied yet.
“I’m still not content with it,” Lestelle said. “The fact that he’s getting anything at all for trying to not die is evidence of white supremacy and racism in the courtroom.”
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to clarify the description of the knife Matt E. carried. A previous version described it as a knife with brass knuckles, based on court records. Matt E.’s supporters say it was a knife with a guard attached and therefore not illegal.