King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay stepped up to the podium in the New Holly Gathering Hall to address a room packed with his constituents. They had asked for the meeting in the wake of a mass shooting downtown that injured seven and killed one.
The Jan. 22 downtown shooting led to widespread news coverage.
For South Seattle residents, gun violence is a more consistent reality, but doesn’t garner the attention or resources given to the tragic incident in the downtown, a wealthier, Whiter area and tourist hub.
“Not until there was a shooting downtown did all of the media start picking up on this and start paying attention, because it impacted a different community,” Zahilay said. “That was very frustrating.”
People told stories about waking up to the sound of gunshots, of the slow police response to community concerns and the lack of opportunities that make things like gang involvement a logical response to provide for family and themselves.
Zahilay is no stranger to the circumstances in the south end — he grew up there. He knew two young men whose lives ended at the barrel of a gun in their neighborhood. Their deaths left holes in the lives of their families and communities, but their narratives would be reduced to the circumstances of their passing.
“We need to remember these are young people who are good people, who have families and people who love them. It’s very much apparent to anybody who knows victims, and in some cases the shooter themselves,” Zahilay told Real Change. “You can see how we as a society have failed them. It’s harder if you’re removed from that and all you see on the news is that there’s a shooter and a victim.”
Zahilay and Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who was also at the New Holly event, are teaming up to try to win new resources to end gun violence in their overlapping districts. Morales is also calling for the state legislature to allow localities to enact their own firearm policies.
But it’s hard when the frequent gun violence in your neighborhood doesn’t receive the level of attention as a spate of them in the downtown, and the requested response not only doesn’t solve the problem but may put your community in danger.
A 9:30 a.m. meeting of the Public Safety and Human Services committee at the Seattle City Council is not always the best-attended event in the city. The one on Jan. 28 was an exception.
Nearly every seat was taken by people angry and scared, waiting to hear an explanation from city councilmembers and Police Chief Carmen Best about what the city was doing after the shooting downtown. One suspect was in custody; two more would be arrested in Las Vegas by the week’s end.
But the arrest did not mollify the assembled business owners and downtown residents.
Nor did the fact that gun violence in the West Precinct, and Seattle in general, is low.
According to statistics released by the Seattle Police Department in early January, there were 19 more “shots fired incidents” in Seattle in 2019 for a total of 332 compared with the 313 in 2018 — an increase of 6 percent. The year before, there were 360. Of the eight years of data presented, the highest number was 388 in 2014.
And while the number of shots-fired incidents was up overall, it was down in the West Precinct, which includes downtown. In the South Precinct, the number of incidents was up by 23.
While the statistics — which did not include the January shootings — show that gun violence in the downtown has hardly moved, statistics do not resolve fear, Best acknowledged.
The response was intense. People shouted as Best spoke, saying somebody should do something, that people felt unsafe. Best promised a heightened police presence in the downtown.
It’s hard to say if that will work.
According to Crosscut.com, the Seattle Police Department increased the number of police hours in the downtown by 2,718 in 2019, using “emphasis patrols” — an uptick in police presence aimed at several Seattle neighborhoods.
It’s far from the first time that downtown Seattle — specifically this section of downtown Seattle — has been marked for extra patrolling. In 2015, officials announced the “9 ½ Block Strategy,” which focused explicitly on the section of Third Avenue where the shooting occurred. The effort was meant to cut down on illicit activity in the “open-air drug market” in the area.
The argument for more police doesn’t fly with Dominique Davis, founder of Community Passageways, a nonprofit that works with young people convicted of felonies to get their lives back on track.
“What do you mean when you say, ‘protecting the community’?” Davis asked. “They’re protecting a community, but whose?”
The answer to gun violence is not more police, Davis argues, but more
opportunity for young men, particularly young men of color. Community Passageways works intensively with young men to get them plugged into jobs and education.
“How do you answer these shootings and all these guns?” Davis said. “You make them feel important. You make them feel like they’ve got something to live for.”
These are the kinds of solutions that Zahilay and Morales want to see in their districts. The City Council approved $1 million in the city budget for community organizations that, like Community Passageways, work on root causes of problems like gun violence.
“One of the things I’m interested in is having a deep dive into what are these programs, which ones work and how to better use the money to fund the ones that do,” Morales told the crowd at New Holly.
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. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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