For over 150 days, protesters have marched in Seattle, demanding an end to the state-sanctioned killings of Black people and exposing the systemic anti-Black racism that defines policing in this country. Last week, the energy of this historic uprising was channeled into a town hall in Seattle’s District 2, which includes Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley, where a large segment of our city’s Black families live.
In July, City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents District 2, pledged to support the uprising’s demand to defund the Seattle Police Department (SPD) by at least 50 percent and reallocate those funds to Black communities. Morales was joined in her pledge by the majority of councilmembers, who committed to implementing this cut in the city’s 2021 budget despite opposition from the mayor, who’s proposed her own budget. Now Morales and other councilmembers are backsliding, saying a 50 percent cut conflicts with the labor contract the city has with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). They’re calling instead for more modest cuts that won’t violate SPOG’s collective bargaining agreement.
Council’s willingness to protect police officers over Black people has sparked members of the Seattle Democratic Socialists of America’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus (AFROSOC) to organize a series of town halls around the 2021 budget, which is set to be finalized Nov. 23. The District 2 town hall was the first of these and brought together movement organizers and community leaders who recognize the urgency of this budget fight.
Angela Ying, the senior pastor at Bethany United Church on Beacon Hill, implored the councilmember to back the 50 percent cut. “This is a movement,” Ying said. “We need you behind us. We need you to publicly support the budget amendment to defund the SPD by 50 percent and invest the funds in our BIPOC communities.”
Violet Lavatai, the interim executive director of Tenants Union Washington, described the militarization of local police departments through an influx of federal dollars, referencing the 1033 program, which funneled tactical military equipment to civil law enforcement agencies like SPD. “For decades, the police went through warrior training,” Lavatai said. “And they’ve been killing Black and brown people. We are not the enemy.”
Anna Hackman, an organizer with the collective Labor for Black Lives, chronicled the abuse SPD has heaped on protesters over the past five months. She explained that police violence isn’t the anomalous result of a few bad apples but a core function of police in a capitalist society. “[The police] cannot be in solidarity with us because their job is to harm us,” Hackman said.
Morales expressed her support for the movement and criticized the mayor’s budget as an “austerity budget.” Still, she wouldn’t commit to the 50 percent cut. “We’re talking about big structural change,” Morales said. “I have a strong commitment to get there.” She added that the police contract “is getting in the way of us being able to do what we want to do.”
Jesse Hagopian, a public school teacher and founding member of Social Equity Educators, challenged Morales’s logic. “What I do know is that when they want to lay off teachers, it happens with the snap of a finger. Then hearing from City Council that it can’t be done for police, it’s confusing,” Hagopian said. “I understand it can be tricky to get to that 50 percent in one budget cycle, but I want to see the Council make that a goal: ‘In this current budget we’re doing hundreds of millions, and then we’ll do another hundreds of millions.’”
Nikkita Oliver, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle and co-executive director of Creative Justice, reiterated this point. “Community is aware this isn’t an easy feat, but what community wants to see is councilmembers taking steps in the right direction.”
Morales promised to work with Kshama Sawant, the only councilmember who’s consistently championed the 50 percent cut, but she shied away from specifics. It’s clear that she and other councilmembers will need to feel more pressure from their constituents if they’re going to vote for a budget that reflects the priorities of the movement and truly values Black lives.
Kelli Branch, a co-chair of Seattle DSA’s AFROSOC caucus, emphasized the stakes of this budget fight. “Take care of the Black people who are alive today,” Branch said. “Tammy, please hold true to your pledge. I shouldn’t have to be a luminary for gravestones.”
The next town hall is with Councilmember Lisa Herbold on Nov. 12, 6-8 pm. Visit DSA’s calendar at seattledsa.org for details.
Deepa Bhandaru is the Social Justice and Intersectional Studies faculty at North Seattle College and a member of Seattle DSA’s AFROSOCialists and Socialists of Color caucus.
Read more in the Nov. 4-10, 2020 issue.