After 12 years of working as a juvenile probation officer for the county, Yvette Gaston never expected to have a run-in with the law.
On Sept. 4, Gaston says she was strong-armed by a police officer and had her purse searched after approaching officers to ask why they were arresting a young Black man under her authority. The officers later called her supervisor and Gaston, also an African-American, is now expecting an investigation, apparently for misconduct.
The day before, on Sept. 3, Garfield High School senior Marcus Whitehurst says he too had an unwarranted run-in with the law. As he and two friends were walking home from playing basketball late that evening, a police car stopped them. While his two white friends watched, an officer started yelling at the young Black man that he was a piece of garbage who'd never amount to anything.
Both incidents happened in Seattle's quickly gentrifying Central District, a traditionally African-American neighborhood where residents say police increasingly harass Black youth, often telling them "You're not welcome here" -- racial profiling that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is demanding the city stop.
Gaston and Whitehurst have filed complaints with the police department's Office of Professional Accountability and, on Sept. 29, the Seattle-King County NAACP called attention to the incidents at a press conference where Pastor Kenneth Ransfer of Mount Baker Missionary Baptist Church said police harassment of Blacks is common in the Central District and resembles '50s-style racism of the Deep South.
"Here we are in the 21st century and it's like we're regressing back to the '50s of Mississippi- and Alabama-type treatment of our young people," Ransfer said. "Everybody says we don't want to talk about the N-word, but we've got the big R-word that nobody wants to say, either, and that's racism, an injustice that continues to happen in this community."
"It needs to change," said local NAACP president James Bible. "It's impacting our kids. It's impacting any vision that we might have at any point had that we live in an equal society."
The soft-spoken Whitehurst, who plays viola in the Garfield High orchestra and has no legal record, called the Sept. 3 incident near Miller Community Center degrading. After running a check on the young men's identification, the officer "called me a convicted felon numerous times and said that's all I'd ever be."
The officer also tried to bait him, he said. After handing his friends' IDs back to them, the officer threw Whitehurst's onto the hood of the cruiser. When Whitehurst reached for it, the officer "told me to get the f--- off the car," he says. Days later, he was stopped again, getting a ticket for $309 in bicycle safety violations, including not wearing a helmet. An unhelmeted white friend with him was not ticketed.
On Sept. 4, Gaston, a Superior Court employee, says she had used a county voucher to buy school clothes at the south downtown Sears for the young man on probation. She then gave him a lift to 23rd Ave. and Jackson St. Shortly after, the young man called her to say he was surrounded by police accusing him of stealing the clothes in his Sears bag.
First one officer, then another got on the phone, telling Gaston the young man had jaywalked in front of them and was being "lippy" and uncooperative. She identified herself as his probation officer and explained she had purchased the clothes, but a male officer told her, "'We're going to show him how we do it in the C.D.'"
Gaston said she then drove to the scene. When she arrived, the young man was in handcuffs up against a police car. On the sidewalk, she said, were 10 to 15 bystanders calling out "He didn't do anything wrong."
Gaston showed her badge to an officer and asked if the young man was being arrested for jaywalking. The officer told her to leave and, as she was backing up, she says a female officer yanked her by the arm. Then another officer started yelling at her, she said, "telling me I had no rights, I had no business being there, that I was overstepping my bounds."
The officers asked her for her supervisor's name and number. She said it was in her purse, which the officers insisted on searching for weapons. "I'm now under investigation from my own employer," Gaston says, "because there was a verbal complaint made against me" by one of the officers.
Gaston said she doesn't know what she's supposed to have done wrong and can get nothing in writing. Paul Sherfy, chief administrative officer for King County Superior Court, said he had no specifics on the complaint and that his office was waiting for the police to complete their internal investigation before conducting an inquiry.
Seattle police spokesperson Renee Witt says the department does not comment on open investigations. But Chief Gil Kerlikowske, she says, has spoken out against racial profiling and encourages anyone who feels they have experienced it to report it.
Bible encourages people to do the same -- to the NAACP.
"If I am walking down 23rd and Jackson with my bag from Sears with clothes in it, no officer has the right to walk up to me, grab my bag from me, reach into it and tell me that I stole a thing," Bible said. "For that to be the standard of probable cause to stop a young African-American is absolutely outrageous."