“I woke up today and I was angry. You’re looking at an angry Black woman.”
Sheley Anderson, an NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference vice president, stood in front of Seattle City Hall with a microphone, facing the Seattle Police Department (SPD) headquarters, where police lined up behind metal barriers. Hundreds of people waited quietly on Fifth Avenue, on the sidewalk and spilling west onto Cherry Street, their attention focused on Anderson. A cold rain fell.
They had gathered to protest the killing of George Floyd — a Black man killed by a white police officer, as three other officers looked on, in Minnesota. Video of Floyd’s agonizing last moments, as the life was crushed out of him under Derek Chauvin’s knee, ignited actions throughout the previous week, starting in Minneapolis and rippling outward.
On Saturday, May 30, Seattle joined the fight.
“I know that I don’t stand alone in turning my anger into action,” Anderson continued. “When people are angry, they bring about a change.
“Who is ready for change?” Anderson called out. The crowd roared in response.
It was a cry that echoed in major metropolises throughout the United States that day.
Thousands of people gathered shoulder to shoulder to demand change of the racist systems that allow the murder of Black men and women by agents of the state, often without consequence. Floyd’s death followed that of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician who was killed in her bed by Louisville police, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging when a former law enforcement official and his son hunted him down and shot him because they suspected him of burglary.
Every city had its own names to add to the list — local tragedies that brought the trauma close to home. Several high-profile cases have made an impression on Seattle: Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother killed in front of her children when two police officers entered her apartment in Sand Point in 2017, and Che Taylor, shot in Wedgewood while officers attempted to arrest him in 2016.
Those deaths and countless more, for which no officers faced repercussions, created the conditions for an uprising. Floyd’s killing lit the spark.
The protests that seized Seattle throughout the weekend, starting Friday night, May 29, peaking Saturday and flowing into Sunday, were largely peaceful, if disruptive. People marched through the streets, took over Interstate 5 and came to Westlake to hear speakers condemning the circumstances that brought them together and calling out for the aid of true white allies in dismantling the white supremacy and oppression that made it possible.
The protests were also, at times, violent and destructive, and met aggressive actions by the Seattle Police Department, which protesters blamed on police and officials blamed on a rogue element. But the scale and ubiquity of the protests here and elsewhere drove the point home: Enough is enough.
The first of the Saturday downtown Seattle protests, where Anderson spoke, began at noon. As many as 500 people squished into the space, listening to speakers and engaging in call and response.
“Whose lives matter?”
“Black lives matter!”
The phrase, which became the name of the longstanding movement, doesn’t discount the value of other lives, Anderson explained.
“When we go to a house and the house is burning, we do not throw water on all of the houses,” she said. “We make sure we bring water to the house that is burning.”
Black America is that house on fire. Black Americans lag behind their white counterparts in almost every measure of wellbeing, from household wealth to educational attainment to life expectancy. They exceed white America in death at the hands of police, particularly when the victim is unarmed.
According to the Mapping Police Violence project, there were only 27 days in 2019 where police did not kill someone in America and, despite being only 13 percent of the population, Black people made up 24 percent of the deaths tracked by the project.
The results of systemic oppression made it dangerous for Black people to leave their homes before the coronavirus pandemic — which also disproportionately kills Black people — turned gatherings into a breeding ground for the deadly disease. One Seattle protester nodded to this fact, displaying a sign that read “You know it’s bad when we’re protesting during a pandemic.”
The constant danger and sorrow weighs on Black people, according to Michelle Storm, executive director of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter.
“I am weary,” Storm said. “I am exhausted. I can’t take this anymore.”
As speakers wrapped up, the crowd began to move down Cherry Street to Fourth Avenue, guided by a wall of police that prevented them from walking north on Fifth. They passed black-and-white posters bearing a depiction of Floyd’s face and the words “End Police Brutality” that someone had plastered on walls and city signs.
“Hands up! Don’t shoot!” they yelled as they crossed into Belltown before looping around on Fifth back toward City Hall. “Say his name! George Floyd! Say his name!”
There was a minor moment of panic when marchers turned and ran back the way they’d come upon hearing reports of a man with a gun at Fifth and James, but the individual joined the march and the moment passed. The marchers continued their loop, rejoining Fourth Avenue until they hit Westlake Park, where another wall of police prevented them from continuing north.
The marchers pooled in the park where a second rally, held by Not This Time — an organization begun by Andre Taylor, Che Taylor’s brother, to reduce police violence and help heal communities impacted by it — was set to begin at 3 p.m. Some huddled under overhangs and trees to avoid the constant rain; others dispensed with the idea of being dry and climbed onto play equipment in a section of the park closed due to risk of spreading the virus. Two women passed out surgical masks to people who wanted them.
A young man, dressed head-to-toe in black, stood underneath one of the overhangs on the east side of the park. He did not want to give his name, but he told Real Change that systemic change achieved by a revolution of the people, united in a common cause, was what was necessary to end the crisis of violence against Black people.
“I’ve heard about stories like this my whole life. I know that’s just a small portion of what actually happens. Like Will Smith said, it’s just getting filmed,” he said. “Seeing this many people come out for George Floyd, I am hopeful.”
That is when the explosions started.
A block away from the stage where Not This Time would speak to the gathered masses, protesters milled at Fifth and Pine, reeling from the tear gas that police launched into the crowd. Several people crouched as others poured milk down their faces to stop the effects of the gas. Some launched plastic water bottles into the gathered officers.
Accounts of what prompted the escalation against the protesters vary. Commentary on social media placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the police, saying that civilians had done nothing to warrant it. In a series of press conferences held the following day, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best would tell reporters that protesters had instigated the violence by throwing frozen water bottles, Molotov cocktails and rocks at police.
It was the beginning of hours of back-and-forth between protesters and police that took place at various locations throughout the city. They clashed at Westlake and in front of police headquarters, where the air was so thick with tear gas that this reporter could, at one point, feel the effects from a block away. Protesters took over I-5, flowing north in the southbound lane, snarling traffic and demanding attention that the sanctioned protests ultimately would not receive.
The situation at Westlake continued to escalate. Protesters smashed the windows and slashed the tires of a police vehicle before setting it on fire, creating smaller explosions that some posited were caused by ammunition still in the vehicle. Police reported two rifles taken from disabled police vehicles by protesters, both of which were recovered, according to SPD. Reports that the guns may have been used to shoot other vehicles have not been substantiated by video evidence. The official SPD Twitter feed initially said that shots had not been fired, and later revised their statement to show their uncertainty.
Just a block away, the Not This Time rally continued unabated. Smoke billowing from the destroyed vehicle was visible, but the atmosphere did not reflect the nearby tension.
Andre Taylor spoke directly to white people in the crowd, chiding them for attempting to “reduce” the privilege that spares them from the same levels of police violence as Black people when they organize with the Black community.
“That’s the wrong message,” Taylor said. “It’s almost insulting. We’ve been doing this a long time. We’ve got this together.
“We need you to operate in your privilege,” he continued. “It is your privilege, your genius and the power of your position that you need to bring.”
Behind him, a Black woman with a megaphone called on white people to use that privilege in the confrontation with police.
“I need white bodies in the front,” she yelled, her voice thick with emotion. “That is what I need. I need white bodies in the front.”
At 5:04 p.m. text messages from Alert Seattle popped up on cell phones declaring 5 p.m. curfews that night and Sunday. It was followed by an emailed statement from Mayor Jenny Durkan that suggested enforcement would be used only if necessary to keep order.
The majority of attendees cleared out for the day. Some would return on Sunday for another action.
Others stayed and began breaking windows and removing items from stores. They knocked over flower planters and pushed them into the street. As two seemingly white men attempted to break another window, a woman of color began yelling at them to stop.
“That’s what they fucking want,” she said, referring to the authorities.
At Durkan’s request, Gov. Jay Inslee approved the deployment of up to 200 members of the National Guard to assist local police in keeping order.
Against the ropes
Much would be made of who was responsible for the destruction and looting that went on late into the night. Durkan described them as predominately young, white men intent on chaos and destruction. Best said they were outside instigators. No evidence was presented to substantiate that claim.
The next morning, people returned to Westlake to clean up the mess left by the protests the day before. They scrubbed graffiti off the walls and attempted to restore order. In a matter of hours, protesters were back and chanted and marched throughout Sunday, standing off against police as the clock ticked past the curfew.
The rage that boiled over following Floyd’s death, like the overall Black Lives Matter movement, has proven to be more than a passing phase. It was accompanied by documented incidences of police violence against protesters, be it New York Police Department vehicles driving through crowds of people, a couple tased and dragged out of their vehicle in Georgia or injuries from rubber bullets and other “non-lethal” forms of crowd control in Los Angeles and other cities. Dozens of journalists — who are used to reporting on protests unmolested — posted evidence of being targeted by armed police online.
No one knows, yet, if Floyd’s death and the protests that followed will lead to the kind of change that the young man in Westlake Park believed he might see.
It has caused many mayors and other officials, including Durkan and Best, to commit to improvements. Many advocates in Seattle will scoff at that, given that Durkan is simultaneously paving the way to remove Department of Justice oversight that SPD has labored under since 2011 due to findings of excessive use of force.
But Taylor sees the rhetoric as a marker by which to measure actions moving forward.
“You can hold people accountable for their words when they say them,” Taylor said Sunday afternoon, flanked by the same elected officials.
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.
Read more of the June 3-9, 2020 issue.