Black Seattle activists are fighting to maintain support from white residents now that President Donald Trump is out of office. Community pressure to defund the police began yielding concrete results last year, but activists need strong local involvement to build on those successes. Some fear the drop in momentum is a return to past white complacency while Black people in Seattle are still threatened by police violence.
Under the Trump administration, participation in protests against anti-Black police brutality and racism had swelled among white and non-Black Seattle residents. Now activists are looking to harness that same passion and vision for a more equitable Seattle future. White residents’ involvement in creating a more equitable Seattle future helped birth the brief existence of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) and propelled other successes in 2020.
Activists credit the critical conversations about racism that took place in CHOP for motivating locals. Their collective efforts to help enact tangible change included increased budgeting for shelter and housing to assist with housing affordability and homelessness, funding for a Green New Deal advisor, and $30 million of city funds—including $12 million originally slated for the Seattle Police Department (SPD) allotted for participatory budgeting in an effort to commit to a budget that is anti-racist and pro-Black.
The Seattle movement to defund the police also benefited from that enthusiasm and participation last year, in spite of pushing reports painting protesters as vandals and highlighting property damage rather than addressing how those protests were a response to anti-Black police violence. Despite Trump calling for federal involvement in local law enforcement in order to “take back” the city from protesters, and labeling Seattle an “anarchist” jurisdiction, activists still influenced the city to cut an 18% from Seattle Police Department 2021 funding, including a commitment to 35 layoffs, defunding of vacant positions, and cuts to overtime. Activists’ efforts also resulted in 911 dispatchers and parking enforcement moving out of SPD jurisdiction and the $12 million dollars allotted for community alternatives to policing.
A local Seattle organizer who asked to be referred to as Tatii explained that local activists worry that their supporters from the previous four years, last summer in particular, won’t be as angry or willing to protest injustices under a Joe Biden presidency. They say Biden’s missteps and harmful policies are likely to be less “in their face” than when Trump was in office.
“I’ve noticed people being a lot more comfortable, but it hasn’t changed for me because we still have a racist president. We still have a president who is pro-cop,” they said.
A Biden-Harris administration may not present the degree of clear and present danger of its predecessor, but Black and brown folks are still targeted by a violent police state. If white Seattle residents lose focus and drop away from active participation with the movement, it puts the changes activists fought to achieve at risk. There’s also the fact that many Black activists are deeply skeptical about how much a Biden presidency will actually help their communities.
A former member of a Seattle collective focused on racial justice and community service, who asked to be referred to as Ashley, said that particularly among Black organizers, there’s been discomfort over the level of post-election celebration regarding Biden’s election.
“I think that for most Black people leading up to this election, those of us who voted for Biden were not enthusiastic,” Ashley said.
That lack of enthusiasm is not unwarranted. Biden’s political career has been riddled with efforts that are still detrimental to Black communities. As a U.S. senator he helped pass laws creating the mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenders, the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine, and as recently as 2015 called the crime bill that contributed to the targeted criminalization and mass incarceration of Black people the “1994 Biden crime bill.” Biden is pro-cop and prides himself in “reaching across the aisle” to befriend white supremacists like past Mississippi Sen. James Eastland. Ashley stressed how “blatant racism” like Trump’s and the white nationalists who stormed the capital depends on “passive racism” like the 1994 crime bill and stop-and-frisk laws to exist in the first place. Thus far, Biden’s actions as president have fallen far too short to warrant the enthusiasm activists are seeing among white residents.
Instead of relying on Biden to implement the policies they need, organizers believe the best solutions come from within their communities and are appealing to their neighbors to stay involved in the fight. TraeAnna Holiday, an organizer with King County Equity Now (KCEN), a coalition of over 60 Black-led community organizations, is deeply invested in community-rooted solutions as a more effective alternative to policing.
“We’ve seen a real proliferation in police violence that has led to a large proportion of Black bodies being murdered,” Holiday said. “We have to be able to understand that first and foremost, so many of those deaths were preventable.”
For organizers like Holiday, collective, proactive community involvement is what makes it possible to achieve victories like removing $75 million from the SPD’s budget. KCEN promotes the kind of services that may have been able to prevent those deaths. The organization’s goal is to address issues of public safety and prevent them from becoming criminal offenses through the use of mental health professionals, social service workers, and other people who work through community- and culturally-rooted solutions. Activists believe moving more funding from the police to support similar public safety programs is possible, but they need white Seattle residents to not lose sight of these goals, especially given how difficult it’s been to grow support for initiatives like “defund the police” in the first place.
However, Andrew Hong, an organizer with Youth for Defunding Seattle Police Department, noted that the current resistance to the “defund the police” movement isn’t unusual or set in stone.
“Political slogans and initiatives like [“defund the police”] always start out unpopular to begin with,” said Hong.
Consistent support from other communities is vital for political initiatives like defunding the police to gain acceptance. Hong points to the evolution of public opinion around Medicare For All. When Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his plan for Medicare for All in 2016, it was largely unpopular, but now various polls have shown that nearly three-quarters of Americans support it. Regardless of how uncomfortable it might make white people, their public support for initiatives like “defund the police” is important to making those ideas more accepted among the general public.
“We have to be 100% direct and actually say ‘defund the police’ because ‘fiscal responsibility,’ ‘police reform,’ all of these things are just to make white people feel more comfortable,’” Ashley said. “The thing is, when white people feel comfortable, Black people die.”
While celebrations are good, strategizing and planning to better Seattle’s future must continue. At a community level, Black people have seen time and again how they can’t depend on the Biden-Harris—or any Democratic—administration to understand and give them what they really need. And it’s essential for white and other non-Black Seattle residents to work through their discomfort and continue actively supporting and working with organizations like KCEN and other Black organizers. By continuing their active engagement with anti-racist initiatives, they are more truly acting as part of their communities.
“That’s one of the key elements of KCEN,” said Holiday. “It started with this real ecosystem of Black-led organizations that allowed for this swell of connectivity to come into existence. It really does take the work of all of us to be informed. This summer has shown the essence of people power is real. Let’s figure out how you can become a part of the community.”