Despite Sawant´s Efforts: City Council Fails to Hold Seattle Police Accountable

BETTINA HANSEN / The Seattle Times

“The City of Seattle cares more about business than the rights of protestors” – #BlackLivesMatter activist

All across the country police departments unleashed brutal force on peaceful protesters demanding justice for Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, and other black and brown people killed by the police.  In Seattle, Socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant spearheaded an effort to hold the police accountable for their conduct during #BlackLivesMatter protests.

Photo by Joshua Trujillo
Photo by Joshua Trujillo

New Chief, same policies

Seattle’s police department (SPD) is notorious for their use of unnecessary force.  In fact, the SPD is so brutal that the federal government had to step in to investigate and subsequently mandate the department enact a series of reforms.

In 2014 the Seattle Police Department hired a new police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, who said she wanted to run the department like a business and would enact the reforms mandated by the Justice Department. Councilmember Sawant was the sole voice raising the need to change more than just the police chief, O`Toole, despite well intended words. For this reason Kshama was the only councilmember not voting in favor of O’Toole`s appointment and said at the time,

“Working people deserve to be protected from crime, we deserve safe neighborhoods. But as long as the police act like an occupying force, lacking the trust, the control, and the roots in the communities, they will not deliver.

I fear that we will just come back to the same old problems with a police force out of control if the Council just elects a new face and believes that it has done its job.”

Participants of the demonstrations demanding “Black Lives Matter” testified at the council hearing how Sawant’s concerns came true during the Holiday season as protests erupted over the failure to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown.  Protesters were met with police in full riot gear, bike cops wielding their bikes as weapons, flash bangs thrown into crowds, pepper spray used indiscriminately, and the targeting of black and brown protestors.

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Chief O’Toole has since remarked, “We have made only 20 arrests in the course of two-and-a-half or three weeks. That is a great tribute to police who have shown considerable restraint.”

Overall, the SPD has spent $1.6 million responding to peaceful protests, and it was in this context that Councilmember Sawant initiated the briefing.

“You work for us!”

The Seattle City Council Monday briefing normally does not include public comment, but the President of the Council allowed for 20 minutes, 1 minute for each comment, and ended up extending it another 10 minutes because so many people lined up to testify to the brutality they witnessed or personally experienced:

“Why are police using their bikes as weapons? I witnessed and experienced cops driving their bikes into crowds of people.”

“Why are 23 of the 25 arrestees black or brown protestors when marches were overwhelmingly white?”

“The murderous conduct of the police won’t stop without community oversight of the police”

“Is it proper protocol for police to throw flash bang grenades into crowds of people?”

“…the protests have been used as an excuse to turn downtown into something that looks like an occupied country”

However, when the council briefing began, after the public comments, the first agenda item was Port of Seattle business, not Police conduct.  Port Commissioners were present to report on business opportunities and challenges for the Port of Seattle moving forward.

Councilmember Sawant asked the Port Commissioners to comment on a project involving Shell Oil.  The Commissioners essentially refused to respond to her question, which angered the audience. Council President Tim Burgess asked the audience to be quiet and respect the process, prompting the audience to erupt in fury, shouting at the Council President “you work for us,” and then singing a version of the union song “Which side are you on?”

Councilmember Kshama Sawant puts her hands up in solidarity
Councilmember Kshama Sawant puts her hands up in solidarity

The Council President adjourned the meeting, and Councilmember Sawant stood up and raised her hands in solidarity with the audience.

The council returned after a few minutes to hear from Chief O’Toole and her deputy chiefs.  It was clear from their responses that the SPD expects violence from protesters no matter how many marches and rallies are peaceful.  (In fact, there were a dozen bike cops sitting outside the city hall during the hearing!)

When questioned about bikes wielded as weapons, she blamed “unpermitted” marches, even though marches in Seattle are allowed with or without filing a permit with the police.  This nonsense is easily refuted. What about the 2,000 people who marched, unpermitted, on September 21, with dozens of people blocking train tracks to call attention to dangerous oil trains, and met almost no police force?

The issue clearly isn’t whether marches are permitted or not, but rather what the marchers are demanding and what exactly they are disrupting.  #BlackLivesMatter protests are directly challenging business and the police force that protects business interests over the lives of ordinary people.

Holding the police accountable is necessary, as it helps expose the role of the police to the majority of people sympathetic to the cause.  That Councilmember Sawant was the initiator of the briefing and the only elected official to challenge the Chief’s answers shows the power the movement could gain by supporting independent left-wing challenges to the two-party rule.

Thousands are expected to demonstrate on Monday, Jan 19, on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to demand #BlackLivesMatter, to fight racism, and to end police brutality and poverty. Kshama Sawant will be part of the Seattle demonstration and speak out against the planned youth jail on the route of the march. Be at Garfield High School, Seattle, at 9am.

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