Defunding police – how antiracist organizers got Seattle to listen

By halting a proposed $150 million police precinct, Seattle activists have made headway in redirecting funding toward services like affordable housing and education.

Image credit: Alex Garland

Seattle City Council members took their seats on Sept. 19 with the unhurried pace of business as usual. One of them called for public comments, but after a few people spoke, a commotion erupted in the back of the chambers. Six black and brown people shuffled down the central aisle, bounded by chains on their wrists, ankles, and stomachs. Some were clad in orange jumpsuits, while others wore black shirts bearing the phrase “Block the Bunker” in white letters.

White activists donning police hats and pig noses trailed behind, nudging them forward with toy batons. “I’ll throw you around if I want to throw you around!” one of them screamed.

Among the chained activists was the 22-year-old organizer Evana Enabulele, who wore dark lipstick and a colorful head scarf tied into a bun. She shuffled toward the podium and grabbed the microphone. Plans to spend nearly $150 million on a new police station in North Seattle, she said, signaled to the poor and people of color that political leaders were more concerned about punishing residents than helping them.

“You want to sit there and put a $149 million bunker 20 blocks from where I live,” Enabulele told the city council members, “when I see people who are houseless, I see people who are using their bodies to get money. Why don’t you invest in them?” she asked, her voice steadily rising. “Because you don’t give a damn!”

The group that put on this theatrical show of dissent is called Block the Bunker, a coalition of grassroots organizations committed to halting the construction of the new police precinct in North Seattle (which they refer to as a “bunker”). Its members have held similar protests at City Hall, hosted community meetings, and put out calls on social media for residents to contact city council members and complain about the use of money. They also opposed plans to build a new juvenile detention center and to add 200 police officers to the force.

Seattle officials say their intentions were simply to make sure the city’s police department keeps pace with its growing population. Furthermore, the new precinct would replace an overcrowded, old building with a basement prone to flooding. Part of the cost of the new structure came from the replacement and expansion of training facilities designed to comply with a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which required the Seattle Police Department to reduce its “excessive force” and improve its relationship with citizens.

“Maintaining public health and safety is city government’s number one priority,” said City Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former Seattle police officer and detective. Although he conceded that Seattle’s overall crime rate has shrunk in recent years, he insisted that more police are needed to deliver social services and do things like respond to 911 calls. “As the population of the city has grown … the need for police services goes up correspondingly,” Burgess added.

And although violent crime has decreased, said Seattle Police Department spokesperson Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, property crime and robbery are on the rise, making an increased police force necessary.

But Block the Bunker and its allies argue that spending on police and prisons has expanded rapidly in recent decades, and that it doesn’t make neighborhoods safer and happier. In fact, they say it harms them by disproportionately targeting young men of color, splitting apart families, and causing trauma that damages citizen-police relations. Spending on services like education, affordable housing, and health care, they say, is the real way to defeat crime and make communities safer. And as Seattle rapidly becomes one of the most expensive cities in the United States, the need for those services becomes even more critical.

For the most part, the notion of taking money out of police departments and investing it into community services remains a prison abolitionist’s dream. No American city has experimented with shifting budgetary priorities in this way. In its platform on divestment from police spending, even The Movement for Black Lives – a collective of more than 50 racial justice organizations – notes that there are no known examples. The Block the Bunker campaign is the first known example – a case where a grassroots group drew attention to the racially disproportionate effects of police spending and persuaded city officials to change course. Within just a few months, the group convinced the city council and Mayor Ed Murray that the impact of the police station on the poor and people of color needed to be considered. First, the mayor reduced the cost of the station from $160 million to $149.2 million in August. Shortly thereafter he announced that plans would be temporarily halted and that the next round of the process would include community engagement and a racial equity toolkit.

“There are real tensions in this community around race and policing, so I think we need to back up,” Murray said in a September interview with NBC affiliate King 5.

A story of misunderstandings

In May, a community-organizing group called the Seattle Black Book Club caught wind of the precinct plans and decided to try to stop construction. Although the city had acquired the land in 2014, the public was largely unaware of it. Palca Shibale, a 22-year-old recent graduate of University of Washington, convened with a few other members of the Seattle Black Book Club at a local library branch in July to host their first public meeting about the station. It was just a few days after police in Minnesota and Louisiana had shot to death two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

About 120 concerned members of the community piled into the library for the Black-led meeting, which centered on plans for the station and how it would affect the most marginalized people in the area. During the meeting, Shibale says that more than 50 police officers surrounded the library for reasons the activists did not understand.

“At least what we came to is that they were surrounding the building because we were holding a meeting about … opposing the precinct,” she surmised. “We think that this was particularly targeted because it was more Black-centered.”

The current North Precinct Police Station, which the city says is prone to flooding and badly overcrowded. Photo by Melissa Hellmann.

But Sergeant Whitcomb sees the incident differently. He remembers the day clearly because it was unusual for him to be called into work on a Saturday afternoon; it was also a couple of days after a lone attacker in Dallas had killed five police officers.

The police department thought that protests might follow that week’s police killings, Whitcomb says, and deployed a squad of about a dozen officers on motorcycles at a bank a couple of blocks away. They were preparing to escort protesters in case they marched on the streets. However, he says that the officers soon realized that there would not be a demonstration and departed.

“I have come to understand that there were people who were part of this book club who were creeped out and maybe even offended or maybe even intimidated,” Whitcomb says. He offered “a blanket apology” to those at the meeting, adding that it was not the intention of the police to appear to infringe on the members’ first amendment rights.

Yet the incident has stayed with those who oppose the station and an increased police force. The differences in perception lie at the crux of the relationship between the Seattle police and communities of color, and underlie the controversy over the new police precinct.

How did we get here?

On August 30, 2010, First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams was walking across the street in Seattle. His gaze was fixed to a slab of wood that he was carving, and he only occasionally glanced upwards, as seen in police dashboard footage. As he reached the sidewalk, an officer approached him with a drawn firearm, shouting at him to put the knife down. When Williams did not respond, the officer, Ian Birk, shot him in the side four times, killing him. It was later revealed that Williams was deaf in one ear.

A state law passed in 1986 safeguards police officers from prosecution for killing someone on the line of duty, unless “evil intent” can be proven. On that basis, King County prosecutors decided not to file charges against Birk.

The incident sparked protest and led the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the Seattle Police Department. “We found that SPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law,” the department wrote.

The two agencies eventually worked out an agreement, which called for SPD to retrain its officers, reform its use of force policies and practices, and improve relations with residents.

By all accounts, the agreement has produced some improvements. The Seattle Police Department enhanced its relationship with residents in 2016, according to the latest semi-annual report from Merrick Bobb, the federal-court-appointed monitor. Over the past few years, police officers have enrolled in courses in bias-free policing. A crisis intervention committee helps the police handle issues of mental health and substance abuse. As a result of these reforms, the Seattle Police Department has reduced its use of force.

But the agreement also had implications for the planning of new police buildings. Because the agreement significantly expanded the amount of training Seattle Police officers should receive, and required more meetings with residents, the designers of the new North Precinct Police Station included a community room, training facilities, a multistory parking structure, and firing range. A version of the plan also included 48,000 square feet of rooftop solar panels, a solar thermal heating system, and an outdoor amphitheater billed as a community gathering spot.

Local news reports call the new police precinct the most expensive in the country, although the city maintains that San Francisco’s Public Safety Building – which houses the city’s police headquarters as well as a neighborhood police station and fire station – costs even more.

“The police chief talks about a 40 percent increase in the ongoing in-service training that officers receive, so that’s why this structure was so large,” Burgess adds.

But organizers like Enabulele argue that the proposed 105,000-square-foot building on Aurora Avenue in North Seattle – an area punctuated by blight and homelessness – is too militarized and overpriced.

Block the Bunker activist Evana Enabulele is a North Seattle resident who opposes the creation of a new police station and the expansion of Seattle’s police force. She is pictured in front of the current North Precinct Police Station, which is less than a mile from her home. Photo by Melissa Hellmann.

To understand why they see it that way, it helps to know their perspective. In the fall of 2015, in the wake of a spate of police shootings of people of color across the nation, Seattle activists saw a need for more Black-led organizing in the city. Enabulele and about five other young Black organizers formed the Seattle Black Book Club, which strives for racial and social justice through literary analysis. The group reads books like The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. These books, and the discussions the activists had about them in apartments, community centers, and parks, made them aware of the racial discrimination embedded in U.S. policy – especially within the criminal justice system. “How are we going to educate folks if we don’t have our own airtight analysis?” Enabulele asks.

The club launched their first campaign last year, when they led a boycott against a local recreational marijuana dispensary located in the city’s historically black neighborhood, the Central District. They argued that the dispensary, which has sold over $30 million worth of goods since opening in 2014, was gentrifying a street corner where black residents had previously been arrested for illegally selling weed.

Although the police have never stopped her while she was driving, Enabulele often recalls her mother being pulled over in their Mercedes-Benz shortly after moving to Seattle from Houston about 10 years ago. The police asked her mother if the Mercedes-Benz was, in fact, hers, which baffled Enabulele, who had grown up riding in that car. To this day, the memory of the incident haunts her. She lives less than a mile away from the current police station in North Seattle, but says she always takes a circuitous route to get home so she can avoid being close to the precinct.

“You see the police and it’s an instant tightness in your chest and it’s like, Oh my god, can I get out of this?” Enabulele says. “Do I have all of my license and registration packed away in a place that’s not threatening, where they can see both hands?”

Meanwhile, Enabulele works for the city’s parks and recreation department as a receptionist, and she says that the only way that she’s able to make ends meet is by pet sitting on the side. Along with wanting to see better pay for city workers, Enabulele wants to see investments in public transportation and affordable childcare.

When the Seattle Black Book Club learned how expensive the precinct would be last summer, they helped form a coalition called Block the Bunker with other antiracist grassroots organizers. Block the Bunker discussed tactics to stop the construction of the station, brainstormed other ways to use the $160 million, called on residents to apply pressure to city council members, and held protests at city council meetings. They recorded their moves and spread the resulting videos on social media through #BlocktheBunker.

Their actions caught the attention of Kshama Sawant, a city council member from the Socialist Alternative party. Sawant used the pausing of the station to launch an affordable housing campaign, which had been one of her goals since joining the council in 2014. In October, she proposed a plan that would redirect all of the money intended for the North Precinct to the funding of 1,000 affordable housing units. The NAACP and other racial justice advocacy groups, unions, and socialist groups helped form the 1,000 Affordable Homes Coalition, which supported Sawant’s amendment.

Block the Bunker itself was not a member of the coalition, but Sawant credited them and other grassroots groups for forcing the city to halt construction. “The only reason that this new police precinct is not going to go ahead in this year’s budget is because of the Block the Bunker movement and because ordinary people, young people, and activists came and shut the city all down,” Sawant said in October.

Sawant’s amendment failed to receive enough support to be put on the budget. But in November, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold spearheaded a measure adding $29 million to the city’s affordable housing budget, which did receive enough support. The approved proposal requires that the city take out a loan to pay for the additional housing. Herbold, an affordable housing advocate, said that the compromise helps address an unmet need “but also allowed the North Precinct project to go ahead.” Most city council members felt that the station was needed, although some disagreed with its cost.

“What’s happened with the precinct building … and the issues on hiring more officers is those have been merged into other important conversations about police reform and accountability and the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Councilmember Burgess concluded. “They’re essential to address, but we also have to continue to do the essential services that we’re obligated to provide.”

The NAACP sees the compromise as a major victory. “Not only were we able to prove, once again, that the power of the people is stronger than the people in power,” says Sheley Secrest, vice president of the Seattle King County NAACP, “we were able to tell city council [to] prioritize differently.”

A model to learn from

To Shibale, Herbold’s plan for affordable housing in Seattle is not enough. She says that Block the Bunker is a radical group that will not stop until plans for the building are completely terminated.

“When we say ‘Block the Bunker,’ we mean ‘Block the Bunker,’” she asserts.

Shibale, who is now a graduate student studying physiology and biophysics at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University, says that it’s important for the rest of the nation to pay attention to Block the Bunker’s successes, because they show what communities can do when they come together. She hopes that Block the Bunker inspires others to use grassroots efforts to address issues of police brutality and gentrification in their own cities.

“It’s so important to do whatever you can do in your own spaces to fight for equity, however that looks, just start,” Shibale says. “Start somewhere.”

Janaé E. Bonsu agrees. She is the national public policy chair at Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a national organization of young Black activists seeking justice and freedom. She says Block the Bunker’s efforts are similar to those of BYP100’s chapter in Durham, North Carolina, which formed a campaign to combat the construction of a $71 million police headquarters there. The campaign, called Durham Beyond Policing, demanded that the city divest from the station and invest in jobs, health care, and affordable housing instead. However, that effort hasn’t been as successful as Seattle’s. Construction of the station is expected to be completed by the summer of 2018.

Bonsu says she hadn’t heard of the Block the Bunker campaign, but she applauded the coalition’s tenacity. She adds that organizers seeking to use Block the Bunker as a model would need to adapt their tactics. For example, in a state like Louisiana, which has a strong pro-police movement, “heightened risks” might put activists in danger. “At the same time, I think it’s also just as important to … challenge the notion that we need police at all.”

But there’s not a lot of research on how alternative strategies address crime rates, says Michelle Phelps, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. Although studies have proven that police can reduce crime rates, that’s just one factor among many. For example, she says, concentrated poverty, lack of education, and failing schools can also lead to crime, but tackling those challenges requires large investments.

“The problem is that historically in the recent past … we’ve spent more and more on police and criminal justice as we spend less and less on social services,” Phelps posits. That’s put increasing strain on the relationships between communities and police.

Tactics like stop-and-frisk, for example, don’t fit well within strategies that aim to deepen that trust. “If the community starts off not trusting the police department, trying to argue that you should give the police more funds to develop that trust is a really hard argument to make,” said Phelps.

One initiative that seeks to address this is the National Network for Safe Communities, which is an alliance of cities that advocates for community interventions to reduce violence and increase public safety. Some of the group’s strategies include Group Violence Intervention, which aims to reduce gun violence and homicide through a partnership between law enforcement, community members, and social service providers. The group meets with members of street groups and talks to them about the impact and consequences of violence, as well as offers help to those who want to change. According to the website, the program in Chicago helped reduce the number of arrests by 7,000 in 2013.

Back in Seattle, the city recently allotted $2 million over the next two years to resume a community-service officer program. Unarmed civilians will be hired to patrol neighborhoods and focus on community services such as crime prevention. The program ran for more than 30 years, but was discontinued in 2004 due to lack of funding.

Despite the gains in police reform and the halting of the new police precinct, Shibale says, the work isn’t over. Murray has said he remains committed to replacing the aging building, although he is open to different design options.

For now, the city has allotted a total of $12.1 million between this year and next to lease nearby space to relieve overcrowding at the existing station, a city spokesperson wrote in an email. The funds may also be used for upgrades to extend the current station’s lifespan, as well as for the planning, design, and construction of a new station. Planning will probably begin this year; however, this time the project will include more community engagement and a racial equity toolkit.

In the meantime, Block the Bunker says it will continue its work to stop the precinct, as well as the city’s plan to hire 200 new police officers. It is currently protesting the construction of a new $210 million juvenile detention center, together with other abolitionist groups in the No New Youth Jail campaign.

On a drive down Aurora Avenue, Enabulele sits in the passenger seat and points to where the new precinct will be located. Low-rent motels line the street and day laborers wait to be picked up for work near a Home Depot. As a North Seattle resident herself, Enabulele wishes that the city would invest in more resources to address the homelessness, poverty, and prostitution rampant in her neighborhood.

“I feel like they’ll clean up the area, and in the process gentrify the whole entire thing,” she says. “It’s already happening.”


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