"SOMETHING CHANGED this time," says Seattle community organizer Nate Miles. The April 7 shooting of Robert Thomas Sr. by Mel Miller, a King County sheriff's deputy who was off duty, has galvanized inner-city and even suburban African Americans, he and other black leaders believe. "We're fired up and we ain't taking it no more," Miles said last week. For almost two months, the killing has ignited sustained demonstrations and demands by activists and even government officials. For the first time, they say there's a real opportunity to change policies and establish an independent county police review board with investigative and subpoena power. That would be a startling contrast to 25 years of shootings by city and suburban police and county sheriff's deputies in King County, for which no officer has ever been charged with a crime. Even though some victims were unarmed, public reaction usually meant a march around the block, then home. Not this time. They'll keep parading and protesting, says King County Council member Larry Gossett, D-Seattle, who led a demonstration April 16 that shut down I-5. "Street heat counts," he tells followers.
The African-American council member is chair of the County Council's Law, Justice & Human Services Committee and a leader of the new Central District coalition of church, community, and political leaders who have produced a series of protest rallies, meetings, and demonstrations. They feel they're tapping into a new community mood and have developed a more inclusive strategy with the credo: "Take no prisoners." The semiretired Rev. Samuel McKinney of Mount Zion Baptist Church, echoing others, says, "We're tired of being tired." He outlines the movement's strategy: "If you want the white community's attention, you have to embarrass them." He's unrepentant, for example, about the freeway shutdown that left angry commuters stranded for an hour: "They were more concerned about getting home than about a black man being shot."
After deputy Miller was put on routine paid department leave follow-ing the killing, McKinney's successor at Mount Zion, the Rev. Leslie Braxton, belittled Sheriff Dave Reichert's policy in game-show terms: "Shoot a black man, get a vacation."
Gossett and other leaders do talk up racial unity and urge white people to join their effort. But they don't let anyone forget who they are; the council member, for one, likes to remind black and white people alike that he works for "Martin Luther King County. "
Sheriff Reichert and even the Thomas family attorney have said race had nothing to do with the shooting.
THOMAS, 59, WHO was black, was shot as he sat in his truck with his son and his son's white girlfriend on a mostly deserted Renton road; Miller, who is white, was in plainclothes and says he was forced to shoot after Thomas drew a gun, though the son contends his father was unarmed.
But to a community historically sensitive to color's effect on fairness in the law and judicial systems, Gossett says, the suspicion is that Miller reacted differently than he would have if there'd been three white people in the truck. Gossett has used the shooting case to ratchet up the debate, if not the rhetoric, about profiling and injustice and indicates this is going to be a touchstone moment in Seattle civil rights history.
More than 100 people—mostly black—were at the most recent anti-shooting rally last week at Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church on Capitol Hill. "We have to keep the heat on every week, every month," and then show up for the county inquest into the shooting (which is scheduled for August), Gossett told the audience. Given history, "the outcome is probably going to be justifiable [homicide]," he predicted. "But by keeping the heat on, when I come forward with a new ordinance [for a citizens' review board], we'll have a fighting chance" to get it passed.
Some activists say the strategy has already scored points. "The sheriff immediately responded to [two] demands— for an apology to the community and [to] the Thomas family," points out Ernie Dunston of the Community Coalition for Police Accountability. Though Reichert limited his apology to misstatements he'd made that mischaracterized Thomas as a drug abuser and outlaw motorcyclist, the semiconcession motivated Dunston's group to push even harder on two more difficult demands: formation of the independent review board and the immediate dismissal of Miller, who has been an officer for 19 years. "We won't be satisfied until all four demands are met," says Dunston. The activists have to be aware that Reichert could not—even if he wanted to—ax his deputy without due process.
Gossett thinks the shooting can at least be a catalyst for policy change. Although he is the only person of color on the 13-member—seven Democrats and six Republicans—King County Council, he feels he can persuade a majority to support him. While Gossett represents the inner-city 10th District (Central District, Montlake, and Capitol Hill), most of the complaints about police that he receives are from county residents who are aware of his reputation as a fair but tough police critic. "And they don't just come from African Americans," he says. Once he begins holding hearings to establish a review board, he said at the Goodwill meeting, "you all are going to hear testimony from white mothers and fathers—and from white youths in particular—from suburban communities like Samamish, White Center, and Federal Way, articulating interactions that members of their families had with the King County police." Generally, he says, the county sheriff's internal investigations unit has "pooh-poohed concerns that [these citizens] were raising, and nothing got done."
The Thomas shooting, he predicts, will forever change the way county police operate, on duty or off. "We have the potential and the power to put together the most accountable citizens' review system this country has ever seen," he says, smiling, "right here in Martin Luther King County."