Westlake Park, Seattle. Gray skyscrapers surround it on all sides, their metal and glass frames gripping the horizon like fingers. The skies are gray too, and roiling. They spill a growing flurry of thin, cool raindrops onto the umbrellas and rain jackets and unprotected heads of the crowd, which numbers in the hundreds. The stone stage by the intersection of Pine Street and Fourth Avenue is packed with black and brown faces, most of them men. At the center is André Taylor in a flowing blue robe, his beard neatly trimmed along its edges.
Two more slain. Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota. Both killed by police guns and caught on camera, new sacrifices in the same seemingly endless bloodletting that has claimed Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and so many others. So far this year, police in the United States have killed 512 people, according to The Washington Post. About a quarter were black, about half white. That number might appear fair, until you learn that the overall U.S. population is about an eighth black and more than three-quarters white. Taylor’s brother Che was shot and killed in Wedgwood by Seattle police earlier this year under suspicious circumstances, prompting André to return from Los Angeles with his family to Seattle. Now, on the Thursday evening following the most recent bloodshed, he’s at a vigil convened with local black clergy and other community leaders at the Westlake stage to give the community a place to vent their grief and rage at these latest blue-on-black killings.
Taylor, brother of the slain, takes the stage, bullhorn in hand, preaching a message of reform within the system. He’s on one side of a split—or at least contrast—within the movement for black lives, a dynamic that has been recognized among black activists across the nation. Writing for The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb has detailed the rift. On one side, he writes, are the older, establishment-friendly generation of black activists—most prominently men—who support Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, avoid public infighting, and define success in terms of full citizenship within society as it already exists. The younger generation, he writes, eschew hierarchy, welcome bombastic public conflict, foreground women and queer people, and define success in terms of transforming society into something new.
These two ideological poles aren’t the only way to categorize a movement that numbers in the millions, but the division between older moderates and younger radicals is real. So are its effects, as becomes apparent Thursday night at Westlake Park.
Addressing the crowd from atop the stone stage, Taylor veers into controversial territory when he begins to admonish people to agitate against police violence peacefully and within existing systems. “When I came here [authorities] were expecting a person full of anger,” he tells the crowd, “and I was, but I didn’t show it.” He argues that black activists need to “keep the narrative” in their fight with oppressive social systems. That’s why, he says, immediately after relocating from Los Angeles to Seattle following his brother’s death, “one of the first things I did was connect myself with the Chief of Police [Kathleen] O’Toole,” he says. Audible groans from parts of the audience. “It was important,” continues Taylor, “because … if you get shut down by the police and the system, you’re not going nowhere.”
A handful of people begin to shout objections. “The police are completely illegitimate!”
“Stand down,” Taylor says over them, prompting a few chuckles from the crowd. “It’s important to keep the communication open.” More shouting. “Because you have to be—listen, you have to show class. It might be unfair, but that’s the system that we’re walking in.”
The stream of objections from people in the crowd continue, growing in volume.
“OK, well, listen, let me just speak to that,” says Taylor. “I see we have some people that might be a little aggravated, but let me speak to that. I’m speaking, but let me speak to that.”
He attempts to do so, with some limited success, and soon shifts to speaking over the objectors, rallying the more moderate portion of the crowd by describing Initiative 873, a state ballot measure for which he is currently gathering signatures. If passed, the initiative would remove the legal protection that states that police officers must have acted with “malice” to be criminally liable for killing someone. According to The Seattle Times, despite 214 civilian deaths at the hands of Washington police between 2005 and 2014, only one officer has been charged. “A Snohomish County jury, instructed to consider whether he acted with malice, acquitted the officer,” reported the Times.
“They’re only trying to pacify you!” yells a woman in the crowd. A young black man calls out, “They don’t protect us! They have never protected us, and they never will! All police are murderers!” He repeats that final sentence, dragging out the “all.” From the perimeter, bicycle cops watch impassively.
Before long, the official proceedings onstage wrap up and a growing contingent, mostly of young people, call for their peers to take to the streets. A clergyman onstage urges the crowd to go home and not participate in any illegal activity. It’s not a particularly effective appeal. The pool of humans spilling onto Fourth Avenue becomes a trickle and then a steady wave, marching away. A black chauffeur outside an upscale hotel holds up his right arm and clenches his fist as the march passes. It swells and grows to more than 1,000, until it is so big that those in the middle can see neither a beginning nor an end. Police on motorcycles and bikes escort the group from the perimeter, blocking vehicle traffic when the march reaches an intersection.
Eventually the wave of humanity arrives at the Federal Courthouse at Seventh Avenue and Stewart Street. The top of the wide steps leading to the courthouse entrance are a natural stage. Marchers, most of whom look to be younger than 30, continue to spill out of an adjacent alley into the park that surrounds the courthouse steps until it’s packed with human bodies. They fill the spaces between the benches and trees. Palca Shibale, a young organizer with Seattle Black Book Club, emerges at the top of the steps with several other organizers, most of them women. Her long, braided hair is tied in the back. She wears a thick woven scarf.
SBBC is an activist group largely comprising people involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. According to their Facebook page, “We focus on the plight of the Black community to alleviate racial oppression. We strive for Black liberation.” In the past, SBBC has organized protest marches, staged occupations, and brought commenters to City Council meetings. They’re skeptical, even hostile, toward conventional institutions, including the media, and fiercely inclusive of different intersectional identities.
Shibale faces the crowd and raises a bullhorn to her lips.
“If you’re not here for black lives, hit the streets, ’cause we don’t want you here,” Shibale says, framed before the massive, rapt audience at the top of the courthouse steps, the shimmering glass of the courthouse behind her, the watching police hidden behind the bulk of the crowd but not forgotten.
Shibale has none of the conciliatory tone struck by older leaders during the vigil. She lambasts city and county officials for spending extravagantly on police and prisons instead of investing in homeless services or housing or education. “If you’re a Seattle resident, you should know that our own SPD is trying, right now, to build a $160 million bunker police department,” she continues, to boos. “But when we ask the Council, ‘Well, where’s the money for affordable housing?’ they don’t have money.”
The crowd begins to chant “That’s our money!” and “White supremacy will fall!”
“People will see me out here today and say I’m an angry, angry black woman,” she continues. “Fuck, yes, I’m angry! Put me in that stereotype. I am an angry black woman, and I have every damn right to be an angry black woman.” Cheers.
“What are you doing in your community to make sure that it is racially equitable?” Shibale asks the crowd. “If the answer to that question is ‘Nothing,’ you need to start right now. We have no time to wait for you. The revolution waits on nobody! We will not wait for you to be comfortable with the idea of black liberation. We do not cater to white fragility.
“Racism is a white problem that affects people of color,” says Shibale, her eyes blazing as she addresses the many white supporters in the crowd. “That means that it is up to you to fix it.”
The march eventually makes its way back to police headquarters, where protesters occupy the street for a series of speeches. Then it proceeds to the freeway, to the same off-ramp at James and Seventh where police and protesters met two years ago and clashed after the non-indictment of the officer who killed teenager Michael Brown. For a moment, pepper spray flies, and a single blast ball detonates somewhere.
As police and protesters begin to face off, an ambulance comes in from the off-ramp. Both sides pause and part, allowing the flashing white van to pass.
Dozens of armored police and hundreds of unarmed protesters stand face to face, separated by only a few feet. Behind the front police line, a couple of cops in riot gear have slung over their shoulders crowd-control rifles that look like they belong in a video game, and a state trooper directs cars trapped on the off ramp to turn around and drive back.
A middle-aged black man takes the bullhorn and begins to speak. Though a demonstration of one, the rhetoric seems like an escalation. He does not talk about legislative reform, nor about systemic racism. Instead he focuses on the one or two black police officers standing in the line before him.
“Be a man,” he shouts. “Look me in the face, black man! I’m talking to you! With the helmet on! Don’t look to the side! It’s your wife’s sake. It’s your momma’s sake. It’s black people’s sake, your relatives.
“They treat you like a house nigga on the plantation,” he says to the black cops. “I’m talking to you. You can’t even look me in the face. I’m talking to you, directly. My name is—” he says, before shouting his full name at police.
Behind the middle-aged man, activist and slam poet Renaissance begins an Occupy-style “mic check” call-and-response with the crowd. “Do not focus!” he calls. The crowd replies: “DO NOT FOCUS! On the black man! ON THE BLACK MAN! Focus on the white one! FOCUS ON THE WHITE ONE!” They then begin chanting for the shouting man to “Share the mic!”
Belatedly, he does. Time passes. Like smoke diffusing through a room, news of Dallas spreads through the crowd. A sniper. Multiple police dead, more wounded. The same middle-aged man shouts at police, “I’m glad to see a cop die! I love to see you motherfuckers die! I love to see your funerals!”
Another black man who’s been upbraiding police at the front of the crowd turns to him. “No, we don’t do all that. I’m not talking about all that. Don’t include me with all that bullshit,” he says, before turning back to the police.
Reached by phone later, André Taylor expands on his theory of social change.
“I don’t subscribe to violence,” he says, calling the prospect of armed revolution “futile and almost laughable.” Asked for his response to the killing of five police in Dallas that night, Taylor says he was “devastated,” and that while he can understand the pain and frustration that would drive someone to want to kill police, “I do not share in that feeling. I don’t think the murder of anybody is acceptable.” He adds that he appreciates the fact that the marchers who left the vigil did not engage in violence.
“There is a means of us fighting, and that means us fighting legislatively within the system, which can galvanize all people together,” he says. “We’ve tried marching, and marching makes you feel good. But it doesn’t change things, most times.”
Members of SBBC declined to speak with Seattle Weekly in time for publication. Of course, they already spoke on Thursday, voting with their voices and feet.
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage almost all the time,” James Baldwin wrote. With the black body count rising, his words are as applicable today as they were half a century ago. It’s not obvious where that rage will go, though it clearly will find an outlet somewhere. Langston Hughes put the question this way:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?