In Seattle, an historic struggle has defeated plans to build a $160 million dollar police station, the most expensive in the country. Supporting it were the vast majority of Seattle’s political leadership including seven out of eight City Council members and the Mayor, all Democrats. Opposing it were Black Lives Matter activists, Socialist Alternative and Council member Kshama Sawant, and a fast growing network of outraged activists and citizens. And to the surprise of even some of those opponents, they prevailed, forcing the proposal to be killed in its present form.
The “bunker,” as it came to be called, would have been built in a traditionally underserved North Seattle neighborhood, – many streets don’t even have sidewalks. It’s far from the downtown core that has seen massive development of glittering high-end rentals and million dollar homes. It’s home to struggling small businesses clustered along both sides of Aurora Ave; mostly bars, ethnic restaurants, pawn shops, pot shops, used car lots, and gas stations. It’s also home to petty crime, including prostitution, low level drug dealing, and the occasional automobile break-in. Containing a significant share of the city’s homeless and other at risk populations, it has suffered for years from City Council neglect.
And also for years, the police and small business owners have shared a wet dream of a new police station located in the heart of that district. Buying the argument that a massive show of force would somehow turn the area into an upscale retail Disneyland, a coalition involving Mayor Murray and Council members Burgess, Gonzales, and Juarez (whose district it was in) worked to get it into the city budget. The police for their part figured they could use the fact that they were under Justice Department supervision to claim they needed it for the mandated so-called “de-escalation training.” And so the proposal surfaced in the City Council, a building designed as bomb-proof and bullet-proof, with a brand new gun range, and a training facility big enough to contain all the spiffy military equipment from the years of generosity by the Department of Defense,. Despite the brand new District style elections, which were supposed to produce a more diverse and progressive City Council, a large majority of Council members couldn’t even wait for the regular budget session to show the boys in blue, er, black, their deep love by giving the proposal the thumbs up. Of course, the fact that the one Council member sure to oppose it, socialist Kshama Sawant, was conveniently out of town certainly whetted their appetite to ram the project through before anyone could object. No such luck, as BLM activists, white progressives, and even the conservative media went ballistic over a number of features.
The eye popping cost, originally pegged at $160 Million, was the opening objection, as it would have been the most expensive precinct in the country. Mayor Murray finagled a plan to shave off $11 million by selling some public real estate, but that did little to mollify opponents. Then the features of the building started attracting attention. Bomb proof? Bullet proof? Were we under impending attack by ISIS? Or was the dreaded northwest anarchist community that shows up on May Day going to march up Aroura Ave and mount a frontal assault on the precinct? Those features alone allowed opponents to label it “the bunker” a moniker that stuck no matter how many times City Council members tried to claim otherwise. As for the gun range, last time anyone checked, the problem with shootings by police wasn’t accuracy. Maybe that’s because in every heinous instance, in writing or captured on video, police empty their clip into some unarmed black person at virtually point blank range. And finally, with a homeless population large enough to provoke a state of emergency at the city and county level, skyrocketing rental costs as affordable housing disappeared from city neighborhoods, massive new investments needed in mass transit for our clogged potholed streets, people figured there were higher priorities than a swanky new Fort Apache.
Beyond these features were issues more fundamental to the role of the police. BLM activists at City Council meetings pointed out over and over that in neighborhoods like North Seattle the police served as an oppressive force – “descended from slavecatchers” and a new station could have only one result, the occupation of the neighborhood, expressed through harassing and arresting its population, especially youth and minorities. This made it hard to sell the idea that the police, under supervision by the Justice Department for practicing exactly that kind of policing, deserved the facility.
But an even deeper issue was the justification for the station to begin. Does arresting any amount of hapless drug addicts, prostitutes, and cat burglars bring a neighborhood prosperity? What have the hundreds of anti-crime measure produced but a giant prison-industrial complex with the highest incarceration levels of incarceration in the world? And one racially stacked against blacks, especially young black males, who are six times more likely to be arrested in Seattle than white youth. Yet no amount of arrests have produced healthier communities, or do anything but insure crowded jails and ruined lives. If the Council is so concerned with paying for something that benefits the North end neighborhood, they could start with sidewalks. Not to mention funding for more drug treatment programs, or some realistic plan for economic development or affordable housing.
As the Council reviewed and discussed the proposal over four meetings, opposition built, as the crowds against the new facility grew from originally about 50 to over 400. Yet at the last meeting, the City Council decided to pass a resolution approving the project, totally ignoring the testimony of the many people who sacrificed part of their working day to oppose the jail. In a cynical move to limit testimony, the Council tried to keep over 200 activists in an overflow room at the final meeting. The crowd would have none of it, and stormed the Council chambers, whereupon the Council fled until the President of the Council caved to the crowd’s demand that all be allowed to attend and testify. Still ignoring the community’s wishes, seven out of the eight present council members voted to support the project, though they did throw up a smokescreen by dropping the actual funding figure.
The police had complained the existing facility was decrepit, crowded and prone to flooding. As soon as Council member Sawant returned, she called them on that claim, and organized a tour of the current station. Police lies were exposed, as it was discovered that the only flood was almost two decades ago when pumps were installed to prevent any reoccurrence. The overcrowding myth was also exposed, as it turned out there were 1400 sq. ft. of rental space already being used next door, and the given figure of 200 officers needing space shrank to 80/shift. As for decrepit, it is, like many city facilities, in decent shape considering its age.
The tour also provided some moments of unintentional humor as activists questioned other aspects of the facilities. There were the duffle bags full of riot gear issued to all officers, which police claimed were almost never used, contradicting what any activist attending a demonstration since the WTO experiences with their own eyes. And then there were the new hulking SUV squad cars, which were supposedly picked with “detainee comfort” in mind.
After the meeting and the tour, the fervor did not die down. The Mayor tried to attend various events, including a neighborhood tour, and talk about “priorities.” It was an unfortunate tag line, as both BLM activists and Sawant’s staff during the events challenged why the station was a priority at all. The inability to appear in public without being challenged just as the Mayor was starting his 2017 re-election campaign, proved to be the last straw. A joint news conference was called by the Mayor, and Council members Burgess, Gonzales and Juarez to explain that they were “delaying” the project, and looking carefully at the cost and design. In fact, the proposal is dead for the 2016 funding cycle, and will likely never come back in any similar form.
What this confrontation has brought about is a direct challenge to the authority of the City Council and the police force itself. The City Council meeting the following Monday was again undone by BLM activists, who carried out a combination of guerilla theater and spirited denunciation of the City Council and the police until once again the Council fled the room. This simply promises to not only continue but widen. In fact, both the issue of building a new youth jail and the hiring of 200 more police officers, supposedly done deals, are back on the agenda. And Sawant is leading a move towards re-directing much of the $160 M towards low-income affordable housing, a perennial demand in a city with skyrocketing rents. An upcoming town hall she is organizing to get that into the budget promises to be well attended.
It should be noted that the opposition to the station showed both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, there were certainly efforts to widen the number of activists involved, and it payed off in both the widening circle of opponents at the Council meetings, and the fact that even the mainstream media felt forced to oppose it on the basis of cost. The last meeting shocked council members, new and old, who had never in their lives been confronted like that.
On the other hand, the continuing effect of identity politics showed in the difficulty with building stable alliances outside the initial milieu of BLM activists and supporters. The struggle had a tendency to be posed in strictly racial terms, disregarding class and other issues. There was a distrust expressed towards potential allies, including SA and Sawant, from some of the BLM activists. An emphasis on movement building by having a broad coalition was met by some activists wanting to work only with organizations that have met some ideal antiracist litmus test.
Yet in the main, this was an important victory, and one that will echo through upcoming efforts to both control the police and produce a budget centered more on human needs, rather than building future infrastructure for oppressing communities.