Black Lives Matter in Seattle

January 28, 2015

Michelle Farber reports on a panel discussion in Seattle that brought together new and experienced activists to discuss the way forward for the anti-racist movement.

NEARLY 600 people packed the Quincy Jones Auditorium at Garfield High School in Seattle on January 22 for a panel discussion titled "From Black Power to #BlackLivesMatter: A Forum with 1968 Olympic Medalist John Carlos."

The forum (full video of the meeting can be found here) brought together current organizers for the Black Lives Matter movement with Carlos, who along with Tommie Smith became an international icon of the Black Power movement when he raised his black-gloved fist on the Olympic medal stand in Mexico City.

In addition to Dr. Carlos, speakers included Aretha Basu, a community activist involved with the newly founded Women of Color for Systemic Change; Jesse Hagopian, advisor for the Garfield High School Black Student Union, and editor of the newly released book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing; Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle-King County NAACP; Marissa Johnson, an organizer for Outside Agitators 206; and Dave Zirin, co-author of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Movement That Changed The World.

Hundreds came to a forum on #BlackLivesMatter in Seattle to hear speakers like John Carlos (at microphone)
Hundreds came to a forum on #BlackLivesMatter in Seattle to hear speakers like John Carlos (at microphone) (Alex Garland)

Seattle has been a hotbed of activity since the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri--in part because of Seattle's own notorious police history. A 2012 Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation found that nearly 20 percent of the time that Seattle cops used force, they did so "in an unconstitutional and excessive manner."

The forum was one of the largest community events since protests began in November. Before the event started, students and activists led chants and rallied the crowd, and the excitement and energy was palpable.

The Garfield High School Black Student Union (BSU) welcomed the crowd and was met with a standing ovation. Weeks before the grand jury decision in Ferguson, the BSU organized an October 22 walkout to the Seattle East Precinct headquarters, where they were met with riot police and officers on horseback.

At the forum, the secretary of the BSU read a section of the Declaration to Seattle Police Department statement that the group had made at the October protest. The statement was met with cheers and another standing ovation.

ARETHA BASU kicked off the meeting with a message directed at allies from non-Black communities of color: "As an ally, it is imperative that we center Blackness--that is what this movement is about. It is not about everyone's oppression. I am an Indian woman, and the oppression against my community is different than what my Black sisters and brothers are experiencing. As allies, we need to claim our privilege and understand our roles."

Both Basu and Marissa Johnson spoke of their newness to organizing, both articulating a feeling of being called into organizing and the importance of continued struggle following the incredible injustice that they had witnessed.

Johnson is a leader and organizer with Outside Agitators 206, a Seattle-based coalition organizing against police terror and the prison system. Her first political action was the night of Darren Wilson's non-indictment. She recalled telling herself that night, "If I'm going to cry, then I'm not going to cry alone."

Since then, Johnson has been heavily involved in creating community organizing and sustained protest. "I came out to the streets because of Mike Brown, but I have stayed because of the Seattle Police Department," she told the audience, referencing the brutality and unjustified force that Seattle police have shown towards peaceful protesters, in addition to their long history of violence cited by the DOJ investigation.

Gerald Hankerson of the NAACP commended Basu and Johnson for their ongoing work, noting the pattern of young people coming to the front and leading this burgeoning movement. Hankerson shared his story of being an innocent man who served 23 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit.

While in prison, Hankerson organized against racism in the criminal justice system, including leading the Black Prisoners Caucus. After sustained community organizing, Hankerson was granted clemency and continues as a social justice fighter.

Next, Jesse Hagopian took the stage and was met with uproarious cheers from his students. "What is it when you leave someone in the street for four and a half hours?" he asked the crowd. "It is a lynching. It says, 'You are an example.' It says, 'Know your place.' And the Garfield High School Black Student Union students said, 'Well, then our place is in the streets.'"

Hagopian also addressed the fact that he was pepper-sprayed by a Seattle police officer at a peaceful march on Martin Luther King Day: "Do you think that officer was afraid of me, on the sidewalk taking a phone call? No. I think she was scared of three words: Black. Lives. Matter."

AT LAST, Dr. John Carlos took the stage, introduced by Dave Zirin, and the energetic crowd was again on its feet, this time with fists raised.

Dr. Carlos told many stories of his youth and his family, his upbringing in New York City, and the poverty that his family and friends endured. He reminded the crowd of the radical history of Dr. Martin Luther King, stating that King "didn't die because he was involved in the civil rights movement. He was killed because he got involved in the economic struggle of this country."

As he weaved stories from his childhood in with current struggles, Dr. Carlos spoke of the moments after he came off the medal stand, accompanied by CIA agents. He recalled that the agent told him that he had "'disrespected [his] nation', to which he replied, 'Actually, I think my nation has disrespected me.'"

Discussing the nature of the Black Lives Matter movement that continues to grow, Dr. Carlos told the audience, "We have the ability to set this nation on fire."

Following the panel, breakout sessions were held to connect the crowd with struggles taking place all over the city. Audience members streamed out of the auditorium to talk with activists leading struggles in Seattle related to racial justice.

Participants had many groups to choose from, including getting involved in planning ongoing protests and actions through Outside Agitators 206 and the Seattle Transit Rider's Union, which is organizing a Fare Enforcement and Transit Police Community Watchdog campaign to fight back against verbal and physical harassment of people of color and low-income individuals on Seattle's transit.

Marissa Johnson implored the crowd to get involved in the campaign against the building of a new youth jail that would cost taxpayers $210 million. There have been educational events and actions hosted by the No New Jim Crow Coalition and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism regarding the youth jail.

"There can be no youth jail build in this city," Johnson said. "I don't care if you have to chain yourself to the construction site, I don't care if we have to shut every street in this city down."

This panel not only brought together organizers from past a present, but helped to bring alive the history of Black radicalism in a city that is exploding with a fervor of protest activity. Leaving the panel, the call to action was clear and inspiring and left the crowd with the promise of continued agitation and organizing from the ground up.

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