The Whitewashing of Northwest Activism

The erasure of Black labor from conversations about protests leads to a misunderstanding of the history in the making

BLM graffiti on a Seattle street, June 2020.

Last night I crawled into bed with the erroneous belief that Ben Shapiro’s apparent unawareness that vaginas can get wet would be the most profoundly ignorant thing I would read all day. But the day was not over yet, and alas, there were even worse takes to be had.

I opened the Twitter app and was launched into an in-progress argument between Seattle comedian Brett Hamil and arch-centrist Matt Yglesias. The point of contention was Matt’s resoundingly uninformed hot take regarding the announcement that Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best would be resigning.

For Yglesias, the “interesting and noteworthy” thing about the announcement of Best’s resignation is “that in one of the least-black major American cities, a mass protest movement has succeeded in displacing a black police chief in the name of antiracism.”

Dozens of Seattleites quickly hopped on the thread to point out what Yglesias’s take had missed. “Hey Matt. Black & living in Seattle,” tweeted Kamau Chege, the director of Washington Census Alliance, Washington State’s largest coalition of tribes and community organizations of color. Under Best’s leadership, Chege explained, the Seattle Police Department had “indiscriminately teargassed” the large residential neighborhood of Capitol Hill. “[I] fully support her resignation & hope the Mayor’s quickly follows.”

“Haven’t seen you up here Matt,” tweeted Seattle journalist Erica C. Barnett. “Maybe if you had done any reporting on this, or read the reams of local coverage coming out of sites like mine, you wouldn’t be so inclined to issue misleading and simplistic judgments from thousands of miles away.”

There is, of course, a grain of truth to Yglesias’s analysis. Seattle is a very white city, as is Portland. In both cases, that overwhelming whiteness is the direct result of decades of deliberately exclusionary and discriminatory policies. This racist foundation has been exacerbated by a virulent strain of white nationalism that calls the Pacific Northwest home. It is no coincidence that Seattle is home to a strong activist community engaged in an ongoing struggle for civil rights. Those activists have been forged in the context of Seattle’s runaway capitalism and dominant neoliberal culture of white supremacy.

What Yglesias’s uninformed assessment ignores is the extent to which Black-led protest movements have been fighting police brutality and biased policing in Seattle for years. It ignores the work of grassroots community movements like Block the Bunker and No New Youth Jail, which were years ahead of the national conversation on divesting from the police state. It sidesteps the influential political campaigns of abolitionists like Nikkita Oliver, Shaun Scott, Sherae Lascelles and Kirsten Harris-Talley—as well as other historic candidacies in the making. It dismisses the work of civil rights organizations like the King County Equity Now Coalition, the Decriminalize Seattle Coalition, the Seattle Peoples Party, and the Seattle Black Collective Voice. Finally, it completely fails to account for the deep distrust between the Seattle Police Department and the activist community which has only grown during Chief Best’s tenure, culminating in weeks of tear-gassing the city’s densest neighborhood, followed by a ruthless campaign of lying to the national media.

There has been a concerted effort over the past few months to strategically sideline this crucial work, replacing Black activists in the white imagination with a stereotype of a white “antifa” protester who has co-opted the movement for his own selfish ends. This sleight of hand enables right-wing and centrist Status Quo Warriors to dismiss the demands of protesters while pretending that they themselves are on the side of racial justice. Certainly there are protesters who act selfishly—and even those who have infiltrated the movement in an attempt to undermine it from within. As with any decentralized movement, anyone can claim affiliation, and thus the actions of any one individual cannot be accurately assumed to be representative of the whole. This is why, from the outset of this new era of protest activities, activists like attorney and educator Nikkita Oliver have stressed the importance of shared goals over any single figurehead.

There has been a concerted effort to replace Black activists in the white imagination with a stereotype of a white “antifa” protester who has co-opted the movement for his own selfish ends. This sleight of hand enables Status Quo Warriors to dismiss the demands of protesters while pretending that they themselves are on the side of racial justice.

Those shared goals include defunding the Seattle Police Department’s annual budget—which costs taxpayers a whopping $400 million per year, including six-figure police salaries that rival those of senior software engineers—by at least 50%, investing instead in restorative justice and the health and safety of Black and brown communities. Yesterday, the City Council (comprised of a majority of non-white women) voted to trim the police budget by a modest $3 million. It’s one small step in a process that began many years before the current wave of protests started making national headlines.

This small success is the direct result of dozens of Black-led organizations working for years in the majority-white Pacific Northwest. They were working to defund the SPD long before there was national attention on the movement, and they will still be doing this work when the media’s attention span has moved on to something else.

Please don’t let Matt Yglesias or anyone else tell you otherwise.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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