Our groups have had the opportunity to delve into a rich history of the American south. We have seen some of the most beautiful displays of community and leadership, heard some incredible voices of hope and courage, and visited some of the darkest corners of our country’s history. Travelling on the civil rights pilgrimage in an immersive learning experience is truly one of a kind. But from the beginning of these journeys we have held close to the understanding that the change, transformation and understanding we seek must be found in our own communities, when we come home. Yes, the south has a glaring history and a present reality of racial injustice, but Seattle is not, and never has been, exempt from the deep roots of racism.
This reality has been increasingly apparent through our city’s complicated relationship with the Seattle Police Department. In 2011, just one year after police killed of an unarmed Native American man on dash cam, the US Department of Justice completed an investigation on SPD finding that the department had “a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law.” The department has since been under a consent decree that has required several changes within the department to remedy bias and brutality. These changes have resulted in a 60% decrease in overall use of force since 2011, a finding that the city celebrated in April of this year. Then, one month later, two white police officers responded to a 911 call from Charleena Lyles, a pregnant African-American woman, that ended in her being killed, in the doorway of her home and in front of her children. And in that moment our city was reminded how deep and real the impact of racism still is, right here at home.
The scene around Charleena’s home the day of the killing was incredibly difficult. A family suffering the loss of their daughter, niece, sister, auntie, mother and friend, were suddenly in the middle of a nationwide movement. Hundreds of people showed up bringing flowers, candles, food and their presence to show solidarity. It felt like nobody outside of the family really knew what to do, or what to say. The feeling of loss, injustice and tragedy of that moment was something very different than seeing a video online or reading a news story about a Black life taken at the hands of police. Hearing Charleena’s sister describe, through a flood of tears, how lost she felt because she didn’t have her best friend anymore, made the affirmation that Black Lives Matter, take on a whole new meaning. Charleena was gone and our city’s police department was responsible.
Several news outlets began releasing very personal details about Charleena’s life. Mental health was a term that came up again and again. The family shared that she had been dealing with CPS and was terrified that the police were, at some point, going to come take her children. She had been working through a domestic violence situation and had had multiple interactions with the police before. According to the audio of the officers on the scene, released by SPD, they too were aware of her history before arriving.
These revelations began to beg the question of what Black Lives Matter has come to mean in this country. There were young white people at the vigil holding up BLM signs silently, but why have so many of us come to believe that Black lives matter only after they are gone. Charleena’s history pieced together a picture of a Black woman, in this country, who has undergone an unjust amount of hardship, an unjust amount of fear, an unjust amount of violence, in a country and a city that gathers to her home by the hundreds only after her life is gone.
Very few in the community are confident that justice will be served and that there will be any consequences for the two officers who killed her. The family, however, and her children will be living with the consequences for the rest of their lives. It is more important now than ever that we bring our education, our understanding and our work home to our communities. Seattle prides itself on progressivity, but when we look at our city’s racial disparities, from incarceration rates to the education gap to homelessness, it feels impossible to be very proud of ourselves.
By working to understand the deeper problems of racism in our city is where we can find our own solutions. Getting involved in the community, with an intentional focus on racial equity, is the best place to start. Centering our work with a clear mission to be of service to the Black community simplifies our efforts in a way that has a real impact. It can also be as simple as spending time in the communities we work to serve. We can ask ourselves individually, how can I act in a way that affirms that Black Lives Matter in my own life and community. It is an affirmation that cannot wait until it’s too late.