The atmosphere in Seattle City Council Council Chambers Monday afternoon was charged with emotional intensity. Black Lives Matter activists, members of the Social Alternative party and concerned community residents turned out in force to give impassioned testimony opposing a planned police bunker in North Seattle. The project will cost an estimated $149 million, making it the single most expensive police station in the entire country.
Activists were appalled that the city would make an investment of that size to build a state-of-the-art, bullet- and bomb-proof police shelter. The idea that we would invest massive sums of money to build a fortress that would further militarize the police is beyond ironic, given that the Seattle Police Department is still under court-ordered reforms with the U.S. Department of Justice for its pattern and practice of excessive force.
City officials talk about the need for affordable housing, education and social services in the abstract. But the city displays its priorities through its spending. The $149 million for a police bunker is not an investment in people who are suffering; it’s a massive investment in the structures that prop up the institutions that perpetuate racism.
Tents sprawled out across the sidewalks outside of City Hall where the hearings were taking place. The funds for the bunker could be used to build housing — the city can build 1,000 units of affordable housing with $160 million, according to the Seattle Office of Housing. These new units could take thousands of people off the streets or prevent them from becoming homeless. These funds could also be used to increase social services to people living on the streets or to create jobs for unemployed people and low-wage workers.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the afternoon came when an older White man lashed out during one activist’s testimony and started shouting “White power” and “White lives matter.” Security did nothing to quiet the man down, so a (White) woman knelt beside him and tried to talk to him where upon he turned around and slapped her in the face. Security calmly asked him to leave and escorted him out of the building. I thought to myself how differently that would have played out if a Black man had shouted “Black power” and slapped a woman who did nothing other than try and talk him down?
When it finally came time to vote, Councilmember Mike O’Brien was the lone voice on the City Council to oppose the bunker. (Sawant clearly would have voted no, but was not present at the hearing.) In particular, a direct challenge from a Black Lives Matter activist seemed to hit home for O’Brien. She reminded him that he has said he regretted his decision to support the new youth jail. This was his chance to do better, she said. An hour later, when the vote was called, he did just that.
The other councilmembers argued that the proposal was not a vote for the bunker as is, but just a vote to proceed with further research, including an analysis using the city’s racial equity tool kit. O’Brien pushed back, saying that we should engage in a dialogue with the community first, then proceed with the study, rather than the other way around.
Unfortunately, the forces of institutional racism are like gravity and the proposal passed by a 7-1 vote. Activists said that this was just the beginning of the fight to “block the bunker” and vowed that they would show up at every hearing between now and November, when the bunker is ultimately voted on as part of the city budget.
For me, the most frustrating point of the afternoon happened after tensions escalated and people who had been held out of the room pushed their way in. There were heated exchanges with security and some pushing and shoving. Shortly after the meeting resumed, and in response to vocal demands for accountability by the audience, Council President Bruce Harrell told the room to “calm down.” It is nothing short of insulting to people who have been marginalized when a person in a position of privilege and power tells them that they should remain calm. They shouldn’t. And neither should those of us who want to be allies in this fight. Please join me
in writing to or calling your council members and urging them to oppose the outrageously expensive new police precinct.