Breaking news – Seattle is booming. The anecdotal evidence is compelling: cranes dot the skyline, new apartments and condos are going up on every other block, and tech firms are hiring like mad. The Emerald City is also doing well in the press, a progressive hub on a Northern California – Pacific Northwest corridor that offers a potential alternative to President Trump’s agenda. However, on Saturday 18 March 2017, community organizers, activists, and residents gathered at 23rd and Union in the Central District to remind people that the city’s rapid development and thriving economy can cause hardships and challenges for some residents stemming from gentrification, displacement, and frayed communities.
In their opening remarks to the crowd, organizers Rashad Barber and Cliff Cawthon described the Central District’s ties to Seattle’s black community, pointed out the dangers that gentrification and development pose to that community and others like it, and provided updates about the health and circumstances of Mr. Omari Tahir-Garrett, a well-known community activist who was evicted from his home on 16 March. (See Capitol Hill Seattle blog for a more in-depth overview of that situation, along with a sometimes heated discussion in the comments section about the issues and groups involved.) Mr. Barber and Mr. Cawthon then invited others to share their thoughts and concerns.
The speakers who followed discussed their roots in the Central District and their efforts to develop a community there after finding other Seattle neighborhoods unwelcoming or inaccessible. Neighbors from the Chinatown-International District mentioned that they too are experiencing the negative effects of gentrification and rapid development. Throughout, the speakers stressed the need for equitable development and for area residents to have a role in shaping that development. The speakers and the crowd reinforced that theme with the chant “We want in!”.
After the speeches and announcements concluded, it was time for the march. The march was peaceful and orderly*, but tensions and frustrations did surface between the protestors, the staff at Uncle Ike’s pot shop, and the Seattle Police Department, whose officers accompanied the marchers on bikes and in vehicles. The marchers stopped in front of Uncle Ike’s and expressed their displeasure at the presence of a pot shop close to a neighborhood church. The protestors also conveyed their belief that Uncle Ike’s reflects the economic opportunism that they feel is threatening the community. Members of Uncle Ike’s staff, standing behind simple barricades, responded by challenging some of the protestors’ ties to the neighborhood and ability to speak for the neighborhood. (*Note: I had to leave the march mid-way. The Capitol Hill Seattle blog reported that the marchers returned to 23rd and Union and exchanged words with the owner of Uncle Ike’s. The Capitol Hill Seattle blog piece contains photojournalist Alex Garland‘s photos, videos, and text from the entire march.)
The march resumed, heading east on Union. The protestors shifted their emphasis from anti-gentrification to Black Lives Matter, criticizing the Seattle Police Department for being racist and employing violent tactics against black and minority community members. Mr. Cawthon also expressed his belief that the police were there to monitor and follow the protestors, commenting at one point that he didn’t remember seeing such a heavy police presence at the Women’s March. The police didn’t respond to the marchers’ chants or allegations. They rode their bicycles on both sides of the march and used the bikes to to block traffic at the intersections.
The marchers stopped in Madrona at Union and 34th Avenue, temporarily commandeering an intersection that boasts several small restaurants, bars, and boutiques. On Saturday evening most of them were busy with families or groups of friends. Some people were curious and came outside to find out what the protest was about and to take pictures. Most people continued with their meals or activities.
One of the protestors took up a bullhorn, stepped into the middle of the group, and provided another update on Mr. Tahir-Garrett, informing the crowd that the Seattle Police Department had arrested Mr. Tahir-Garrett at the hospital and taken him to jail. On the periphery, police officers blocking the intersection discussed the claims among themselves, with a few of the officers telling their colleagues that the claims weren’t true, and that it didn’t happen.