You can’t have spent much time in downtown Seattle recently without encountering a Ferguson protest — they’ve become almost a daily occurrence in the week and half since a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown.
So I wasn’t surprised when I ran into a crowd holding “Black Lives Matter” signs on my way home from a downtown movie last Friday.
What did surprise me was the destination of the march.
They left downtown and headed towards Capitol Hill, stopping at the intersection of East Pike Street and 10th Avenue — the epicenter of a neighborhood boom that’s seen the recent rise of slick restaurants, pricey boutiques and mega apartment buildings — with a rallying cry to “shut these businesses down.”
“A lot of people…are just being hassled by the police, and Mike Brown shows us that any of those encounters can be deadly.”
So what do Capitol Hill businesses have to do with a police shooting thousands of miles away? Turns out this neighborhood, often considered a haven from intolerance and bigotry, can also be seen as a microcosm of the nation’s racial tension — especially in regards to the police.
“Businesses, a couple specifically, have asked for more police presence and have been profiling particularly the youth of color,” explains Marissa Johnson who was at the protest, “A lot of people…are just being hassled by the police and Mike Brown shows us that any of those encounters can be deadly.”
Johnson is referring to a request for extra policing made by a number of businesses and the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce last summer. Her mention of profiling may refer to an open letter written by Jason Lajeunesse. Part owner of several capitol hill businesses, including three protested last Friday — Lost Lake Café, The Comet Tavern and Neumos — Lajeunesse wrote to Mayor Ed Murray complaining about “the gang (usually described as Somali)” that he said was “terrorizing our neighborhood.”
David Meinert, who is part owner (with Lajeunesse) of Lost Lake Café, The Comet Tavern and Big Mario’s Pizza, all businesses on East Pike, says he and fellow business owners in the neighborhood were responding to rising crime, especially assaults and harassment, that had begun impacting their staff and customers.
“There is a gang of east African kids…that has been doing crimes in this neighborhood and it’s one of several issues in this neighborhood when it comes to crime,” says Meinert, who is quick to add that he’s seen crimes, especially harassment of the gay community, perpetrated by white men as well.
When asked to confirm complaints regarding a group of “east African” youth committing crimes in the area Detective Drew Fowler, a spokesperson for the Seattle Police Department, said the SPD does not keep “any specifics on country of origin” but that they had heard “those rumblings.”
Meinert says he’s happy that police have increased patrols in the area. But as someone who identifies as a “heavy, vocal critic of the Seattle Police Department for decades” he’s aware asking for more police presence can be a political act — especially in a nation roiling over police brutality and a city whose police force is coming off a federal investigation for excessive use of force.
He says he supports the Ferguson protestors and was surprised to see them at his door last week. “I would ask them ‘When you see crime rising…what should we do?’”
Capitol Hill is changing fast. In the years to come, who will decide what makes this neighborhood — a symbol of Seattle’s bohemian culture and eclectic diversity — safe for everyone?
Jama Abdirahman, a 22-year-old student at Seattle Central College who grew up in the adjacent Central District, doesn’t want to speculate about where the neighborhood is headed. But he says the first time he’s ever been publicly harassed over his race or ethnicity occurred on Capitol Hill last summer — around the same time as Lajeunesse’s letter.
“I don’t know if he was drunk, I don’t know what was going on…he started shouting out racial slurs against Muslims…Calling me ‘Osama Bin Laden’s son’” says Abdirahman, whose family is originally from Somalia. “First thing I thought was ‘huh, it’s finally happening [to me].’”
I asked him if he considered calling the police on the man harassing him. He told me he didn’t think he needed to: he just walked away and went on with his day.