This story originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald and is being republished with permission.
Family and friends who gathered for a candle light vigil at Solid Ground’s Brettler Family Place 3 on Sunday evening had a message for dozens of media, and hundreds of supporters coming out to mourn the death of Charleena Lyles.
She was not simply “another one,” they said, not just another Black body left lifeless, surrounded by troubling questions following a police call gone wrong.
Charleena was a woman. She was a mother. She was a sister. She was a daughter and a niece. She was a member of her community and she has a family who are deeply grieving her loss.
“I miss my sister,” said Charleena’s sister, fighting through tears to speak as she addressed the hundreds gathered at the vigil. “I’m not going to be able to call her. I am not going to be able to go over there so we can talk to each other. My sister is full of life. She was full of life. She was a kind person, and her kids were her everything. They meant so much to her. There is nothing she wouldn’t do for them. I’m just gonna miss my sister. I’m going to miss my best friend.”
The vigil and press conference came at the end of a frenzied day that began at around 10 a.m. when Lyles was shot by two officers from the Seattle Police Department. The incident was immediately picked up by local press and quickly spread through social media. By the time the vigil began around 5::45 p.m., the children who filled the apartment complex’s playground were audience to a stream of strangers who entered their space, likely for the first time.
Details of the case are still unfolding, but according to a statement from the Seattle Police Department, the officers responded to a report of a burglary phoned in by Lyles at her home in the Sand Point neighborhood. When they arrived “officers were confronted by a 30-year-old woman armed with a knife. Both officers fired their duty weapons striking the woman.” Lyles was declared dead upon arrival of aid workers.
Family members said that Lyles was not armed with a knife, and that she was shot in the chest and the stomach and was pregnant when she died.
SPD has stated, “There were several children inside the apartment at the time of the shooting, but they were not injured. They are being cared for by other family members at this time.” Lyles had four children, three ages 11, 4, and 1 in the house, and a fourth child living with another family member. They took the step of releasing audio of the shooting, early Monday morning.
“Leena was harmless. Harmless. She couldn’t intimidate a baby,” said Charleena’s cousin and pastor Isabella Webb. “A 75-pound young lady with kids in the house and one in her stomach. We want answers and we want them now. She was a fine young lady. She was reaching out for help and the system failed her. Again.”
Lyles’ sister Monika Williams said at the vigil that Lyles had struggled with mental health and had said that her sister was afraid that SPD would try and take her children from her.
“My sister shouldn’t start going through mental health problems because she thought they were going to take my kids and now they took her fucking life,” she said, through tears. “He had to step over his mother’s body to get out of the house. What 11-year old boy should have to go through that? Now I have to deal with mental health issues with him. Thank you. My protectors!”
This shooting comes just weeks after the City of Seattle passed landmark police accountability legislation passed as part of the city’s consent decree with the Department of Justice. The agreement came after a 2011 ruling by the Department of Justice finding that SPD had “a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law.”
An assessment of SPD released in April found that overall use of force had gone down by 60 percent, but that biased practices remained, including the finding that officers were “more likely to point firearms at historically underrepresented [groups] than White subjects but are more likely to go ‘hands-on’ with White subjects.”
“This will be fully investigated,” said Mayor Ed Murray in a statement following the shooting. “The quality and integrity of the investigation will be reviewed by the federal monitoring team supervising our consent decree. We will work collectively with our consent decree partners and the Community Police Commission to ensure transparency throughout this process and offer support where needed.”
According to Andre Taylor, whose brother Che Taylor was killed by SPD in 2016, civil rights attorney James Bible will be representing Lyles’ family. Any criminal case brought against the officers involved in the shooting will likely be an uphill battle, as the state of Washington requires a prosecutor to prove law enforcement showed “malice intent” during a shooting. Critics contend that this sets the bar for prosecution too high, requiring full knowledge of an officer’s motivations.
Such a case is a ways in the future. Meanwhile, the immediate aftermath is a familiar one in an America where activists and mourners take to the media and the streets under the banner of Black Lives Matter, representing those they view as victims of police brutality after it is too late.
To those gathered at the apartment complex on Sunday night, Lyles life represents the many injustices experienced by Black American’s long before they’re deemed a national tragedy. It is the injustices leading up to Sunday’s events, including the exoneration of the police office who killed Black Minnesotan Philando Castile last Friday, that reaffirm the need to remind the world that Black Lives Matter, they said. They matter before they are taken.
As the sun set on the vigil last night, the crowd continued to grow. Many supporters carried flowers and candles and some brought prayers, while others simply brought their presence. The scene was a reminder that loss of Charleena’s life has had an impact on the whole community and that her life, cut too short, mattered.