By Tari Gunstone
Around 200 people gathered on the steps of the Capitol on Thursday, October 22 to demand accountability for police violence, specifically against black lives and native lives in Washington state. The gathering focused on promoting Initiative-837 (I-837), which would rephrase a Washington statute that makes it incredibly difficult to prosecute police for use of deadly force, aiming to make it easier to take legal action against police violence. Activists are currently promoting the initiative and gathering voter signatures in order to force the Washington State Legislature to vote on it.
Protest signs represented slogans like, “Safer policing, safer community support,” “Bullies with Badges,” “Native Lives Matter,” “Black Lives Matter,” and many that read “Justice For Jackie,” referring to Jacquelyn Salyers, a pregnant indigenous woman from the Puyallup tribe, killed by police in January 2016.
Throughout the protest many family members of victims killed by police like Salyer shared their stories. It was heartbreaking and powerful to see the vulnerability and courage of the many mothers, fathers, aunts, cousins, and other loved ones that spoke about the effects of police violence. It was also striking to see just how many of them there were and how many others they mentioned that couldn’t make it to Olympia that day.
The Seattle Times reported that of the 213 fatal police encounters in Washington between 2005 – 2014 there was only one officer charged for murder. They went on to say that under current Washington use of force laws “it was nearly impossible for prosecutors to bring criminal charges even if they concluded that an officer committed a wrongful killing.”
This is the result of a clause Washington legislators added to the use of force statute to further strengthen the rights of law enforcement in 1986. The added clause, which remains to this day, states that officers cannot be held criminally responsible for use of deadly force unless they had “a good faith belief that such act is justifiable” and in order to prosecute one would have to prove the officer had conscious “malice.”
Proponents of I-837 argue that the current use of force law is ripe for abuse, providing a “foolproof shield” for law enforcement since “malice is a state of mind and cannot be proven.” In reporting on this law, The Stranger stated that Washington makes it “virtually impossible to charge police officers who kill.”
I-837 aims to remove this language concerning “malice” and “good faith belief” from the current Washington use of force law. Supporters believe that this will be a huge step toward creating stronger accountability for policing in Washington state, especially within communities of color.
Sylvia Sebon, aunt of Oscar Perez Giron, a Mexican immigrant who was shot and killed by police in Everett, WA in 2014, cried out for her community that, “we are not shooting targets for police.”
A father of an African-American man who died in police custody in 2012 due to the results of law enforcement violence and negligence, spoke out about his experience for the first time. He and his family failed to press criminal charges for negligence because of the obstacle put in place by the current use of force law. However, they did receive a settlement of 1.5 million dollars from the city. He expressed dissatisfaction with this outcome, saying that no amount of money could fix the amount of pain and damage done to his family, and shared, “that money is just an indication that the city knows they are wrong but isn’t willing to admit it and take action.”
He went on to explain how law enforcement and the media tend to “character assassinate” the victims of police violence by magnifying any flaws they might have so that the public can demonizes the victim, further justifying police violence. He believes that the malice clause is significant enough that its removal could have brought justice for his murdered son.
His father was a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists whose presence was greatly felt at the protest. Many indigenous peoples were there as well, wearing traditional clothing and playing ceremonial instruments. Spoken word poetry was shared by Olympia poet Lenée Reid.
Two Washington state representatives were there showing their support of I-837, David Sawyer (D) of the 29th district, and Luis Moscoso (D) of the 1st district. Moscoso shared how he introduced a bill aimed to strike the malice clause (HB 2907) to the House Public Safety Committee earlier this year after work done by the Black Alliance of Thurston County in response to the police shooting of black brothers, Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, in Olympia in May 2015.
The Alliance was formed after the prosecutor failed to file charges against the officer who shot Chaplin and Thompson, illustrating what many see as a flaw in our legal system. Along with efforts to support families and communities of those killed by police the Black Alliance of Thurston County began lobbying legislators to introduce laws that would better hold police accountable for unjustified use of force.
However, despite the work of many organizations and community members, HB 2907 never made it out of committee for a vote in the house. Moscoso explained that there was a lot of pressure to ignore the bill from the law enforcement community, including two Republican representatives on the House Committee on Public Safety. He told the crowd that since then, many of his Republican colleagues have admitted that they acted out of fear for not addressing the bill and expressed remorse
Moscoso, who has fought hard for police accountability but lost the primary election and will be wrapping up his last year as representative, promises to help continue the fight for this initiative to pass. He both cautioned and encouraged the protesters that, “it sometimes takes years for something to pass,” but that he believes with enough movement behind it, I-837 can become a reality.
Seattle mayor, Ed Murray has also endorsed the initiative with the Seattle Police Department following in support. Many are calling this initiative pro-community, not anti-police. The initiative needs about 250,000 signatures by the end of December, to go before the legislature in January 2017.
You can find more information about Initiative-837, including how to sign the petition, on the Washington for Good Policing website, at w4gp.com.