We blocked the bunker in Seattle

September 22, 2016

Steve Leigh explains how activists in Seattle managed to pressure the political establishment to shelve its plans for a shiny, new police station--at least for now.

AFTER MONTHS of controversy, Seattle's mayor and City Council announced September 15 that they would postpone their plan to build the most expensive police station in North America in the north end of the city.

This victory is sweet--but it may be temporary.

Mass petitioning and disruptions of council meetings, combined with a definite turn in public opinion, have bought some time. But council members are already talking about revisiting the issue next year.

For example, Debora Juarez, who represents North Seattle on the council and was once a supporter of the prison-building plan, said it's time to "to slow this down and do it right," according to The Stranger.

Mayor Ed Murray also reversed himself, saying, "There are real tensions in this community around race and policing, so I think we need to back up."

Activists are celebrating this victory, but also preparing for a renewed fight in next year's budget. As a statement from the Block the Bunker coalition put it:

A few months ago, members of the Seattle Black Book Club along with local organizers started a campaign to #blockthebunker upon discovering the plans to build a $160 million militarized precinct in North Seattle.

Since then, we have gathered support from communities from all over the Seattle, building power from communities of color and those on the front line, who are most often and most violently impacted by police. Activists representing several organizations, as well as many individuals have worked tirelessly for months organizing against the bunker, which served as a catalyst for Seattle city officials to start speaking out against this project. We acknowledge that the mayor is finally listening to the clamor of the people, right on time to announce his re-election.

Supporters of Seattle's Block the Bunker campaign speak out against the plan for a new police station
Supporters of Seattle's Block the Bunker campaign speak out against the plan for a new police station

THE TURNAROUND came quickly. On August 15, the City Council affirmed its decision to go ahead with the project by a vote of 7 to 1, even in the face of opposition from hundreds of community members. Just two days before the announcement that plans for the prison would be postponed, Mayor Murray was still vehemently defending the project at a public meeting where he was challenged by a racial justice activist.

But activists kept up the pressure, disrupting politicians at their events and creating a ruckus at City Council hearings. Block the Bunker organizing meetings that regularly drew 75 to 100 people.

Socialist council member Kshama Sawant also helped amplify opposition to the new prison, leading a handful of activists and journalists on a tour of the current North Seattle police station a week before the announcement. After the tour, Sawant said that there's no need for a new police station because the current one is "adequate."

Even those on the tour who thought it was crowded said it was no more so than many public offices and certainly didn't warrant a building twice the size of the current one. One reason that the office areas seemed crowded is that the police have an exclusive gym in the current building. As a result of the press coverage from the tour, more people understood that the city didn't need to spend this money on a new police station.

The determination of the grassroots movement to make its case through direct pressure on elected officials was crucial, as the Block the Bunker statement explains:

This is a decisive win for Seattle communities and a testament to the power of the people. We have undoubtedly changed the landscape of local political power, and this is only the beginning. The city is not moving forward this year, but we will ensure this bunker will not be funded or built in the years to come.

The funding intended for the bunker, more police and the new youth jail should be going towards social services and to respond to the crisis of homelessness. Seattle must invest in building up our powerful communities, who must be the ones entrusted to respond to the increasingly complex needs of our people. We will not stop until we ensure our people have what it takes to thrive in this city...When the people rise up and come together, we can do anything.

IN THE wake of the victory, activists are setting their sights higher. A rally will be held September 22 at Washington Hall at 14th and Yesler at 6 p.m. to demand that the city use the $160 million proposed for the bunker on badly needed low-income housing instead.

The coalition was made up of people and organization with many shades of opinion. A leading current in the coalition begin from an understanding that the role of police is to preserve the economic and racial inequality at the heart of American society. As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, a growing number of people are drawing this conclusion, and this fed into and overlapped with the Block the Bunker coalition.

Other currents within Block the Bunker focused their criticism on the misplaced priority of building a police station instead of addressing pressing (and unfunded) social needs in Seattle. As a statement by No New Jim Crow put it:

What could $160 million do for Seattle's real social problems? It could build at least 1,600 units of low-income housing, to take 3,200 people off the street. It could hire 3,200 teachers to lower class sizes in some of the most crowded schools in the U.S. It could provide decent jobs to thousands of low-income workers. It could hire construction workers to rebuild Seattle's crumbling roads and bridges. It could provide solar panels to 8,000 homes in Seattle to fight global warming. It could provide more, better and cheaper bus service to thousands and community-based addiction treatment staffed by paid peer counselors with real-life experience.

Many people also stressed their opposition to the militarization of the police. In the words of the No New Jim Crow statement:

This proposal heightens the trend of militarization of the police so prevalent in recent years. The Federal military has transferred equipment to local departments since the War on Drugs was declared in the '70s and since the war on terror began in 2001. Mass incarceration has become an epidemic: in the 1970s, there were approximately 300,000 people in U.S. prisons, which many believed to be too many. Now there are 2.3 million in our prisons. The U.S has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners...Black people are imprisoned at five to six times the rate of white people.

But the key to this victory--and hopefully many more to come--is building a broad movement made up of many different constituencies, but at the same time educating the movement about why a radical rejection of the system of policing is essential to challenging racism and economic inequality.

This can help mobilize the largest possible number of people with the confidence and militancy necessary to challenge the priorities of the criminal justice system--and win.

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