A year of riots
Two Pacific Northwest cities remain a hub for violent race protests a year after George Floyd’s death, and some local leaders and churches say the vandalism and extremism have hindered real racial progress
Victoria Beach was already in bed when she got the late-night phone call from her neighbors. They’re out again, the neighbors said. Rioters had started a fire somewhere in their neighborhood.
Beach bolted out of bed and got dressed. “No more,” she declared. “Not tonight.”
It was the 150th day of protests in Seattle following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death sparked demonstrations in communities across the country last summer, but by October most had simmered down. Not so in Seattle or nearby Portland, Ore., where protests often still resulted in smashed windows.
Beach, a 61-year-old, third-generation Seattleite and chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council, was by then sick of the constant unrest, which outsiders seemed to drive. She was tired of strangers storming her neighborhood, vandalizing and tyrannizing the city she loved, and tired of watching city politicians fumble to manage the situation. Beach lives five blocks from Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where protesters heralding a mishmash of causes annexed about five blocks to establish the short-lived Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP).
When the Seattle mayor mistakenly described CHOP as having a “block party atmosphere” that could turn into “a summer of love,” Beach seethed: She saw men and women walking around with rifles slung across their chests, tents everywhere, and no law enforcement in sight. “It was mayhem around here,” she recalled. That month between June and July, crime in the area spiked 525 percent, according to Seattle police. Three shootings within 10 days killed two people and injured four. (A group of Capitol Hill residents and businesses has filed a class-action lawsuit against the city for its “unprecedented decision to abandon and close off an entire city neighborhood.”)
So that night, on the 150th day of protests, Beach marched out of her house and hunted down the rioters, easily recognizable by their all-black attire. She told them to get out: “You don’t represent us! You don’t represent the black community.” As about two dozen mostly white, black-clad individuals surrounded her and began yelling back, Beach felt scared—and outraged: How dare these white punks yell “Black lives matter” at her, a black woman? The group eventually dispersed, but not before one woman called Beach a vulgar word and flipped a middle finger.
Beach lost her cool. She lunged forward and shoved the woman. Someone caught the incident on a cell phone, and the video went viral on Twitter that night.
But what the video didn’t catch was Beach bursting into tears—tears of rage, fear, frustration, and exhaustion. She remembers marching at the first protest the weekend after Floyd’s death and praying together with black clergy: “It was so moving. The black community really pulled together,” she said. “I felt like we were heard.”
Now, a year later, protests continue in Portland and Seattle, and a loud subset of protesters wants police budgets cut by at least 50 percent or wants to abolish police altogether, saying the current justice system is irredeemable. Some militant, self-described anarchists have used violence to champion their idea of revolution, angering residents who say they’ve hijacked the original message of racial justice and equity.
Meanwhile, Beach and some black pastors I spoke with say they want to
see a heart change first: Are the American people truly broken-hearted
over racial injustice? Standing in the midst of boarded-up businesses
and a concrete-barricaded police station, Beach regrets that observers
now only see destruction and anarchy: “It’s focused on the violence. You
don’t hear about George Floyd. You don’t hear about Breonna Taylor. You
don’t hear about any of them. You just hear: Kill the police.”
IT’S A FRUSTRATION many black community members and leaders share. They want to focus on justice and reconciliation rather than reacting to the latest riot on the evening news.
“The whole world gasped when they saw the George Floyd video,” said Harvey Drake, lead pastor of Emerald City Bible Fellowship, a once majority-black, now multiethnic church in Seattle. “It was a catalytic moment that could have really pushed change in the right direction. Then the knuckleheads came out and started tearing stuff up, and all the wind went out of it.”
The scenes in Seattle and Portland—police cars aflame, baton-wielding cops, tear gas, statues of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln toppled, shattered store windows—drew attention from both sides of the political spectrum. Then-President Donald Trump raised alarm about a “nation gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa, and others.” Antifa supporters from other parts of the country traveled to Portland and Seattle to join the ruckus, and the far-right Patriot Prayer group countered with honking vehicles, pepper spray, and “Trump 2020” flags.
But the most sensational scenes, according to eyewitnesses, were actually the handiwork of a minority of protesters who chose to riot. (At Los Angeles protests I visited, organizers loudly denounced violence and looting, and I saw protesters pull back the more agitated individuals in the crowd.)
“The media made it seem like it was this big Riotville. It was not. We were here every single day,” one downtown Portland café owner told me. He said though some nights “got out of control,” the chaos was concentrated in certain pockets downtown. He complained that media reports made it seem like the entire city was burning down: “The news media blew it up, and that actually killed our business.”
But rioters did inflict major harm: Due to constant vandalism and damage, more than 20 businesses closed permanently. Those that stayed shelled out extra money to nail plywood or fix broken windows and furniture at a time when COVID-19 had already squeezed their pocketbooks. Many shops in downtown Portland are still boarded up a year later, and the federal courthouse remains closed. Violence continues in spurts: On April 19, rioters caused $20,000 worth of damage to a Boys & Girls Club in northeast Portland that serves mostly minority kids. On May 25, the anniversary of Floyd’s death, another group smashed storefront windows and set fire to a dumpster next to the Multnomah County Justice Center.
“Go back to whatever hole you came from,” snapped Ron Herndon, a veteran civil rights leader in Portland, last year in response to such vandalism. “You’re not helping us.”
Black residents like Beach distance themselves from the violence. They point out that most of the rioters are white. The two cities are also mostly white: Portland is considered “the whitest major city in America,” with 77 percent white population and only 6 percent black. Seattle is about 67 percent white and 7 percent black. Portland in particular has a five-decade history of white-supremacist organizing.
Yet somehow, Portland and Seattle have become hubs of radical activism, ostensibly for marginalized people of color. That’s riled up the indignation of many black residents like Beach, who say certain white groups have commandeered a movement that should be led by the black community. The ubiquitous “BLM” signs on every neighborhood block and in business windows don’t move her: “Some white people just jump on the bandwagon and say, ‘Oh, we’re gonna save the black community.’ They think they’re doing good. They’re not. Because they don’t get it. They don’t understand.”
SOME WHITE EVANGELICALS tried to understand.
After the May 5, 2020, video release of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting in Georgia, Drake, the Seattle pastor, called up dozens of white evangelical leaders. He told them he was tired of the “deafening silence” from the evangelical community: “I don’t need sympathy or apologies. I need action.” Joseph Castleberry, president of the evangelical Northwest University and another local Seattle pastor penned an open letter of lament and repentance and published it on two ad pages in The Seattle Times. About 200 pastors in the region signed it. Five days later, Floyd died under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis.
Since then, Drake and 14 other local white, black, Asian, and Hispanic pastors have met every two weeks to discuss how to reconcile, unite, and take action together. In the past year, they’ve discussed controversial terms such as “systemic racism,” “white privilege,” “assimilation,” and “critical race theory.” They discovered that each person understood those terms differently, depending on personal background, experiences, and political leaning.
Christians have talked about racial reconciliation for decades. In the 1990s, organizations like Promise Keepers gathered blacks and whites in packed stadiums where attendees hugged and wept. But then, “nothing changed” in terms of social action, Drake says.
Progressives in Seattle have also talked about justice and equity for decades. Meanwhile, Drake’s own neighborhood turned whiter and whiter as many blacks got priced out under gentrification and high costs of living. “Seattle knows the right lingo, but they don’t follow up with action,” he says. So he’s trying to mobilize churches to lead the city into genuine reconciliation and justice that will transform both hearts and institutions: “If God is touching you, healing you, moving you, then you need to take action to change those parts of the system that’s not working.”
Many black Christians realized in 2020 that the work of racial reconciliation would be longer and harder than they thought. Imago Dei, a multiethnic evangelical church in Portland, has been speaking out about racial justice issues for almost 10 years—since before the 2012 Trayvon Martin killing that ignited national discussions on racial profiling. When the 2020 protests erupted, numerous churches in Portland reached out to the black pastors at Imago Dei, asking for help on how to respond.
Michelle Lang, Imago Dei’s choir director, was one of those who joined panels on Zoom and spoke at churches. One year after those speeches and Zoom calls, though, Lang wonders what happened to those Portland churches that reached out to her. She didn’t hear back from some. And according to Imago Dei’s pastors, leaders at some other churches said they received so much backlash from members worrying their church was getting “too political” or “anti-police” that they paused to reevaluate the cost of addressing racial issues. (I reached out to two churches that had originally contacted Imago Dei, but they did not return my calls in time for this story.)
“[The conversations] went away,” said Michelle Jones, an associate pastor at Imago Dei. “Some churches want to appear as though they want to have the conversation. But they don’t want to have the conversation.” Jones says black Christians are still broken over historic and present injustices, but she wonders how many fellow nonblack Christians are equally broken about it. Moving on is not the same as moving forward together: “We’re either going to tell the truth, be broken by it, and move forward. Or we’re going to continue to keep putting Band-Aids on it.”
When protesters spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” on the outside of Imago Dei’s building, the staff decided to turn the wall into a mural. An artist painted a bright kaleidoscope of colors around the “Black Lives Matter” graffiti and scrawled names on individual bricks: Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr., Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd—black Americans whose deaths have come to symbolize the fight against racial injustice.
Recently, Jones painted a new name on a brick: Daunte Wright. As she kneeled by the freshly painted brick, she began crying. She remembers the staff discussing how long to keep the mural up. Maybe we’ll paint over it in November, someone had suggested. It was now May, and here she was, painting the name of another black man shot by police.
Sometimes, passersby who notice the mural ask pointed questions about the vandalism and property damage in Portland. Jones points at the names on the bricks in response: “This is somebody’s brother, somebody’s father, somebody’s son, somebody’s sister. Let’s get back to human lives. That’s what this is about.”
VICTORIA BEACH SAYS that when her daughter was 5, two Seattle cops pulled out their guns on the little girl while investigating what they suspected was criminal activity. She says she watched police officers beat up her father and her brother and pummel her nephew so badly that her sister begged them not to kill him. She heard officers call her and other black people racial slurs. “I hated the police,” she recalls: “I never had a great encounter with them—never.”
Now she’s a liaison between the black community and the Seattle police—and getting flak from other black community members for it. She wants police reform and accountability but balks at activists’ demands that the city chop the police budget in half. She reminds police abolitionists that the East Precinct police station, which bore the brunt of the vandalism and remains fenced-off, exists in large part due to support from Sam Smith, Seattle’s first black city councilmember. Smith had advocated for the precinct in the historically black neighborhood because residents were waiting 45 minutes for a police response. We need the police, Beach tells people. They shut their ears.
When CHOP was still occupying the space surrounding the East Precinct, Beach organized an event for the black community to confront the occupants. Only five women showed up, including her. When Beach told occupants that they didn’t represent the black community, they booed her down. She was drastically outnumbered—a fact that sorely disappointed Beach: “I’ve been asking the black community to step up and help for a long time.” She’s still asking. She said many don’t want to get involved because of their distrust of the police, but she believes progress cannot happen without communication and support between the black community and the police. That frustrates Beach: “With all this division, we’re not going to get anything done. Never.”
The anti-police climate over the last year has pushed more than 200 Seattle police officers to leave their jobs. Many retired early, and some left for departments in other cities. Seattle’s City Council, after cutting the police budget by $46 million, is considering slashing another $5.4 million. In August, the police chief, a black woman, abruptly retired in protest against the council’s decision to lay off about 100 officers.
One Seattle officer, whom WORLD is not naming because he was not authorized to speak to media, said, “We’ve been standing at the protests, listening to people scream at us, ‘Take your gun and put it in your mouth and kill yourself.’ And we have to be silent and stand there. And we just take it and take it. We feel like we’ve heard everything they have to say and we’re just like, ‘Nah, I’m done.’”
The black community itself is divided over whether to defund the police. Those who live in areas with high rates of violent crime don’t want to lose more officers. A smaller group, especially the younger, more radical ones, believe the only solution is to raze the system and rebuild from scratch. A year in, with plenty of graphic footage that shows officers exerting excessive force against protesters, more sentiments have turned anti-police, making Beach’s work even harder.
Beach is tired. Recently, her sister sent her a text message: “I’m worried you’re going to have a stroke. You’re not getting any help. I think you should back off.” Beach has considered quitting many times. But she hasn’t—yet—because “who’s going to do it then? Nobody wants to do it.”
But there’s another reason: “I feel like God is using me.” So she continues her work, with a flicker of hope.
—WORLD has updated this story since its initial publication online.
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