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Beyond Ferguson: Voices

March 12, 2015

Against a backdrop of increasing unrest and growing distrust of law enforcement and government, some of Washington’s most respected leaders in government, culture, civil rights and education speak up about the realities of race relations in the greater Seattle area and how we can work together for change.

From City Attorney Pete Holmes, the man responsible for overseeing the SPD’s consent decree with the Department of Justice, to teacher Jesse Hagopian, the educational revolutionary from Garfield High who was recently pepper sprayed by cops on MLK Day, and many other voices of different ages and ethnicities, this frank and candid discussion spurs viewers to consider the many ways race continues to affect our society and institutions.  These respected voices also encourage us to take a hard look in the mirror and come to terms with how race has played a role in our own lives.

Joined by the voices of ordinary citizens, this mosaic of expertise and opinions also looks forward to the important and difficult work in our region’s future as we, our communities, and our leaders approach a new era of unprecedented change both in what our society looks like and who we are as a people.

News Announcer: Protests spread beyond Ferguson to cities across the country.

Policemen at Demonstration: Move Back!  Move Back!

News Announcer 2: From Atlanta to Seattle, thousands marched in protest.

News Announcer: Seattle police battled protesters to keep them from blocking Interstate 5.

Protesters: Let Her Go!  Let Her Go!

Policeman: I know you don’t care about us.

Protesters: Let Him Go!  Let Him Go!

Mayor Murray: Seattle is not Ferguson. Our City is committed to the goals of racial, social justice in all areas.

Seattle Police Officer Pepper Spraying Man: Stand Back!  Seattle Police Department!

A video from a Martin Luther King, Jr. rally on January 19, 2015 shows Garfield history teacher Jesse Hagopian being pepper sprayed by a Seattle Police Officer.  While the incident is under investigation, Hagopian has decided to sue the City of Seattle.

Jesse Hagopian, History Teacher, Garfield High School: When people say Seattle isn’t Ferguson, I think what they’re saying is we are not this virulently racist society and we are an enlightened, progressive city, but I think that that really misses the deeply entrenched racism that’s part of this city.

UW Sociology professor LaShawnDa Pittman has stressed the role of education and civil discussion as key to changing social norms.

LaShawnDa Pittman, Assistant Professor, American Ethnography, UW:You know, clearly Seattle isn’t Ferguson.  They’re very different cities, they’re located in different parts of the country, they’re different in terms of size, political leanings even, but Seattle has a long way to go as well with respect to its own racial and ethnic disparities.

Hollis Wong-Wear, Writer/Performer: There tends to be this kind of intellectual superiority that prohibits real discussion from happening.  People feel that they’re so well educated and so well versed that they don’t feel like it’s necessary for this conversation to be had.

Sharon Maeda, Career Activist/Journalist: We’re way ahead of other places in so many ways that we kind of lull ourselves into thinking that everything’s okay, we’ve had an African American Mayor, we’ve had an Asian American Governor, y’know, everything’s cool.  But it’s not.

A graduate of Seattle University School of Law and proud Mexican-American from Eastern Washington, Fe Lopez was appointed in January 2014 as the Executive Director of the Seattle Community Police Commission, the first such organization to exist in a major city in the U.S.

Fé Lopez, Executive Director, Seattle Community Police Commission: When I moved to Seattle, I actually moved to Seattle to go to Law School, and I was very struck – I had never been in an area where there was such diversity, particularly of immigrant and refugee communities.

Pete Holmes, Seattle City Attorney: Seattle has some really interesting characteristics demographically.  I’m proud to be in the most racially diverse zip code in the entire country.  But at the same
time, Seattle is the fifth whitest city
in the country.

Rapper Geo of legendary hip hop group Blue Scholars and outspoken writer/performer Hollis Wong-Wear are concerned economic changes are pushing vital pockets of Seattle’s diverse culture out of the city.

Geo, Rapper: There are people of different backgrounds.  The thing is, a lot of those people of different backgrounds, people of color, working class, immigrants tend to be living in the same neighborhoods, in bubbles.

LaShawnDa Pittman: The Central District didn’t just sort of plop out of the sky.  It was created because there were no other places for African Americans and other people of color to live.  The Central District is now being heavily gentrified.

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett has been a part of Seattle’s civil rights movements since the early 1960s.  He has had to come to terms with criticism from a new generation of activists who question whether he has become part of the government establishment.

Larry Gossett, Jr., King County Councilmember: We have 166,000 black people in King County, and only about 65,000 live in Seattle.  Most working class people cannot afford to live in Seattle, Washington anymore.

Jesse Hagopian: Our state is underfunding public education, not by my own calculation but by the State Supreme Court’s ruling.

Senator Steve Litzow, R - 41st District/East King County: Right now, we have a graduation rate across the state of 77%, so essentially we’re failing one out of every four children.  If you look at that closely, it’s one out of every three African Americans, one out of every three Hispanic, and one out of every two Native American.

Jesse Hagopian: When you underfund education, you set up our students, especially our low income students and disproportionately our students of color to not graduate and to be funneled into the prison system.  And those are the types of contradictions that produced massive upheaval in the past, that produced the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the gay liberation movement.

Duwamish Tribal Chair and Great great grand-niece of Chief Seattle, Cecile Hansen sees the recent unrest in Seattle as part of a long history of racial inequity in the Seattle area.

Cecile Hansen, Chairwoman, Duwamish Tribe, Direct Descendant of Chief Seattle: It makes me think of our people a long time ago, which they drove our people away from Seattle.  They killed them or pushed them out, and the battle still goes on.

Sharon Maeda: For those of us that have been involved so long, it’s like déjà vu, and how many more decades are we going to have to work to make change?

Protesters: If we don’t get no justice then they don’t get no peace! If we don’t get no justice then they don’t get no peace!

Fé Lopez: Right now as you know, as everyone knows, there is not trust, and part of our charge is to figure out how do we create that trust?

Senator Steve Litzow: Law Enforcement has a very tough job, particularly in King County.  They have a huge territory to cover and very few men.  And so trying to figure out how to make that work they are under huge pressure.

Protesters: We have nothing to lose but our chains!

Fé Lopez: We need those protests, we need those demonstrations.  That’s part of what makes change happen.

On January 12, 2015, protesters crowd a Seattle City Council hearing on police responses to December protests following the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.

Pete Holmes: Sometimes you have to push people to have uncomfortable conversations.

LaShawnDa Pittman: Racism and racist violence aren’t only issues for people of color to address.

Cecile Hansen: I think that sometimes it doesn’t take one person, it takes everybody.

Hollis Wong-Wear: What’s really important is for that new generation to emerge, and for young black perspectives, voices, leadership to be at the center of that change.

Fé Lopez: There are no quick fixes.  This in’t something that’s going to happen overnight, a month, a year.  This is going to take years.  But what we need is we need the first steps.



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Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan

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