‘They will never be forgotten’: Seattle King County NAACP event puts focus on police killings

Some of the names on the small white signs were probably familiar to anyone who watches the nightly news. Others may be fading from memory.

But every man, woman and child memorialized Saturday at a ceremony at Seattle’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park shared a common fate: people of color killed by police officers in Washington state and across the country.

“Their only crime was living and being Black and brown in America,” Carolyn Riley-Payne, president of the Seattle King County NAACP, which organized the gathering, told a noontime crowd of about 50. “We have to say their names, so that we don’t forget.”

The “They Will Never Be Forgotten” ceremony, which organizers hope to make an annual event, was billed as a remembrance of the many lives lost to police violence — but also a call to action for political and community change.

In speeches, sermons, and poetry, nearly a dozen leaders in Seattle-area communities of color recounted the history and politics of police violence against minorities — and how fear of that violence continues to permeate daily life for many people of color.

“I think about the pain some of us carry just for our children to leave for school not knowing if they’ll come back,” said state Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, a Black lawmaker whose 37th district includes parts of South King County. “If they’re wearing the wrong kind of clothes, if they’re walking the wrong way, if they’re on the wrong street — if they utter the wrong word, your baby may not come home.”

Those in attendance were encouraged to read the names of more than 50 people that had been placed on small signs around the park. Several of those individuals were local — among them Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant woman killed by Seattle police in 2017, and Manuel Ellis, killed by Tacoma police last year.

Many came from other states and other eras, some as far back as the 1960s, said Erica Conway, 2nd vice president at Seattle King County NAACP.

Several speakers talked of how their grief over the loss of loved ones to police violence had motivated efforts to reform the police system.

“As a family, we transformed that pain into direct action,” said DeVitta Briscoe, sister of Che Taylor, who was fatally shot by Seattle police in 2016, “We became Black frontline organizers.”

Briscoe and others outlined a cluster of new state laws, including laws that ban chokeholds and that require police to de-escalate situations with suspects.

But all speakers emphasized the many challenges that remain, despite those successes. “With every law that is passed — and we do appreciate them — the powers that be will try to find a way to circumvent it.” said James Bible, a civil rights attorney representing the Ellis family.

Indeed, a review by Washington state Attorney General’s Office found that just five of 18 recent investigations into police use of deadly force met all the requirements of an independent investigation called for after the passage of a new police accountability law.

Many who spoke Saturday were veteran activists.

Former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, whose activism began in the 1960s and included a stint with the Black Panthers, argued that the same systemic racism behind police killings also contributes to killings of Black citizens by other Black citizens.

“When we are militant, when we are organized, we can … reduce the Black on Black crime that exists amongst our disenfranchised, hopeless youth, if we have something positive that they can look at and want to be involved in,” Gossett said. “And can also hold the police more accountable when we’re organized against the killing,”

Nikkita Oliver, executive director of Creative Justice, and a former Seattle mayoral candidate who is running for City Council, read a poem dedicated to Lyles:

“We cry, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ My shirt; ‘Black Lives Matter.’ The sign in my neighbor’s yard: ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Even our mayor says, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ And still not much has changed since you were stolen.”

As the ceremony concluded, organizers released a dozen white doves, which rose swiftly and circled the park several times before heading south.

In the crowd was Renton resident Helen Garland, who is Black and has often worried about her own sons and grandsons.

She said the ceremony brought back “so many memories and it just kind of hurt my heart again all over again,” said Garland.

But, she added, hearing all the calls for action “also makes me excited and [gives me] something to look forward to, because I feel like a change is going to happen.”

Paul Roberts: proberts@seattletimes.com; on Twitter: @Pauledroberts.