You know the saying, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time?” 

Jaahnavi Kandula should be alive. Charleena Lyles should be alive. John T. Williams should be alive. The Seattle Police Department has been telling us who they are for a very long time. Why won’t we believe them?

Since the body camera recording of Seattle police union Vice President Daniel Auderer laughing about Jaahnavi Kandula’s death went public, the nation has expressed its outrage with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and with the officers involved in the situation. 

As South Asians living in Seattle, we share that outrage. We see ourselves in Jaahnavi, and our hearts are with her family and friends. This moment calls for an indictment not just of SPD, but of the larger system of policing and the culture that allowed such disregard for Jaahnavi’s life. A culture that bolstered Auderer’s comfort in making the comments he did, and the policies that embolden police to wield power with impunity. Furthermore, we must steel ourselves against the fake “solutions” that local leaders will no doubt offer in the coming weeks. Don’t let them harness our outrage to promote failed approaches to securing safety for all. 

In the days following the release of Officer Auderer’s tape, South Asian public figures, influencers, and global organizations rightly condemned his cruel remarks. We feel this solidarity, but we cannot limit our outrage to this instance of police violence, in which this victim happened to be South Asian like us. Nor can we limit our outrage to the officers involved in Jaahnavi’s death. 

This is the same police department that kept a fake tombstone of a man one of them killed in their locker room. This is the same police department that produced the officers who killed a pregnant Charleena Lyles in front of her children while she was having a mental health crisis. This is the same police department that just marked its 11th year of federal oversight for excessive use of force after one of its officers killed Indigenous woodworker John T. Williams. Though a judge recently lifted much of that oversight, SPD’s racially disparate enforcement continues on today. This department cannot be reformed, but that won’t stop politicians from promoting that response. 

Often after police cause harm, governments will rush to deliver a menu of reforms that seek to quell the rage of impacted communities. We’ll see pushes for more guidance and training for officers, funds to expand the police accountability system, increased cultural competency training, expanded powers for prosecutors, or hiring and recruitment drives meant to put a friendly face behind a deadly uniform. Many members of our community will sign onto these ideas thinking it might finally end racist policing. 

But we have to resist going down that path. As South Asians, we know that people see us and Asians more broadly as a “model minority.” This concept only serves as a wedge to ensure we distance ourselves from Black Americans and draw borders between ourselves that systems such as policing aim to exploit. The four of us want to stress that collective liberation and solidarity is our only way to create communities that truly keep all of us safe.

To practice that solidarity we must not allow media outlets or politicians to co-opt our tragedy and push policies that expand policing in ways that hurt everyone. Very quickly, they will combine our outrage with a narrative about “one bad apple,” and then insist that the overall system is still designed to “protect and serve.” 

But Auderer’s disgraceful cackling is not about one “bad apple.” It isn’t even about one bad police department. Just outside of Seattle, a King County Sheriff’s Deputy shot and killed unarmed, 20-year-old Tommy Le. The deputy thought Le had a knife, but he only held a pen. South of Seattle in Tacoma, cops hog-tied 33-year old Manuel Ellis and then placed a spit hood over his head. After Ellis told officers he couldn’t breathe, he fell unconscious and died. The list of victims of police violence is long, and the culture it produces creates these indignities and deaths. 

Officer Auderer revealed part of that insidious culture when he joked about the City simply “cutting a check” to Jaahnavi’s family. Without any civil liability for the officers themselves, cops know that the City will simply cut a check if impacted families sue. In 2021, Seattle spent nearly $8 million on police actions, and the 2023 budget holds nearly $9 million for police actions. On top of those penalties, the City of Seattle has spent millions of dollars on the reforms mentioned above partly to comply with federal oversight–and yet here we are. 

People often argue that abolitionists or left organizers “don’t care about public safety” or that we “don’t care about victims and survivors.” But this could not be further from the truth. We do this work and believe in these values because we have a deep-seated love for our communities and we want to see them safe and healthy. 

The truth is, our communities have been creating safety with each other outside of policing for a very long time. Getting people housed, helping people into well-paying jobs, increasing access to child care, delivering healthy food and good schools–these are all ways that communities create safety. The “safest” communities are never the ones with the most police, they are the ones with the most resources.  

It is with this fight in our hearts that we denounce harmful policies like the new law the Seattle City Council passed Tuesday to re-criminalize drug possession and ban public drug use. The law expands the power of our Republican City Attorney Anne Davison to prosecute public use and possession of drugs, a power she previously did not have.

The expanded powers given to the City Attorney will create increased incentive for SPD to arrest unhoused community members who often have to use outside. It is no coincidence that those suffering from addiction and homelessness are disproportionately Black and Indigenous. It is no coincidence that this bill targets “public use” of drugs rather than promoting harm reduction. It is not lost on us that the officer who killed Jaahnavi was rushing to answer a call related to drug use. How can we trust that officers like Daniel Auderer, who believe community members' lives have “limited value," will actually follow any guidelines in this bill to divert people to services before arrest? The legislation also provides no additional funding for diversion or treatment. Taking a punitive approach rather than a public health approach to drug use only increases the likelihood of Jaahnavi’s tragedy happening again, all while simultaneously ushering Seattle back to Nixon’s War on Drugs era. 

We call on our South Asian community members to channel their anger and outrage at Jaahnavi’s killing to fight for other communities just as hard. Will you maintain your outrage after the press around Jaahnavi’s killing has quieted down and the media moves on to something else? Will you still show up when there aren’t people in the streets, or when the victim of police violence isn’t a part of the South Asian community? Practicing collective liberation means pushing back against harmful policies like the drug bill and instead pushing for life-giving resources that make our communities whole. 

We ask our community: Don’t let Seattle sacrifice the pursuit of real safety for our most vulnerable neighbors for false feelings of safety from a system that thinks a young brown woman’s life is only worth a few thousand dollars.

Aretha Basu is a local organizer with Seattle South Asians for Black Lives, Solidarity Budget, and Shutdown King County Jail. She also serves as the political director at Puget Sound Sage and as a member of the podcast Activist Class.

Shomya Tripathy works to advance policies and programs that serve Asian communities across Washington state and is also an organizer with Seattle South Asians for Black Lives. 

Uma Rao is a lifelong learner, community activist, and nonprofit consultant who strives to approach everything with an intersectional feminist lens.

Chandan Reddy teaches at the University of Washington and organizes with groups supporting Migrant workers, incarcerated immigrants, and queers of color.