While the marches are always emotional, and filled with rants and diatribes against white cops shooting black men, the October 14 march took a strange turn: Protesters started shouting racially charged slurs at black officers.
Protesters started out the evening denouncing King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng's decision not to charge King County Deputy Mel Miller in the April 7 death of Robert Thomas Sr. But by the end of the evening, in front of the Seattle Police Department's West Precinct--where the crowd waited for one of its leaders to be released after he was arrested at the beginning of the march--a few protesters started shouting racial epithets at black police officers, like "Oreo" and "house nigger."
One particularly loud man kept shouting "Ku Klux Klan" at black and white officers. Some officers seemed to ignore the comments, while one black officer cupped his hand around his face, and sidled away from a protester's shouts.
The Seattle Times reported that protesters were respectful of the police with the exception of one man, a 46-year-old named Michael Fuller. While Fuller was the loudest at the West Precinct, he was not the only one yelling at cops.
In response, one man leading the protest, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) member Alfoster Garrett Jr., did his best to calm the crowd at the West Precinct, asking protesters to sit down and wait for information about the earlier arrest. But later, while protesters were marching to the King County Jail, police say the epithets got more frequent, and worse.
Police Captain Michael Sanford, who oversees protests in the downtown area as the head of the West Precinct, says incidents where individuals single out black officers and shout offensive slogans are not uncommon. But the October 14 protest's widespread use of slurs shocked him.
"It bothered me a lot, and I don't find very many things offensive," says Sanford, who is white. "The officers shouldn't have to tolerate that."
The day after the march, the Seattle Indymedia website was buzzing with observations of the racial slurs.
"For a group protesting racial profiling, [the slurs] really showed how hypocritical they are," one observer wrote. At least one cop chimed in during the online discussion, calling the comments "degradation."
"If the black officers had returned what they were getting, they'd be on the street looking for new jobs," the officer wrote.
Now Sanford wants to sit down and talk to the leaders of the October 14 march, but he's having a hard time pinpointing the organizers. No one applied for a permit, and the group that advertised the event most heavily and seemed to pull the rally together--the local chapter of the NAACP--is distancing itself from the march.
The NAACP's involvement in other actions surrounding Thomas' death has helped amplify the emotional protests over police shootings. The group has organized other dramatic marches, including a rally that blocked I-5, another march to Seahawks Stadium, daily protests in front of the King County Courthouse, and angry rallies in the Central Area immediately after the inquest. But the NAACP is pretending it had little to do with the heated October march, perhaps because racial tensions took a twist and the evening was more confrontational than usual.
But it's clear the group was heavily involved. Immediately after Maleng announced his decision, the NAACP website posted two fliers advertising the rally. "There will be a Rally to RESPOND to this decision," one flier said. The flier said the march was not sanctioned by the NAACP, but explained that local NAACP vice president Carl Mack would be there. The NAACP presence was strong at the rally, which Mack pointed out when he started leading the march. When Mack was soon arrested, a second NAACP leader took the reins and led the crowd around downtown to several locations ["Encore," Amy Jenniges, Oct 17].
But Oscar Eason Jr., president of the local chapter of the NAACP, says his group had little to do with the march. He says the group's executive committee met a few days before the march, and discussed whether or not to sponsor it, but decided not to officially endorse the march because there were no permits. "The NAACP does not march or rally unless there is insurance and permits," he says. "That's a prescribed NAACP policy." (The NAACP apparently broke that policy during the April 16 march that blocked traffic on I-5. The group was one of many that pulled the march together but did not apply for a permit to march downtown. Police, however, "gave" the march a permit without the organizers' consent.)
Now the march is over, and police, protest participants, and other local activists are wondering aloud what happened to cause such strong racial slurs to erupt from an otherwise civil crowd. The NAACP's voice, however, is strangely absent from the conversation.
"I certainly think the NAACP has some obligation to say that that's not okay," Sanford says about the epithets. "I don't want it to be something that grows. I want to put a stop to it."
So far, the NAACP isn't talking. Eason says he was not at the march, and can't comment on the racially charged comments. But he says the NAACP, whether it led the march or not, is open to talking with police officials. "We'll talk with anybody," Eason says. "But that hasn't happened yet, so I can't comment."