Festival-goers celebrating Umoja Fest raised concerns when a group of Seattle police officers rode their bikes directly behind a group of families impacted by police violence.
Festival-goers celebrating Umoja Fest raised concerns when a group of Seattle police officers rode their bikes directly behind a group of families impacted by police violence. Courtesy of Sheley Secrest

On August 5, community members gathered in the heart of the Central District to celebrate the Umoja Fest African Heritage Festival and Parade. Aside from marching bands and dance groups, family members of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, Charleena Lyles, and Che Taylor, all of who were fatally shot by police, called for police accountability and justice as they walked down 23rd Avenue. Parade onlookers echoed their calls as they walked by, but fell into "dead silence" when they saw about 10 Seattle Police officers biking directly behind the three families, said Sheley Secrest, vice president of the King County NAACP.

"People stopped cheering immediately," she said. "The officers made a clear message that [said], ‘You can speak out, but we’re going to watch you.'"

Secrest called the police presence "hurtful" and said she heard one woman in the crowd on a megaphone ask, "Can you believe this is happening?" Seeing SPD officers directly behind families affected by police violence "gave many in the crowd the impression that attending black led protests would be met with law enforcement intimidation tactics," she said.

Seattle Police Detective Patrick Michaud noted that it's standard for police officers to be present along the parade path at any event. That SPD officers were biking behind the Lyles, Joseph-McDade, and Taylor families "happens to be a coincidence," he said.

Although it's standard for police to be at large public events to direct traffic, close streets, and provide general security Seattle police officers never notified parade organizers that they would be part of the parade itself, said Sheila Callandret, parade coordinator for Umoja Fest. Instead, as the parade marched down the street, SPD officers "bullied their way into the parade," she said.

"It was totally disrespectful," said Callandret, who has been coordinating the parade for 15 years. "You can’t just go behind the family or behind anybody that is already signed up for the parade... It was not acceptable at all."

City officials also told parade organizers that they needed to shorten the parade route because there weren't enough SPD officers available, Callandret said.

"That made me think, ‘How did you get these police [in the parade] if you were short-staffed?’" she said.

Secrest said she filed a complaint against SPD to the city's Office of Professional Accountability. When asked about the complaint, Michaud said he is "unable to comment about OPA complaints while they’re in the process."

OPA representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Callandret said the families kept marching without incident, but later received questions from onlookers who were confused and frustrated about police presence. After the parade, Callandret spoke with with Lyles', Joseph-McDade's, and Taylor's family members and apologized for what happened. Having SPD officers following directly behind them "could not be a good feeling for family who are going through things," she said.

Andre Taylor, whose brother Che was fatally shot by SPD in February 2016, said at least 10 people approached him at a booth after the parade to express their concerns about the officers marching behind him.

"I think it was odd and a little uncomfortable" for the families and people in the crowd because "we didn’t know nothing about it," he said.

Taylor said he recognized that police security at public events is standard procedure, but having officers in the parade itself "was a little troubling for people." Representatives for Joseph-McDade's and Lyles' family did not respond to requests for comment.

Secrest raised concerns that protest and demonstration participants would be "targeted by SPD" at future events.

"If this was a group of white women with pink hats, there wouldn’t have been police," she said, referring to the Women's March earlier this year. "As soon as it’s Black Lives Matter, the police are nearby."