Last year, the day after Thanksgiving in downtown Seattle was either a powerful moment for the Black Lives Matter movement or a disruptive shitshow, depending on your vantage point. Whichever way you saw it, be advised: It's happening again, and demonstrators say their Black Friday protest is going to be even bigger this time around.
What happened last year, in case you've forgotten, was this: In an attempt to turn the annual "Black Friday" shopping stampede into "Black Lives Matter Friday," hundreds of demonstrators converged on downtown Seattle. They wanted the day to be focused on halting police violence rather than on promoting consumerism. To that end, they blocked intersections, tried to enter the downtown transit tunnel (they were turned back by police and a closing metal gate), and marched through downtown malls bearing signs that read "People Over Profit" and "Hands Up, Don't $hop." That last sign—"Hands Up, Don't $hop"—was a variation on the familiar protest chant "Hands up, don't shoot," which traces to the August 2014 killing of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Just days before last year's "Black Lives Matter Friday" protests in Seattle, a grand jury in St. Louis declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson in Brown's killing.
Emotions among the protesters were raw. Meanwhile, as evening came, shoppers and revelers descended on the area around Westlake Park for the annual tree-lighting ceremony. By then, the protesters had been pushed up toward Capitol Hill, and police tried to stop them from coming back downtown for the tree-lighting ceremony by closing off intersections and using pepper spray and blast balls that emitted tear gas. Neil Fox, an attorney who has represented protesters, said one officer at last year's protest told him shoppers were allowed to cross police lines but protesters were not. But, as Black Lives Matter Seattle's Marissa Johnson—who would go on to gain national notoriety for interrupting presidential candidate Bernie Sanders's speech in Seattle this summer—recounted at a recent forum: "People acted like frickin' ninjas... Hundreds of people figured out how to get past the barricades separately."
As the protesters crowded into Westlake and lined the mall balcony overlooking the holiday revelers, Joyce Taylor, the tree-lighting ceremony MC, yelled at them to get away from a children's choir, which had been scheduled to perform. "We're going to shut this tree lighting down until you give us space," Johnson remembers thinking.
Police formed a ring around the lit Westlake tree, made five arrests, and spent $86,096 that day attempting to corral the demonstrators. The tree-lighting ceremony was cut short, and Westlake Center closed four hours early. "You guys have screwed up the whole Christmas thing," one man told KING 5. "Thanks a lot."
Local Black Lives Matter activists say they expect even greater numbers of people to protest police violence this year. On Facebook, more than 4,000 people say they're attending a November 27 protest scheduled to go from 1 to 10 p.m. at Westlake Park. Across the country, activists from New York, Florida, Wisconsin, and California have put out calls to boycott Black Friday.
In explaining the connection between the busiest shopping day of the year and their cause, the protesters I spoke with drew on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who in his last 1968 speech before his assassination, called on supporters to both "strengthen black institutions" and "redistribute the pain" by boycotting major companies, including Coca-Cola.
"I think we've seen that historically, the only way to get society as a whole to acknowledge that we need to change something, or change unjust systems, is to disrupt commerce and make economic hardship for those in power," said Nikkita Oliver, an activist and law-school graduate who has been involved in Black Lives Matter protests over the past year. "Money talks... Do I think disruption of Black Friday will get black and brown and poor people everything they need? No. But I do think that nationally it will keep [Black Lives Matter] in the eyes of those in power... It's just one strategy in a huge array of ways that people can be challenging police brutality and the other ways that black lives are devalued in the system."
Oliver said people should think about the "diversity of tactics that propelled the civil rights movement forward." She pointed out that "it was multiple strategies of change that all happened simultaneously," including boycotts of white stores.
"Black lives matter more than Black Friday cheap deals," said Mohawk Kuzma, a 25-year-old organizer who has been relentlessly promoting the Black Friday protest on social media. "Think about the Montgomery bus boycott," he said. "This country is run on monetary gain, and if we affect that, then we can effect real change."
Johnson urged people to "turn up" on Black Friday, because people across the country look to liberal Seattle as a supposed model of the future. Her specific call to action for this year is blunt: "Shut down stores. Ruin a Christmas tree lighting. Because if our kids don't get Christmas, nobody does."
Oliver and Kuzma said they experienced some of the policing of last year's protests as violence, particularly the SPD's liberal use of pepper spray on demonstrators. And they said racial injustice in Seattle runs the gamut, from gentrification displacing black people to suspension rates of black students in schools that far exceed whites, to the building of a new voter-approved juvenile detention center in the Central District to replace a dilapidated detention center where black youth are disproportionately incarcerated over their white counterparts.
I asked Kuzma how he expects the protests to unfold over the evening, but he said he couldn't explain in detail because "Seattle police are going to try to stop us." The Seattle Police Department, for its part, said in a statement that it "supports the rights of demonstrators, the community, and families enjoying holiday events. We will be providing public safety services to ensure that all can exercise their rights to assembly and free speech."
The $86,096 the Seattle Police Department spent responding to Black Friday protests last year was just one part of a larger—and very costly—response to a series of protests that spanned several months. Over just a one-month span from November to December last year, the SPD deployed hundreds of officers and spent more than $1.6 million in its response to the Black Lives Matter protests.
But no one seemed to be satisfied with how the SPD handled the demonstrations—particularly last year's Black Friday disruption. In a letter to city officials, the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) complained that police didn't shut down unpermitted marches, which, they said, had scared shoppers away, forced stores to close early, prevented the children's choir from performing, and resulted in an "unfortunate hit to our reputation."
The Public Defender Association, the group of lawyers representing indigent defendants, shot back with its own statement and accused the DSA of not understanding how free speech in public places works. "Many now feel that that issue [of racially biased police violence] must intrude into 'business as usual,'" the group said, "to ensure that a critical mass of Americans understands that change in policing practices is urgently needed."
Those talking points are being repeated again this year. In an interview, the DSA's James Sido called last year's Black Friday demonstrations "unfortunate," but said police have been planning ahead for this year's protests. An employee at the Pacific Place Michael Kors store told me the mall's private security guards have been preparing a "strategy" for Black Friday, including potentially using "rolling lockouts" to prevent protesters from getting inside.
On November 23, the Seattle King County NAACP joined the Public Defender Association in calling on the SPD to "refrain from violent attacks against Black Lives Matters protesters during the upcoming Black Friday demonstrations." Patricia Sully, a staff attorney with the association, said she hopes to see officers in regular uniform, rather than in riot gear or using pepper spray. "It is important to recognize that this is not a scenario in which there is a weighing of rights: the right to shop uninterrupted and the right to speech. Only one of those is, in fact, a right," she said.
In response to the criticisms of its past tactics, the police department said it has "partnered with a group of independent experts, including the Center for Policing Equity, to review and assist in enhancing our practices in crowd management. We anticipate a report by the end of the year." The city's Community Police Commission requested such a review back in May, citing the need to "diminish tension between the police and demonstrators and their supporters."
On a clear, sunny morning one week ahead of Black Friday, workers were stringing red and white lights around Westlake Park and constructing the scaffolding for the holiday tree in front of the mall. Most of the store managers and employees I spoke to said the protests last year had been "annoying" or "scary."
But Cody Jackson, a salesperson at the makeup store Sephora, who will be working on Black Friday, said if he could, he'd be out protesting too. "As soon as you disrupt that routine [of shopping]," he said, "it forces them to look at what's going on and say, 'Why did that get disrupted?'"