Sitting closest to the exit is James Kelly, the 44-year-old head of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. As black activists go, Kelly is a moderate, preferring to work with the movers and shakers over breakfast. He is a media darling because he's readily accessible, and because he represents a historic institution that journalists respect.
Farther away, near the windows, sits Dustin Washington, 28, informally dressed and occasionally slouching. Washington only recently burst onto the black activist scene in the aftermath of the World Trade Organization protests. As the spokesperson for the newly formed, multiracial People's Coalition for Justice, Washington's message--that most people don't understand how much rage actually exists in the black community over police abuse--is shaking up black leadership.
The May 19 meeting, in a conference room on 23rd and Jackson in the Central District, has been labeled a "unity meeting," and activists from more than a dozen groups gather to try to figure out how to keep everyone organized and energized in the wake of the April 12 police shooting of a black man, David Walker. Minority communities want greater police accountability now, so how can they get it? But the meeting is important for another reason. Washington and Kelly are enmeshed in a growing rift in the African American community. Washington's new, youthful organization is chafing against organizations like Kelly's and other traditional bases of power among the local black leadership.
The rift is about protest tactics, with the spotlight hitting Washington's boisterous colleague, Rev. Robert Jeffrey, the 52-year-old pastor of New Hope Baptist Church. A few weeks ago, with 100 others from the People's Coalition for Justice, he tried to march on the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct in Capitol Hill. He was met by police in riot gear. Jeffrey, wielding a megaphone, was pushed and shoved by a couple of those police officers. Then on May 8, Jeffrey, along with roughly 150 people, occupied Mayor Schell's office. The minister was particularly vocal there, roundly giving city council politicians a tongue-lashing for being unresponsive to the community.
This brash approach that the People's Coalition endorses has been turning some people off, including the Urban League's Kelly. In the past couple of weeks, Kelly has been choosing his words carefully to disassociate himself from Jeffrey. Kelly was quick to point out that his own organization had nothing to do with Jeffrey's protest march. And Kelly was annoyed that the media focused on Jeffrey's raucous behavior during the protest occupation of Schell's conference room.
Mostly, though, the tension has been taking place behind the scenes. Jeffrey, however, pushed it to the forefront last week by publicly lashing out--big time. In some unsolicited comments, Jeffrey accused the local black leadership of forming a cabal that's hindering progress, not advancing it.
"[Mayor] Schell picks out certain people that he can talk to [in the black community]," the minister said early last week. "And even though these people are not elected by the community, they are deemed to be the people who will speak for the interests of the community. And that may or may not be true." Jeffrey calls the group Schell's "kitchen cabinet of black leaders." Apparently, these leaders include Kelly, Oscar Eason of the NAACP, Rev. Leslie Braxton of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and Rev. John Hunter of First AME Church.
"[For Schell] to secretly meet with them is plantational and racist," Jeffrey continues.
Before the May 19 unity meeting, Washington laughed about Jeffrey's hard-line stance. "That's my boy!" he said. Washington agrees with the minister, even if his tone is softer. "I'm [critical of] a type of organizing where all the decisions are made by three or four people. There's no accountability in the decisions they make."
Criticism like this has a way of creating a lot of waves in a fish bowl like Seattle's black community. In a mid-sized, relatively homogenous city where blacks have little political power, African Americans are circumspect about criticizing each other. They never know when they're going to run into someone they've slammed. Moreover, they don't want the white community to see internal tension when there should be a shared vision. The candor we're hearing these days highlights just how tense things have gotten.
Rev. Hunter, for example, took Jeffrey's words head on. He wondered if the minister considered himself to be "the Al Sharpton of Seattle." Hunter said Jeffrey made people uncomfortable when, during the occupation of the mayor's conference room, he started throwing "the 'N' word around." (Jeffrey told officials that the people won't tolerate double standards, a "nigger policy and a white folk's policy.") Jeffrey's harsh rhetoric may make for good media play, but it isn't very fair, Hunter says.
And Hunter--like Kelly and Braxton--believes that it's important to negotiate with the power brokers. "Obviously, using bullhorns and rallying is an effective tactic up to a certain point," he says. "But at some point in time, you sit down at the council table. You sit down and engage in meaningful and intelligent dialogue, not just rhetoric."
Unlike Hunter, the NAACP's Eason would not return phone calls. Braxton was simply dismissive, saying Jeffrey was "talking in code."
Meanwhile, Kelly declined to talk about Jeffrey's rhetoric, saying only that he respected him. Instead, Kelly focused on exactly what the black leadership has been doing in the fight for greater police accountability. The Urban League and the NAACP, he notes, started a coalition to push for police accountability last year. That coalition has only been expanding, not contracting, Kelly says. He adds that Jeffrey was invited to join the decision-making process, but that he declined to show. As for any "private meetings" with Schell, Kelly says that only happened once, before the public hearing, and it was simply intended to set the ground rules for how the meeting would take place.
In the wake of this verbal exchange, the stage was set for a another, direct exchange of words at Washington's "unity meeting." But Rev. Jeffrey was out of town, Braxton and Eason were no-shows, and Hunter arrived late. That left Kelly and Washington to try to work things out.
How did the meeting turn out? It was anti-climactic. When everyone was asked to introduce themselves, Kelly diplomatically said he was "a member of the fan club of Dustin Washington." Later, Ron Chism, a motivational speaker from New Orleans, talked in generic terms about how internal conflicts only destroy movements.
Chism eventually turned to Washington and asked the young activist if there was anything he wanted to tell the leaders who are negotiating with the downtown powers. Washington paused. "Just share more information and have clearer lines of communication," he urged. Kelly didn't say anything. He wasn't asked to respond.