In a recent story, Ansel Herz reported that a coalition of African American, Native American, and Latino families who have lost loved ones to police violence filed an initiative with the state to change the law and make it easier to prosecute police for use of deadly force in Washington. The institutional refusal to bring indictments in controversial, often racially involved cases of civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement has been a consistent local narrative for decades. However, a historic reversal of this tradition occurred nearly 80 years ago. In 1938, Seattle one black life did matter, at least for a few months.
On March 26, 1938, Berry Lawson, a 27-year-old African American waiter staying at the Mt. Fuji Hotel located on Yesler Way downtown, was reportedly asleep in a chair in the hotel lobby. He was spotted by three Seattle Police Department officers, who approached Lawson to arrest him for loitering. An altercation ensued and 90 minutes later Lawson was pronounced dead at City Emergency Hospital with a fractured skull. According to the Seattle Times, the three officers, Patrolmen F.H. Paschal, W.F. Stevenson, and P.L. Whalen, “declared Lawson apparently was under the influence of a stimulant and broke away from them and plunged headlong down a flight of stairs.”
Almost immediately local African American leaders began asking questions. Although an autopsy performed by King County Coroner Otto Mittlestadt found “several internal head injuries, a broken nose, and several bruises” and no evidence that Lawson was intoxicated, the coroner cleared the three officers of any wrongdoing. Days later a delegation led by Rev. Fred Hughes, pastor at First AME Church, Rev. T.M. Davis, pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church and newspaper publisher John O. Lewis met with Police Chief William Sears. In addition, Seattle Urban League executive secretary Joseph Sylvester Jackson organized a committee of community representatives to hold “protest meetings” with Mayor-elect Arthur Langlie. Soon after, the city announced it would conduct an official investigation into Lawson’s death.
On April 8 Paschal, Stevenson and Whalen were charged with second-degree murder in the death of Berry Lawson. They surrendered at the prosecuting attorney’s office and were held in lieu of $5,000 bail. Chief Sears suspended all three without pay, and then fired them one month later. Meanwhile Paschal, Stevenson and Whalen made claims in the newspaper suggesting that the real reason behind their prosecution was connected to something else. Stevenson stated, “I know the white slave interests are out to get us for our many arrests in recent ‘skidroad’ white slavery investigations. They’ve made numerous threats, but I figured it would be in the nature of physical violence – a knife in the back – but nothing like this.”
Intrigue around the case rose with the emergence of a ‘mystery witness.’ Travis Downs was a white hairdresser who claimed he was paid $35 by Paschal, Stevenson and Whalen and put on a train to Portland the day Lawson died. Downs was to remain out of town while the case was being investigated, and even produced an envelope he received in Portland sent by the officers that contained an additional $50. However, Downs was persuaded to return to Seattle by Sylvester Jackson and ultimately testified he saw the three officers beat Lawson.
On June 10, a little over two months after the death of Berry Lawson, all three officers were convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years each in prison. Following the verdict, legal appeals and political maneuvering kept the decision in limbo. The three officers were temporarily released until their convictions were upheld in January 1939 by the Washington State Supreme Court which ruled, “The officers used more force than was necessary in taking Lawson into custody.” In spite of this, Washington Governor Clarence D. Martin pardoned Paschal and Stevenson later that spring and Whalen in December 1939. After receiving his freedom, Whalen took responsibility for Lawson’s death.
As Dr. Quintard Taylor pointed out in his 1995 book The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era, although the three officers did not serve much time in prison, “during an era when police often killed black citizens with scant public outcry, these men were stripped of their positions of authority by an angry and politically astute African American community.”
To be charged in Washington for killing someone today, a state law adopted in 1986 requires prosecutors to show that an officer acted “with malice and without a good faith belief.” This law is one of the most restrictive in the nation, which explains a Seattle Times report that out of 213 police involved killings state-wide over the last ten years, one officer was charged and there were no convictions.
As it did then, today the Berry Lawson case stands as an example of the duality that has consistently informed the legacy of racial Seattle. While it confirms the city’s long standing progressive tradition, it also highlights the subtext of institutional bias which continues today.
Dr. Daudi Abe is the author of the forthcoming book Emerald Street: A History of Hip-Hop in Seattle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org