Demonstrators walk during a Black Lives Matter of Seattle-King County silent march last Friday.
Demonstrators walk during a Black Lives Matter of Seattle-King County silent march last Friday. Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Image

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Tony McDade. Nina Pop. Sandra Bland. Dreajson Reed. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin.

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These names and countless more have been heard in major cities and small towns across the country and beyond, as America rounds its third week of protests demanding justice for the Black lives snuffed out by violent policing. In the midst of a historic uprising, millions of people are taking to the streets, flooding social media and calling for action from local officials.

We’re not just calling for a radical intervention in a system that has brutalized Black and brown communities for generations—we’re calling for massive investments in over-policed and underserved communities.

And we’re not just calling for all King County and city council elected officials to “stand with us." We can't praise cops for "taking a knee" while their colleagues kill us. Nor can we accept vague promises and empty sympathies. We're way past this.

We’re calling for you to make public commitments to defunding the police. To really serve and to protect the community, we need to expand current investment in community-led health and safety strategies to fight this pandemic that disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and People of Color instead.

We’re also calling for city and county officials to vote and or propose substantial cuts from all King County police departments as our cities and our County responds to projected COVID-19 budget shortfalls. We’re calling on you to pressure departments in King County, including the King County Sheriff’s Office, and all law enforcement agencies to immediately cease enacting violence on community members, including those who are protesting.

Defund the inefficient and deadly police infrastructure, and invest in a shared vision of community safety and investment in our community that actually works. This must be our north star.

But instead of taking any meaningful action, South King County policymakers are continuing to put Black and brown residents in danger. In an epic mishandling of this moment, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph is demanding voters up their policing budget—likely by millions. The Mayors of Auburn, Federal Way, Kent, and Renton, along with King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan sought to sue to stop public review of police killings.

This is unacceptable. Our elected policymakers must take urgent action now to defund the police, divest from excessive, brutal, and discriminatory policing and invest in a vision of community safety that works for everyone, not just an elite few.

In King County and beyond, we’ve seen what prioritizing violent policing brings us. In the past two weeks alone, it’s brought us a militarized response to a collective uprising, with tear gas, rubber bullets and riot gear. In the past three years, it’s brought us the cold-blooded murders of Black and brown bodies—including Burien highschool student Tommy Le, Des Moines teenager Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, and Charleena Lyles—at the hands of police.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Prioritizing punishment over safety has brought us generations of over-policing and over-surveillance of Black and brown neighborhoods. The criminalization of poverty. Systemic denial of funding for basic needs—affordable housing, quality public education, fair and dignified work and a livable environment with clean air and water.

It’s way past due for our government to invest in communities of color. For every dollar policymakers spend on policing, mere pennies are invested into healthcare, affordable housing, sustaining immigrant-owned small businesses, education, and the critical public services working people need to thrive. SeaTac alone spends more than $11 million on police, and less than $600,000 on the funds for community services proven to reduce violence and keep communities safe.

Imagine what that kind of money could do to keep our communities safe if it was reinvested. Imagine how schools would look if there were enough teachers, counselors, and social workers. What would it look like if we had adequate affordable housing, equitable economic development, access to healthcare for all, and adequate public transit. Imagine a community where Black and brown people are free from police violence, free to gather without threats and interrogation.

The stonewalling of community members’ voices is not new for South King County residents—and especially not for those of us living in SeaTac and the surrounding cities of Tukwila, Renton and other small nearby cities. Every day, Black and brown neighborhoods experience the harmful effects of our elected leaders’ refusal to prioritize our health and safety.

We experienced it when SeaTac council members sold off a city property to a developer and forced the early and retaliatory eviction and displacement of over 50 immigrant-owned businesses in SeaTac Center. We experienced it when Tukwila immigrant-owned businesses were displaced by the construction of a so-called “Justice Center” which includes a police station, police offices and courthouse. We experienced it when SeaTac council members spent $500,000 to redline our predominantly East African Immigrant multi-family housing area, making it illegal for our families to park on public streets. We’re experiencing it now, as SeaTac Mayor Erin Sitterley, along with Councilmembers Peter Kwon, Clyde Hill, and Pam Fernald blocked new community voices from filling the City Council vacancy.

For decades, policymakers nationwide have refused to prioritize the urgent needs of Black and working people, and this is the consequence. Now, after an incredibly powerful wave of Black-led protests, actions and demonstrations surged across the country, city and state officials have taken steps toward meaningful action. Minneapolis is planning to disband their police department. In Los Angeles, policymakers announced plans to cut $100 to $150 million from the LAPD’s budget, and reinvest that, plus $100 million more, in Black communities. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to propose a July budget that includes cuts to the $6 billion police budget, paired with more investment in youth and social services.

We have all the evidence we need that divesting in policing and investing in community initiatives like violence interruption programs is the way forward. But we don’t have to look across the country to imagine a world where everyone is free to survive and thrive—we need look no further than neighborhoods where the wealthy, well-connected and well off live. Neighborhoods where there is access to living wages, health care, quality public education and family-sustaining jobs are often free from police terror, and remain the safest and healthiest communities in our state.

We can have a South King County where every neighborhood has good quality affordable housing, quality education and livable wages, where rates of overdose and addiction go down instead of up, and where people feel safe in their neighborhoods. We can have a future where all communities are safe, healthy and free, and build a strategy that moves us closer to that future each day, month and year.

We can do all this and more by defunding the police, and investing in community-led safety infrastructure instead of racist policing.

And if our elected officials don’t have the political will to make it happen, we’ll mobilize our grassroots, multiracial coalition of South King County voters to elect ones that do.

Clifford 'Cliff' Cawthon is a leader of the MLK County Working Families Party, a grassroots political organization that believes our political leaders should answer to Washington’s working families, not wealthy donors and political insiders. Cliff is an educator, community activist and freelance journalist and writer, and an advocate for racial, economic, and housing justice.

Rahel Ambachew is a youth organizer and a community activist with the MLK WFP living in SeaTac. She works to empower her predominantly African Immigrant community and youth to demand real change from their elected officials.