As Seattle and the country grapple with police killings of black and brown citizens and an expanding police militarization, many of us wonder what can be done to halt this devastating trajectory. As the body counts of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children and loved ones continue to rise, we wonder what’s to be done. As video footage emerges regularly now of regular citizens doing seemingly regular things, yet killed in a regular course of business, we wonder what’s to be done. As the names Charleena Lyles, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice swirl through our minds like a scalding liquefaction of cognitive dissonance, we wonder what can be done. As we march, protest, vow to resist, write letters, write plays, write books, sign petitions, gather together, cry out in anger, cry out in grief, cry out in shame, and try to make sense of senselessness, we still wonder what’s to be done.
I recently spoke with Norm Stamper, Seattle Police Chief at the time of the WTO protests. Often referred to as The Battle in Seattle, it is a watershed moment in Seattle history. It was 1999 when the World Trade Organization was invited to hold their conference in Seattle, and an estimated crowd of 50,000 took to Seattle’s streets in a rising tide of dissent to protest the WTO and their globalization policies. Many people at that time had never even heard of the WTO, let alone had an inkling of what their policies entailed. But the violence that broke out in the streets created a national media frenzy that drew massive attention to the WTO, its policies and why so many people were against them. On the first morning of the conference, protestors, intent on shutting down the talks, took over intersections and formed human chains, preventing WTO delegates from getting to the Convention Center from the Westin Hotel to attend the kickoff meeting. Because of that, the initial meeting had to be cancelled, which was seen as a major victory for the protestors. In the days following, teach-ins, rallies and peaceful protests ensued, as well as patches of violence and property damage which broke out in parts of downtown and Capitol Hill. To quell the protests, police from other cities as well as two battalions of National Guard were called in. Hundreds were arrested, and protestors, many of whom were peaceful, were the victims of pepper spray, tear gas canisters and stun grenades by a militarized police presence that looked like something out of the Apocalypse. Chief Stamper resigned the next day, and it ended his 30 plus year career.
In the years since, Norm Stamper has become one of the leading voices advocating for police reform and speaking out against police abuse. He is a regular commentator on various radio and television shows, including Democracy Now, and is the author of two books, his most recent, To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police. It seemed that Norm Stamper had made a 180 degree turn since the days of the WTO. As many of us indeed wonder what can be done to stop the abuse and senseless killings, I asked Norm Stamper to talk a little bit about the factors that resulted in his own change of consciousness.
He stated, “Very few 180s, in actuality. I’ve retained most of my long-held views and values about policing and the need for police reform. But it is true that I did a complete 180 on my decisions and actions during the Battle in Seattle. My decision to authorize the use of tear gas on nonviolent, indeed nonthreatening protestors—my fellow Americans, peaceably assembled—was the worst of my career. I wish I could say I recognized the truth in that moment, or even shortly thereafter. But I didn’t. It was a full five years into my retirement before I came to grips with my hypocrisy and defensiveness. If you’re going to advocate for a ‘people’s police,’ you’d damn well better adhere to the tenets of an authentic community-police partnership, and to the cause of the demilitarization of policing.”
See and hear more of Norm Stamper, as well as other community activists, on August 10th at the Neptune Theater following the staged reading of my play, Don’t Call it a Riot! We will discuss Activism Then and Now. This event is part of the Nights at the Neptune Series and funded in part by Artist Trust. Free to the public.