By Deepa B., Seattle DSA member
When Katrina Johnson’s cousin, Charleena Lyles, was killed by Seattle Police officers in 2017, Johnson refused to accept that officers pumped seven bullets into her cousin out of self-defense. Yet neither the City of Seattle nor King County has given Johnson and her family the justice they’ve sought. Last year a county judge cleared both the SPD and the City of wrongdoing in Lyles’ death, agreeing with SPD’s finding that the shooting conformed to police protocols. Kevin Stuckey, the former President of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, explained that officers are trained to meet “deadly force with deadly force.” The two officers involved in Lyles’ death, both white, claimed that Lyles, a young African American mother of four, advanced on them with a knife. Since no video of the actual encounter between Lyles and the officers exists, the officers’ account has taken precedence over the community’s appeals for justice.
The people in our society who have the least are policed the most. This was the case with Charleena Lyles, who lived in a low-income housing complex on the edge of Magnuson Park in North Seattle, where she’d received frequent visits from SPD officers before they finally took her life. Most of the visits resulted from emergency calls Lyles had placed in response to incidents of domestic violence. It’s a twisted logic that empowers police officers to adjudicate potential cases of domestic abuse when family violence is two to four more times higher in police officers’ households than it is among the general public.
For centuries the police have assaulted and murdered civilians while escaping criminal prosecution, targeting the working class—particularly Black and brown workers (and would-be workers)—as part of a systemic effort to maintain the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. Police officers are the foot soldiers of capital, enforcing its law and order by ensuring that workers submit to exploitation at the hands of bosses, landlords, and other business owners that keeps profits flowing. In Charleena Lyles’ case, white officers reinscribed the dispossession that Black women have faced since the days of chattel slavery. These armed men entered her home, violating her rights to privacy and comfort and shattering the family she’d created.
As I gathered with other marchers in the grass at Magnuson Park, the buildings of Sand Point Family Housing fanned out in front of us. It was behind these walls that Lyles fed her children and put them to bed night after night, trusting that she’d be there to wake them up. The walls were supposed to keep her safe; they were supposed to offer sanctuary.
We filed past the building she lived in, chanting her name, not because we knew her but because we didn’t know her. In a city that values wealth and whiteness, Charleena Lyles remained invisible. Her death remained invisible too. There’s no video, no eight minutes and forty-six seconds of terror to watch and confirm what we already know: under racial capitalism, Black lives don’t matter.
Hundreds of voices rose from the street, animated by the demand to defund the police department that murdered her and invest in the communities that nurtured her. I gazed up at the sky, at the tops of the cedar trees, feeling the power build around me as we claimed a busy intersection. Comrades on bikes flocked ahead, clearing traffic so we could march on.
The uprising for Black Lives is challenging the premise of policing. We’re showing that we can keep each other safe without the repressive tools of the capitalist State, while exposing the contradictions the State tries to hide: In large American cities like Seattle, Black women are as likely to be evicted as Black men are to imprisoned. Black households own one-tenth the wealth of white households. The richest 10% of American households, of which only 3.6% are Black, hold over 70% of the country’s net worth.
Charleena Lyles, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black women and men are the victims of a system built on gender, race, and class oppression. Police violence maintains this oppression, and it’s sanctioned by elected officials like Mayor Jenny Durkan, who last week announced a measly 5% reduction in SPD’s budget, despite consistent demands from movement activists to defund SPD by at least 50%.
Among those demanding a 50% reduction is Katrina Johnson, Charleena Lyles’s cousin. Johnson spoke to marchers outside the gates of Mayor Durkan’s mansion, which is nestled inside a wealthy enclave just over a mile from the apartment complex where police killed Lyles. We filled the tree-lined street overlooking the mayor’s property and listened to the calls for accountability. Roxanne White expressed the need to account for land stolen from Indigenous people, then Johnson took the stage, reproaching the Mayor for protecting the police department instead of everyday people like us. We repeated Lyles’ name, surrounded this time by multi-million dollar homes. We’d carried the movement into a space that most of us never knew existed in our city, and although Durkan never appeared, some of her neighbors did, watching curiously from their lawns, smiling, and waving.