South Seattle's Othello Park felt like a good spot to hang out Wednesday evening. It was warm. Mount Rainier loomed crystal-clear in view above broad expanses of grass. One elderly man settled on a bench in the shade of a tree. My girlfriend and I found our own tree and I can't remember what we were talking about. But we were enjoying the park—the greenery, the dogs and their owners, the kids horsing around.
Out of nowhere, a woman holding hands with a small boy appeared. She called out to us with an ominous message: You should leave now because something's about to pop off over there. She pointed across the park. She said there will be gunshots. Okay, thanks for the warning, we said.
My girlfriend and I looked at each other quizzically. There were tons of little kids over there, maybe 40 yards away, joking around and having fun. Guys were playing what looked like a serious game of basketball. Families were picnicking. The sun was setting.
Nothing seemed amiss. But we were going to leave anyway, so we turned and started walking back to the car, in the opposite direction.
BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM! POP POP POP POP!
I didn't count how many gunshots there were—it took a moment to register that they were gunshots, even with the warning—but it seemed like a lot. I turned around and saw people running toward us. Between the trees, a large guy in a bright-red shirt was extending his arm, firing a handgun into the little backstreet running alongside the eastern border of the park.
We backed away, but I caught a glimpse of the man in red appearing to run off in the opposite direction from where he was firing.
We got in the car. People kept streaming toward us. The elderly man I'd seen on the bench was slowly crossing the street. I hesitated. The gunfire had stopped. My instinct was to grab my camera and go see what had happened—that was my MO in Haiti, and it worked for me.
I thought better of it and drove around the block, away from the violence. At the intersection of Rainier and Othello, three police cars blasted through toward the park, sirens blazing—a quick response from SPD. Perhaps they'd been tipped off ahead of time as well?
I apologized to my partner for not going straight home, but you know, this is kind of my job. I turned off into a parking lot. By now, perhaps four minutes had passed. I grabbed my camera and ran towards the scene of the crime.
This is what I found:
I didn't get this woman's name. Police were asking questions, EMTs were tending to her, and I already felt like enough of a jerk snapping a photo. At the time, people were saying she was injured by a bullet grazing. Yesterday, Seattle Police said that her wounds—small bloody splotches on her arm and a cut on the head—were from shrapnel. She was holding an infant at the time.
Often in local cases like this, it's reported that no witnesses will come forward (and there's often a racial tinge to it, with talk of a "no-snitching" culture among African Americans). In this case, there were tons of witnesses, and they all appeared to be talking to the police. A pudgy middle-schooler came over to tell the police about the man in red, and another man who was shooting from nearby. Two older lades told the cops what they saw. One had been sitting on her back porch when the violence erupted yards away in the adjacent street. Basketball players, including one whose rearward car window was cracked by a bullet hole, all spoke to the police. Nobody seemed to know what caused the gunfight, though.
And there was trauma. One young woman started heaving. A friend put an arm around her and called out to the EMTs that she was suffering from an asthma attack.
I'm not a religious person. But it is a marvelous miracle that no one was seriously injured or killed that evening. Hey there God, or whatever you are, if you're out there—thank you.
What kind of terrible excuse for a human being opens fire in a park near children and parents? The neighbors I spoke to said it's been a few years since the last shooting they can remember in the park. But there's been a series of shootings, some of them fatal, over the past few weeks in the Central District and South End.
"It's really disconcerting," Mayor Ed Murray told me last week, when I asked about them. "What surprises me is that the city really doesn't have anything in place to deal with this situation, including the analytical information about what's actually going on. Is it a [connected] string, is it a series of one-offs?"
"To fix this," the mayor continued, "we have to have some significant long term solutions, that shockingly to me are not in place." Policies that go way beyond putting more police officers on the street, like stronger re-entry programs for released prisoners, workforce housing, and employment programs for young adults.
That's smart, progressive rhetoric. Let's see if it translates into action.
For now, for some, Othello Park is something other than what it was. It felt like an inviting place, and then in the space of one beautiful, gun violence-marred evening, it became the opposite. "This looked like a nice park," said a man who gave his name as Vega. He was visiting from Federal Way to play basketball with his brother. "But," he added, "I'm not coming back here no more."