- Alex Garland, a photographer, plays a slide show showing how the pepper-spray incident unfolded.
"Institutionalized white supremacy," said artist Christa Bell.
"Whiteness," said Reverend Harriet Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability.
And, per my Stranger colleague Charles Mudede: capitalism (and its helper, racism).
The panel began with a brief slide show and video presentation by local photojournalist Alex Garland, who captured the pepper-spraying incident moment-by-moment. We held a moment of silence for Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager killed by police in Ferguson.
Pretty quickly, Walden opened up the discussion to audience members. One man from Georgia reacted this way to seeing the Westlake incident in the news: "My first thought was anger because in the South we see it. I already knew where it was going... I've seen this happen countless number of times."
"I came here because it was different than the South," he said. "And to see it here, it's like, you can't get away from it."
Wilford, who I did not see at the panel, told me by phone after he was sprayed that he'd come to Seattle from New Orleans. "People here seem to be more secretive about their not liking black people, or their racism," he said. "I’m so used to it I don’t know what’s wrong and what’s right half the time."
Panelists Ijeoma Oluo and Bell said violence against people of color goes way beyond police or security guard brutality. "It's all the things that lead to up that," said Oluo, including school officials who stereotype black children as hyper-aggressive and suspend them at disproportionately high rates—a major problem at Seattle-area schools.
Mudede offered a direct, unvarnished Marxist analysis. At Westlake, he said, "Everyone is playing the role society has built for them." The presumably working-class security guard was following instructions to protect the profits of local retailers. This society does not value poor people. And given the enormous wealth gap between blacks and whites, the guard made a logical assumption: the troublemaker must be the economically-worse-off black guy.
To be clear (some audience members were confused), Mudede wasn't saying the assumption was a just one. Only that, in this society, it was logical. "The individual isn't necessarily the center of the problem," he said.
What I take from that, as a white dude, is that well-meaning white people ought to focus less on reforming themselves as individuals into anti-racists—although that is valuable—and more on changing the society-wide policies that perpetuate racism. "If you go out to the [wealthy, white] suburbs, they think they got there on their own," Mudede mused. "It's bizarre when all the stuff that society did to make that possible is ignored." Fighting for reparations would be a good start, to rectify long-standing inequalities on a mass scale.
A white audience member piped up: "I'm here because I'm 72 years old and I'm very sad. Because this has been going on all my life." And then she pointed out: "I'm struck by the fact that we're a few feet from the police station and there are no police in this audience."
You'll recall that Seattle police officers didn't intervene before the Westlake security guard maced Wilford, and only stepped in later to bark at demonstrators who were trying to wash out his eyes.
"Harriet Tubman didn't run the underground railroad by herself," said Walden. There were white people who helped. But, she said, "We have not had enough courageous white people stand up...liberals do not hold the strength of their conviction. That's why the Central area is gone."
Longtime immigrant and civil rights activist Pramila Jayapal, who looks all but set to win a Washington State senate seat representing the Central District in the November election, was also on the panel. She was a voice of optimism and pragmatism. When immigration attorneys successfully sued the federal government to stop the deportations of thousands of Somalis, she said, "we had a lot of support from this community." There are constructive roles that white people can play. "I'm not trying to be Pollyanna," she continued, "but I think there's a place for each of us to be the house that protects the person on the underground railroad."
Before I left, I described how as of late last week, the security guard (Hinds) who maced Wilford appeared to still be on the job. What should be done about that, here and now? "I think we need to put pressure on them to stop profiling," Walden responded.
Valor Security, the company contracted by General Growth Properties, the Westlake Center owner-operator, was sued last week in King County Superior Court for civil damages by another black man who says he was singled out by one of its security guards.
And is Hinds still on the job? I asked Scott Born, the company's vice president, again yesterday. "I'm sorry, but we don't release information about employee performance, disciplinary action, reason(s) for separation, etc," he said. "Our company has a policy prohibiting this."