On June 12, 2020, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County calls for a statewide day of action that includes a March of Silence and a general strike. The protest is one of scores held across the nation following the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed during an arrest by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020. The Seattle march honors Floyd and others who have lost their lives to police brutality and sends a message to government leaders that systemic racism must end. An estimated 60,000 people brave steady rain to walk the 1.9 miles from Judkins Park in the Central District to Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. Organizers promote the silent march as a sign of respect for the dead and to decrease the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus. As part of the general strike, some local businesses close for the day or allow employees to take time off to attend demonstrations.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd (1973-2020) was stopped by Minneapolis police after allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a store. Later, millions would watch his arrest and killing, which was captured on video by bystanders and security cameras. The footage showed Floyd being pulled from his vehicle, hand-cuffed, and lying face down on the pavement. Officer Derek Chauvin knelt and pressed a knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, until Floyd lost consciousness and died. Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Fellow officers Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao were charged with aiding and abetting. All four men were fired.
The disturbing footage sparked outrage worldwide, unleashing protests from London to Hong Kong. In Seattle, thousands marched downtown and on Capitol Hill, night after night, and police and protesters clashed repeatedly. Although most gatherings began peacefully, incidents of violence and destruction intensified. Buildings were vandalized, police vehichles were destroyed, and fires were set. Injuries were frequent: Protesters were met with tear gas, flash-bangs, and pepper spray, while police were pelted with bricks, frozen water bottles, and lit fireworks. Nightly curfews on Capitol Hill and in the downtown core were instituted May 30.
During the first week of June, protesters claimed a six-square-block area surrounding the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct, establishing a police-free zone initially called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), later changed to the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). Fencing and traffic barriers restricted vehicle access, but the barricades also impeded emergency responders and denied residents easy access to their homes. CHOP began to disband after a few weeks.
According to a New York Times report, many activists worried that their "movement protesting police violence and systemic racism was instead being subverted by images of violence and chaos playing out around the country. … Organizers have been trying to keep the focus on police accountability and social justice issues through chanting and marching. … In many communities, the protests reflected both Floyd's death and simmering local controversies" ("Appeals For Calm …").
Silence Speaks Volumes
On June 6, 12 days after Floyd's death, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County (BLMSKC) announced plans for a March of Silence and general strike on Saturday, June 12, 2020. The BLM chapter is part of a national movement founded in 2013 to, according to its website, "eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black improvements in our lives" (About).
At first, BLMSKC was reluctant to hold an in-person protest because of the ongoing pandemic, choosing instead to provide support behind the scenes. A bail fund was set up for protesters who got arrested, and the group created a web-based COVID-19 safety guide. But as the unrest escalated, BLMSKC announced that a rally and protest march would take place, and it would be in stark contrast to earlier demonstrations. Requesting silence was a sign of respect for the many Black lives lost or destroyed. It was also a way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, since shouting and singing would increase transmission.
Holding a march was not a decision made lightly, said event organizer Ebony Miranda, an activist and BLMSKC board member: "Black Lives Matter understands that some people will claim that such a march will increase the risk of exposure to coronavirus during the pandemic. But I feel like we're not taking a risk -- really, we've been put at risk … Anti-blackness is a greater threat to our survival and racism itself is its own pandemic. It's killing us and we are fighting to survive and thrive" (KOMO News, June 7, 2020).
Taking a Stand, Safely
BLMSKC established ground rules for the June 12 gathering that stressed respect, safety, and propriety. Precautions – such as social distancing and wearing masks -- were widely promoted; those who showed up without protective gear were offered masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. A procession order was laid out: BLMSKC organizers, followed by Black youth and the Black community, then people of color, elected officials, white allies, and cyclists.
Participants gathered at Judkins Park and the march began at 2 p.m. In lieu of shouted slogans and group chants, marchers carried signs that read "No Justice, No Peace," "Defund SPD," and "White Silence is Violence." Others had posters with the names and photos of Black men and women killed by police, including Manuel Ellis, a Tacoma man whose March 3, 2020, death was deemed a homicide.
Organizers estimated that 60,000 took part in the March of Silence, walking the 1.9 miles south from Judkins Park to Jefferson Park along 23rd Avenue South. Both Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (b. 1958) and Police Chief Carmen Best (b. 1965) walked alongside demonstrators. Durkan tweeted: "Today at the BLMSeattleKC silent march, community walks to abolish the school to prison pipeline, end biased policing, and undo centuries of systemic racism in our country” (KOMO News, June 12, 2020). At least 30 protests were held statewide, from Bellingham to Centralia, Orcas Island to Wenatchee.
Other Ways to Participate
For those who did not want to march out of fear of the pandemic, there were other ways to participate. A statewide general strike, also organized by BLMSKC, encouraged businesses to close their doors on June 12, or let employees work from home. Amazon allowed workers to use a vacation day, while The Boeing Company asked its managers to "support employees' respectful expressions and maintain a safe, threat-free workplace that allows for diverse perspectives"("Thousands March …"). People also were encouraged to learn more about their elected officials and to become more familiar with local issues affecting racial equality and justice.
On June 10, two days before the March of Silence, an initiative called #ShutDownAcademia encouraged Black academics, scientists, and professors to step away from their classrooms and laboratories for the day. Rather than teach or conduct research, these professionals were asked to replace classes and seminars with discussions about anti-Black bias in academia.
The Power of Silence
Demonstrators were struck by the strength of the silent march. Interviewed by The Stranger, Jordan, a 29-year-old from Renton, said the stillness was powerful, noting that as crowds marched, "[we] let the bodies speak for themselves" ("An Estimated 60,000 …"). Kammil, a 19-year-old from Covington, called the procession calming, saying it reminded her "how much power we have when we act as one. At other protests, the police felt overpowering. They were like a ticking time bomb -- you never knew what they were going to do at any moment. So it's nice you’re not really seeing them here" ("An Estimated 60,000 …").
Organizer Ebony Miranda saw the march as a wake-up call, encouraging protestors to think and reflect on racial justice in the months to come. "We are on the precipice of a major shift in the fight for Black liberation. This is a marathon, not a sprint ... I ask you: What will you do to make sure we sustain this movement? What can you do in your jobs, in your schools?" ("Thousands March …").