Council Staff: Mayor’s Proposals Could Promote “Racism Cloaked in the Language of Anti-Racism and Equity”

By Erica C. Barnett

Foreshadowing what will likely be a heated debate over Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to wall off $100 million in the city budget for future “investments in BIPOC communities” that will be decided by an Equitable Investment Task Force appointed by the mayor, Seattle City Council central staff released an unusually blunt memo last week cataloguing potential issues with the mayor’s plan.

The memo raises two high-level issues with Durkan’s proposal. First, according to the staffers, it duplicates work that the city has already done, perpetuating the city’s practice of asking members of marginalized communities to provide recommendations again and again without ever taking action on those recommendations.

“These different and potentially overlapping processes and funds raise concerns that the Council has expressed in previous years regarding a lack of alignment of efforts around the criminal legal system and insufficient application of racial equity analyses, as well as the challenges of successfully doing anti-racism work in a racist institution,” the memo says.

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Just this year, for example, the mayor has proposed: A new Community Safety Work Group to “integrate community input into policy changes and operationalize community priorities to reshape community safety and policing in Seattle”; a “functional analysis interdepartmental team” (IDT) that would offer advice on “reimagining community safety”; a Joint Community Safety IDT to “advise upon and implement policies to reinvent policing and re-imagine community safety in the City of Seattle by centering the experiences of BIPOC communities”; a Functional IDT to decide how to transfer some functions of SPD, such as 911 dispatch, out of the police department; and the Equitable Investment Task Force, which is supposed to decide how to spend $100 million on “BIPOC communities.”

Those new efforts come on top of ongoing initiatives such as King County Equity Now’s Black Brilliance Project; plans for participatory budgeting in 2021; and $1.1 million the council previously allocated to groups working to create alternatives to the criminal justice system, such as Community Passageways and Creative Justice. Durkan’s 2021 budget would eliminate this funding.

Durkan’s communications director, Kamaria Hightower, said the processes the mayor has proposed are necessary counterweights to the council’s impulse to rush forward and cut the police department without a plan. For example, she said, the interdepartmental teams are necessary to figure out how to restructure the police force in an orderly way. “[T]he Council committed to 50 percent reductions [to SPD] without outlining a comprehensive plan or timeline for steps to reimagine policing and building the right community safety alternatives,” Hightower said.

“While Council may disagree with the Mayor’s timeline or the analysis on 911 calls and staffing, the Mayor thinks this work is critical and that the community should be engaged in the decisions that are being made about safety in the City.”

The second, related issue, according to council staff, is that the mayor’s $100 million plan did not go through any racial equity analysis to determine whether it would be beneficial, neutral, or harmful to the people it is purporting to help. The city uses racial equity analyses to determine how the work of the city perpetuates or combats institutional racism and whether projects incorporate (or ignore) existing recommendations from community groups working to combat racism.

“A thorough understanding of the City’s ‘institutional power and footprint in local communities most impacted by structural racism’ and how power plays out in the context of racial equity would … lead the City to honor the work that has already been done, inform how to avoid duplicating efforts already underway rather than characterizing them as complementary to each other, and stop further over-burdening communities of color,” the memo says.

“The sense of urgency the executive is showing around addressing these problems is a good thing,” the memo’s lead author, staffer Asha Venkataraman, told the council last week. “However, it’s not entirely clear that the events of 2020 have led to … a full understanding of how city government perpetuates structural racism.

“Without a racial equity analysis, it’s possible that we would continue to perpetuate racism, but cloaked in the language of anti-racism and equity,” Venkataraman added.

Asked about this part of the report, Hightower responded by asking whether the council had done a racial equity analysis on the JumpStart payroll tax, their participatory budgeting proposal, and cuts to the Seattle Police Department. “As I recall, Council has not proposed any provisos [legislative restrictions on spending] regarding a [racial equity toolkit] on any of the decisions made over the summer or this year,” she said. Hightower added that the interdepartmental team on SPD’s functions would likely do a racial equity toolkit after its initial analysis wraps up “to identify and evaluate proposals for the restructuring of SPD.”

In addition to the issues they raised in the memo, council staffers argued that the mayor’s proposal relies on input from people the city regards as community leaders—people who already have access to power—instead of community members with direct experience with the criminal justice and public safety systems that the city says it’s trying to “reimagine.” This, they argued could lead the various task forces to make recommendations that pit communities of color (and Black communities in particular) against each other and perpetuate racism instead of dismantling it.

Hightower said the people chosen for the task force have “hundreds of years of combined experience advocating for Seattle’s most historically under-represented communities. Task Force members are united in working with the broader community to elevate the voices of those facing disproportional and systemic injustices and providing improved and sustained outcomes that will carry forward for generations.”

Last year, the city funded two staffers—one working for the council, one working for the mayor’s Office for Civil Rights—to do a yearlong “criminal legal system realignment project” that asks members of impacted communities themselves to advise the city on policies and funding for community needs that, if unmet, can lead to people entering the criminal justice system. The project came out of the work of the city’s reentry task force, whose 2018 report recommended that the city focus its spending on things like restorative justice and prevention.

The two-year realignment project is supposed to lead to recommendations later this year. But while the project was getting underway, several high-profile incidents involving “chronic offenders” in Seattle’s downtown core, highlighted in the viral propaganda video “Seattle Is Dying,” prompted Durkan to take several actions in 2019 that arguably preempted that process. That year, the mayor launched a new “high-barrier offenders” task force—made up of institutional actors such as judges, prosecutors, and elected officials—that recommended, among other things, expanding probation and creating a new case conferencing program where law enforcement officials would discuss the best way to deal with individual offenders’ cases.

Those recommendations were never implemented. During last year’s budget process, the council put a spending restriction on the plan that required the mayor to do a race and equity analysis of the proposals, which never happened. Instead, the mayor defunded her own plan in the 2020 budget.

Since then, Durkan has launched a large number of new “reimagining” efforts that are at least similar to, if not duplicative of, work that has already taken place. In some cases, this work involves mining the expertise and experiences of the same community leaders the city has tapped again and again without actually implementing their recommendations.