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LISTEN: Nikkita Oliver talks about defunding Seattle police

Nikkita Oliver speaks at a rally before a march to Seattle City Hall Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Seattle, following protests over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
Nikkita Oliver speaks at a rally before a march to Seattle City Hall on June 3, 2020, following protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis.

Recent shootings in Seattle near the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP, are prompting questions about public safety. Over the weekend, one man was killed and two others were injured. A fourth man was shot early Tuesday.

Attorney and activist Nikkita Oliver says people should not use the shootings to discount the demands of protesters, pointing out that violence had been a problem in the Capitol Hill neighborhood before the protests began, while the East Precinct was fully staffed.

"Part of the reason that we are mobilizing and asking for the defunding of police as a movement is because we know that the police don't keep us safe," Oliver said. "What we want to see is an investment in the public health and public safety strategies that protect Black lives and protect Black bodies."

Oliver is not a leader in CHOP. But she co-directs a nonprofit that provides an art-focused alternative to incarceration for youth in King County, and she has been a key player in the local movement to overhaul police, courts and prisons. 

Oliver spoke with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about what it means to defund police. Listen to their conversation above, or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.

Nikkita Oliver: That particular demand (defunding police) is also attached to a demand for an investment in community-based public health and public safety strategies. It is the acknowledgment that it's not enough to defund the police, but that we also have to be investing in the grassroots strategies, the built-by-impacted-community strategies that we know actually keep people safe.

KNKX: Can you go into a little bit more detail about what the grassroots efforts are?

Oliver: Yeah, this is kind of a two-part question. You know, the first part is about how do we actually move the budget effectively into the hands of community that has that knowledge. Some of the things that organizers have been exploring are participatory budgeting – how can our city actually involve residents more deeply in the way that we decide how money is dispersed – and then finding those grassroots organizations that have already started developing those public health and public safety strategies and also developing the additional ones.

Some examples are groups like Community Passageways, which has been doing incredible work on the south side of Seattle, partnering with young people in our communities who are experiencing violence or who maybe have been a part of causing the harm. There are programs like Corner Greeters or Safe Passage, which are both about creating, in many ways, autonomous safe zones. Corner Greeters focuses on building relationships between business owners and community members so that instead of calling the police, they're able to find ways to work together. Safe Passage is a program that focuses on how do we de-escalate situations on the street in the moment that they're happening: by having a visible presence, by building relationships, but also by providing access to resources.

In addition to that, we've also seen some very interesting things grow out of the protests. One example is a bike brigade that is actively helping marches, rallies, protesters safely move through the streets by shutting off roadways, by providing information about accidents or safety issues that we might be seeing. And they are now developing a structure for what could this look like beyond this phase of protests as a part of creating public safety on the roads or in partnership with organizers.

KNKX: Is there a feeling that you can build on the momentum that is there now and have more of those conversations and really see what you want to see happen with the social issues being addressed?

Oliver: Absolutely. The period of time that we're in right now has a convergence of issues that I think is bringing a lot of new folks to a conscious understanding of the ills of racialized capitalism, white supremacy, and how those relate to police, courts and prisons. COVID exasperated these pre-existing conditions, these pre-existing ills in our society, which I think for communities that maybe traditionally do not personally feel the impact of economic and racial injustice, they're now also in a position where they're economically suffering.

We've seen this in history,  in 1968 with the Poor People's Campaign, when we saw sanitation workers in Memphis advocating for their rights as workers. We saw the labor movement growing. Simultaneously, the racial justice movement was also rapidly growing. And the convergence of these two movements brought both white poor folks and poor Black folks and also Black folks who maybe had a little bit of access to income all into the streets, all into the movement at the same time. I think we are seeing a similar convergence right now because of the way that COVID has exasperated our economic system.

People are developing a new understanding of what work needs to get done for us to actually get to a place of justice. In Minneapolis, they're not simply talking about defunding the police. They're actually talking about disbanding their police department and are going to take the next year to figure out how that is possible. So more people are coming to a rapid understanding that policing as an institution is actually rooted in white supremacy. It's rooted in the former enslavement of Black peoples. It's rooted in protecting property over people and planet. As folks arise to that understanding, I do think more people will not only get into the streets, but find ways that they can be involved legislatively, in their workplaces or in their educational institutions.

KNKX: One thing we've been hearing from city officials during the protests is that leaders are working with the community. Do you think that's happening in a meaningful way right now?

Oliver: You know, that's a great question. I really think it depends on who you are and what your positionality is in our community. There are certainly some nonprofits that I think the city has had extended relationships with that they do have open communication with and have been at the table prior to this present uprising, but there are a lot of organizations that represent some of the most marginalized and most disenfranchised in our communities that are not at that table. In many ways, they are the organizations that are bringing to the table the most radical  and by radical, I mean getting to the root issue  solutions of how we address not just police brutality, but the overarching system of the criminal punishment system and how it's rooted in white supremacy and bringing to the table some solutions that get to the root of that.

What I think is happening, though, that is significant is we are seeing organizations that are at the table making more effort to reach out to organizations and organizers that are not at the table and making more of an issue about that, which is opening the door for a broader breadth of Black community to be seated at the table. It is an acknowledgment that Black folks, we're not a monolith and we don't all see things the same way. There has to be space for more open, authentic, transparent dialogue if we're really going to get to solutions that meet the need of those most marginalized Black folks in our community, like Black (transgender) women or Black folks who are formerly incarcerated.

So while I think the institution is having a hard time figuring out how to navigate this, I do think organizers and organizations within Black community are actively trying to find ways to unify because it is an acknowledgment that this time right now presents an opportunity that we have not seen in a long time.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.