One Question

Navigating the Nuances of Seattle's Black Lives Matter Movement from Within

A Q&A with local BLM leader about the logistics of disrupting Seattle's streets.

By Cassandra Calderon and Josh Feit October 6, 2016

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Protest organizer "Mohawk" speaks to a crowd of roughly 500 on Oct. 1 before leading the group on a four hour march throughout downtown Seattle.

Last Saturday, October 1, a Black Lives Matter leader, who goes by the pseudonym "Mohawk," organized yet another BLM protest, bringing out nearly 500 marchers on the rainy day—and a mass of TV camera crews and police officers.

Escorted by SPD bike patrol, the protest wound through downtown Seattle and on to its main destination: Saturday's Mariners game at Safeco Field. As opposed to the kneel-ins that athletes following in the historic footsteps of Tommie Smith have taken to show support for the BLM movement, like San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the WNBA's  Indiana Fever, the Seahawks (kinda), and the Garfield High School football team, Seattle Mariners catcher Steven Clevenger belittled the movement. Clevenger had issued a pair of angry-white-guy, racist tweets in response to the the recent BLM protests in Charlotte, North Carolina after yet another fatal police shooting last month of an African American male, Keith Lamont Scott.

Chanting "no justice, no peace" and "these racist cops have got to go," the peaceful march navigated a route through Capitol Hill, Westlake Park, and SoDo. With "Mohawk's" experience—the South Seattle local has organized roughly 30 BLM protests and marches including last year's high profile Black Friday BLM march—the nuances of the movement's identity, demands, and meaning were also a fluid thing to oversee.

For example, in addition to the typical conundrums of staging a major demonstration downtown, such as far flung hangers on (in this instance, a white evangelical man preaching about Jesus and doomsday), there can also be internal parsing and hairsplitting among participants at BLM events.  

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A small, but vocal group of African Americans stood on the sidelines through out the demonstration shouting out criticisms. They condemned the marchers for blocking traffic and "stirring trouble" on the busy streets, claiming the march wouldn't accomplish change. And, of course, stray shouts of "all lives matter" occasionally rang out from the general public. Duh, but as one little girl's sign read: "Yes, all lives matter. But we're focused on the black ones right now, O.K.?" (And with good reason. There hasn't been a parade of white men getting shot by police.)

"Mohawk," 26,was barely flustered by the random discord, and with the help of his trusty bullhorn, he orchestrated the march from intersection to intersection. He also controlled a mobile speaker system, calling up people he'd selected to speak throughout, such as the aforementioned little girl, who shared that she would no longer stand for the pledge of allegiance at school. "We are not full of liberty and justice for all," she said. "Not all people have liberty and justice... it should be equal." Among others, a young white women spoke as well, calling out the inaction of other white people.

At the macro level, "Mohawk," who spent two weeks and $1,000 organizing Saturday's march, has an easy time summarizing the movement. He says simply that he organizes the marches out a sense of  "moral duty and a disbelief of social injustice."
However, after watching "Mohawk's" moment-to-moment orchestration of Saturday's march, we sat down with the default leader of this seemingly unstructured yet powerful movement and asked him to address the subtleties of Seattle's BLM identity.

When you draw a big crowd for a march, inevitably others try to tag their own message onto that demonstration. How do you prevent other groups from hijacking a protest?

Control is the most important aspect of leading a march. There is no craziness as long as you have control of the message. There are other groups that try and agitate or change your message but you have to handle that by staying on point. Other times, people or groups will try to co-opt the message and you cannot let them.

I spent over two weeks and $1,000 on signs to make sure the crowd would have a clear message; that black lives matter.

And so you just take the chance on it and make sure everything is in place.

You prepare with the assumption that everything will fall into line and that you’ll have the support necessary to keep control over the march. And you promote the vibe that you want to go around, you set the example for how you hope others will act; you know, show what’s going to happen and what’s not going to happen.

On Saturday, there were dozens of the Seattle police bike patrol seemingly guiding the march through traffic. What is that relationship like? To have a protest aimed at police accountability and brutality and with the subjects of that topic right there?

There is no relationship and there is no contact with the police before a protest. Every time I organize one of these events I have police contact me, but I never reach out to them. They say "well we can guide you if you want us to," but I always say no. I don't share my route before the march as a precaution because someone might try to interfere. 

We followed the route I had planned for the most part, but [the police] weren’t helping us, they tried to stop us from going up 5th avenue. But they’re not my focus–my focus is mainly to make sure that no one gets arrested.

There are an array of messages and countless subsets of the BLM movement, including your own group,  Black Liberation Front. What is the singular, overarching message of Seattle's BLM movement?

When people say they don’t understand what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for, what it is addressing, my question for them is can’t you read? The slogan itself should be explanation enough; black lives matter. Isn’t that statement true? Don’t our lives matter as much as anyone else? It’s not that complicated. 

Our message is simple, that black individuals should be treated the same as white individuals.

 What do you have planned next?

Another demonstration on Black Friday called Black Lives Matter Friday. We need to stand up united against racism, oppression, and police brutality. I've said this before, but we have to make a visible and loud demonstration against these things in order to get justice for the people who have been killed like Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice. This will be the third Black Friday protest I've organized in Seattle and come rain or shine we will be there to stand up against racism. 


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