It’s no secret that many progressive voters aren’t stoked about Joe Biden. For Seattleites who spent a summer protesting systemic racism, police brutality, and mass incarceration, Biden’s record on criminal justice doesn’t exactly spell an exciting turn from business-as-usual. But Seattle's summer organizers still made it out to the polls this year. In recent days, they also took to the streets, adding “count every vote!” to a familiar list of demands that includes defunding the Seattle Police Department's budget by 50 percent and investing in Black communities.
Many of the protesters' demands have yet to be met, but for those who spent their summer and fall calling for justice, a few local election results might offer some encouragement.
Amending Law Enforcement in King County
Seattle may not have slashed its police department budget by 50 percent, but four charter amendments at the county level—all approved by voters—could significantly shift the role and power of law enforcement. Of the four, the first two are far less controversial, passing with over 80 percent of the vote. In a win on the accountability front, Amendment One will mandate a judicial investigation anytime actions or decisions of law enforcement contribute to someone’s death. It also requires the county to provide an attorney to represent the victim’s family. Amendment Four centers on transparency, giving subpoena power to the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, meaning it could legally require the King County Sheriff to hand over information from the department.
Amendments Five and Six had narrower majorities—56 and 62 percent, respectively. Subject to contentious debate and record-breaking political spending from King County’s largest police union, which opposed them, the amendments will undermine the autonomy of the King County Sheriff’s Office, granting greater decision-making power to the county council. Amendment Five does so by making the King County Sheriff an appointed, rather than elected, position; Amendment Six lets the council dictate the duties and structure of the Sheriff’s Office. The latter directly aligns with calls for change from around the country this year by allowing King County to reimagine what public safety might look like—including, for example, responding to mental health crises with mental health professionals, rather than police.
Taking the Fight to Olympia
A number of new voices will be heard in Washington’s House of Representatives next year—among them, a Black community organizer and a formerly incarcerated criminal justice advocate. When contacted by Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, both candidates openly declared that they view racism as a public health crisis. They also both support restoring voting rights to those incarcerated (a bill to automatically restore voting rights once convicted felons are released from prisons died in the state Senate last February).
Kirsten Harris-Talley will represent Washington's 37th Legislative District, which stretches from the Chinatown–International District and the Central District down to Renton. A former organizer with the No New Youth Jail and Block the Bunker movements, Harris-Talley has come out in favor of defunding the police and redirecting funds to affordable housing, education, and restorative justice—along with myriad other social programs.
Across the water in Kitsap County, Tarra Simmons carried the 23rd Legislative District. Simmons is the first person formerly convicted of a felony to ever be elected to the state’s legislature. She enrolled in law school about a year after her release from prison but was denied the opportunity to take the bar exam in 2017 due to her past conviction. Undeterred, she brought a case to the Washington State Supreme Court—and won. Simmons has been working to restore voting rights for incarcerated people in Washington and says that one of her priorities in legislature will be to “decarcerate our state prisons.”
Add this to the news that Washington may follow Oregon’s lead in decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs, and you’ve got potential for some serious changes to the state’s criminal justice system.
Potential, of course, is different from change itself. Demonstrators made it clear on Saturday that a Biden-Harris victory won’t send them back to brunch; if there’s one unifying message from recent marches, it’s that the fight is far from over. But perhaps local victories will serve as a new catalyst for change.