A Call to Disrupt White-dominated Architectural and Public Policy Imaginaries



In 2016, despite growing national opposition to the racialized violence inherent in modern policing, the Seattle City Council proposed a $160 million budget to build a new, state-of-the-art North Seattle Police Precinct (NSPP). The original design was conceptualized as a LEED-certified, earthquake-proof building with a firing range, space for the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to expand, and facilities that would enable a police department under scrutiny for excessive use of force to better comply with the community engagement and training requirements of a Department of Justice Consent Decree. Informed by a combination of actors from cops to architects to city council members, over two years of planning on this project occurred with no evidence of dissent until a coalition of community activists formed, demanding its cancellation. The group, which became known as the Block the Bunker (BTB) Coalition, won a reduction in the proposed budget (to $149 million), a Racial Equity Impact Assessment of the project, a reallocation of $29 million of project funds toward affordable housing, and a decision by the Mayor of Seattle to pause the project to consider “real tensions in this community around race and policing.” As activists head into a reformulated political landscape where the Trump administration clearly embraces policies meant to pander to the “blue lives matter” reactionaries, cities have the capacity to be centers of sanctuary, rebellion, and resistance. This article provides a backdrop for understanding and fiercely undermining white-dominated architectural and public policy imaginaries that generate police expansion initiatives, while also adding to an emergent blueprint that can generate rebel cities where police and prisons are no longer imagined as conveyors of safety and security.

Given the outrageous price tag of the proposed project, growing criticisms of police brutality and mass incarceration, and the imminent threats of a Trump’s executive power, it is imperative to understand the imaginaries from which projects like the NSPP emerge unquestioned. Many of the core beliefs informing the NSPP planning process are made visible by SRG Partnership, the architectural firm contracted by the city for the project. According to SRG, this new 105,000 square foot precinct would “honor the vital link between public servants and their community by giving officers a safe, comfortable and sustainable environment in a setting that welcomes the public. The building’s modern but timeless aesthetic unifies the entire campus, inviting daylight and creating views to its urban context. Emphasizing civic engagement, open, flexible spaces feature opportunities for education and gathering used both by the police and local community groups. Two generous entry plazas let the neighborhood know this venue is for them. Geometric metal cladding, inspired by the officers’ protective uniforms, ensures safety while animating the interiors with shadow-play throughout the day.”

This description would almost read as satirical were it not so painfully symbolic of decision makers’ and planners’ deep beliefs that investment in the SPD can make the city safer and more participatory. Rather than question this logic, in a liberal city like Seattle, people in positions of power utter “Black Lives Matter” in one breath and in the very next, hypocritically approve and profit off of police expansion projects.

The white-washed imaginaries of decision makers and planners are rooted in a heavily skewed understanding of reality. In this reality, community trust of police already exists or can be restored by inviting the “community” into an eco-friendly, heavily-militarized police building. This is a decidedly “kumbaya” version of reality, the kind where police accountability looks like barbeques and prayer circles with the police to resolve tensions and traumas that come from centuries of state violence and racialized oppression. These liberal-minded visions of safety and security assume modern policing has always existed as it does today, with an expanded scope to deal with everything from protest to road construction to property crime to mental health crises to domestic violence to criminalizing poverty, communities of color, and homelessness. They rest upon forgotten roots of modern policing: slave catching and Indian removal. They invest hopes in the idea that new buildings and more training space will enable the SPD to remove bad-apple cops that lead to its reputation as a violent police force. These imaginaries hide beneath a police-reformist “Seattle is a progressive city” veneer and are therefore unable to consider the similarities between the explicit “blue lives matter” policies of today’s Trump administration and the Seattle brand of structural racism that is more implicit, yet still deadly and violent.

It is from these hegemonic political fantasies that politicians and planners develop perfectly logical explanations for projects like the NSPP. These rationalizations normalize the idea that a growing population in Seattle must be met by a larger fortress to house and protect increased numbers of officers and their military-grade toys. As evidenced by a two-year planning process that faced little to no disruption prior to the emergence of the BTB Coalition, these imaginaries are available in multitudes (with few counter-narratives) in the halls of power. It is the absence of organized internal dissenting opinions across the hundreds of actors shaping the precinct’s bureaucratic and architectural planning process that prevents cities like Seattle from being leaders in police and prison divestment, and investment in communities most targeted and harmed by state violence.

As soon as local BLM activists got word of the council’s skewed budget priorities and the project’s heavily militarized design, they met the city council with fierce resistance, eventually forming the multi-racial and black-led BTB Coalition. Using a combination of tactics ranging from public testimony to theatrical disruptions at city council meetings to community meetings to independent media publications, the coalition ramped up pressure to cancel the project. By posing questions — like “Whose safety matters?” — activists invited the broader public to challenge foundational assumptions about policing and safety represented by the proposed project. No stones were left unturned. The coalition drew widespread media attention to the outrageous price tag. Activists highlighted the ways the project privileges the safety and comfort of the police, business owners, and privileged property owners over the safety and comfort of all people, particularly black people, non-black people of color, and poor people who are already being disproportionately criminalized and displaced. They pointed to the need to instead prioritize programs and policies that substantively address Seattle’s crises of police terrorism, gentrification, defunded education and social services, and homelessness. They met frequently with sympathetic city council members and staffers to continue to strategize on the most effective means for pushing for the project’s cancellation.

Activists also disrupted pro-precinct inertia by changing the rules of the typically white-nice, controlled atmosphere of city council chambers, where seemingly benign budget decisions are made with little outside input. City council members were met with chants and impassioned testimonies from people who have been targeted and harassed by police; they were made to view altars for and listen to the names of people in Washington State and Seattle who have been unjustly killed by police, including John T. Williams, Che Taylor, Oscar Perez-Giron, and Michael Taylor. They were invited to imagine the NSPP as another monument to white supremacy and racist policing when activists of color wore jump suits and chains and were met with harsh words from white activists dressed like police.

Ultimately, because of the continued negative publicity associated with the NSPP, the Mayor of Seattle pulled it from consideration in the 2017-2018 budget cycle with the intent of going back to the drawing board. At this time, the city still intends to build the precinct, and activists are reformulating what the best strategies and tactics are to continue to push Seattle to be a city that divests from the vision that police and prisons make all of us safer. While the victory of pausing the project and reallocating $29 million worth of funds to affordable housing is significant, activists know the fight ahead is a long one, considering the sizeable political distance between a council that almost unanimously supports superficial police reform measures, like body cameras, and a council that would regularly make decisions to divest from policing and reallocate funds toward sustained, community-based safety strategies that circumvent the prison-industrial complex.

Public buildings that are monuments to white supremacy come into being through a complex series of bureaucratic design, planning, budgeting, and implementation processes. The imaginaries of those at the table for each part of these processes significantly impact what gets implemented. Due to institutionalized white liberal racism in Seattle, activists know that the city is still saturated with decision makers who will not blink twice before approving covert “Blue Lives Matter” policies and projects. It is clear that a combination of sustained, targeted disruptions and robust alternatives to police expansion are still needed. With masses of newly politicized people who are eager to take action and distance themselves from the fascist and overtly racist tendencies of the Trump administration, coalitions like BTB have an opportunity to transform white-liberal-dominated urban centers like Seattle into rebel strongholds that both dismantle and create alternatives to the anti-black racism that is endemic to modern policing.

(Photo caption: Block the Bunker activists bring theatrical disruptions to City of Seattle council chambers on September 19, 2016. / Photograph by Yin Yu (2016))