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

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Article published in The Funambulist 10 (March-April 2017) Architecture & Colonialism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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.