Black Lives Matter was created by three community organizers—Alicia Garza in Oakland, California; Patrice Cullors in Los Angeles, California; and Opal Tometi in Phoenix, Arizona—as a response to the 2013 acquittal of Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the deadly shooting of unarmed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. Initially, a rallying cry and hashtag on social media, the profile of Black Lives Matter was raised significantly with its national “freedom ride” and resulting protest presence in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 fatal police shooting of unarmed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown. Critics have equated Black Lives Matter with promoting attacks on police.
As the movement grew, chapters that began to appear in different cities across the United States became decentralized and diffuse, employing various methods to address a variety of issues.The Seattle, Washington chapter of Black Lives Matter was co-founded by Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford. On November 28, 2014, four days after a grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter protesters descended on downtown Seattle.
Targeting “Black Friday,” or the day after Thanksgiving that unofficially kicks off the holiday shopping season, hundreds of demonstrators blocked streets and marched through downtown malls. Some held signs reading “People over Profit,” “Hands Up, Don’t $hop,” “My Black Matters – Black Friday Doesn’t,” and “White silence is violence.” That evening, protesters mixed with thousands of shoppers and families as the march overtook the annual ceremonial tree-lighting at Westlake Park. Police used pepper spray and made five arrests, the tree-lighting ceremony was cut short, and Westlake Shopping Center closed four hours early.
In January 2015, several activists shouted and sang at a city council meeting as Chief Kathleen O’Toole discussed the Seattle Police Department’s response to protests over police abuse. The next month, a Metropolitan King County Council meeting about a new juvenile justice center was disrupted as audience members chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter.”
On August 8, 2015, Vermont Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was preparing to address several thousand supporters who had gathered downtown in Westlake Park. Before he could, Johnson, Willaford, and several others took over the stage and grabbed the microphone. Johnson responded to sustained boos by telling the crowd, “Now that you’ve covered yourself in your white supremacist liberalism, I will formally welcome Bernie Sanders to Seattle.” Johnson also demanded a four-and-a half-minute-long moment of silence in honor of Michael Brown. Initially, Sanders and his aides pledged to stay and waited off to the side, but soon organizers effectively shut down the event.
Tensions were high as Black Lives Matter Seattle announced plans to protest again downtown on November 27, or Black Friday, 2015. Some eight hundred demonstrators blocked streets, marched through stores, and read poetry. Police reported four arrests were made, and one officer was injured. Just prior to the annual tree-lighting ceremony at Westlake Park, protesters released a clutch of balloons carrying a profane anti-police slogan. However, the demonstration was relatively calm, and the tree-lighting celebration went on as planned.