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Best of 2012: Southeast Seattle’s long, hot winter of violence

Maya's Mexican Restaurant: cheerful colors, gloomy times. Credit: Eric Scigliano

Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is on neighborhoods. This article was originally published March 13, 2012.

Southeast Seattle is under siege, this time not just from gangs, public housing developers, and social-service agencies. It’s experiencing a much more welcome invasion: police and politicians scrambling to respond to the latest eruptions of violent crime there.

The cops and politicos are joining (and joining is the key word here) Southeast residents who’ve long felt neglected by City Hall and police HQ. Even as the previous mayoral administration smugly trumpeted declining citywide crime rates, they complained, crime still climbed in their neighborhoods.

Today's officials and Rainier Valley residents gathered for two banner events last week, which highlighted how far they’ve come in mending past divisions and working together, and how big a challenge they face in restoring a sense of safety to streets that have lately been bloodied.

The first wake-up call came in November, when Danny Vega, a hairdresser and iconic neighborhood figure, was attacked and beaten unconscious near the busy junction of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Othello Street by a team of young thugs. They took his jacket, keys, and cellphone. He revived, stumbled home, but soon afterward fell into a coma and died. This was just the worst in a rash of autumn and wintertime robberies around light rail stations and bus stops in the valley. Typically one spotter would ride transit, watching for passengers sporting laptops, cellphones, and other valuables. He would follow the intended victim off the train or bus, and be followed in turn by up to four accomplices.

Sometimes they’d knock the victim down, sometimes brandish a gun or knife, sometimes just grab and dash. At least ten robberies occurred on the light rail trains themselves, according to the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, which both advises and critiques the Police Department’s South Precinct and helps it get the word out. One gang took to car-jacking, mobbing cars at the fork of Othello and Myrtle Streets — very near the South Precinct station.

The media’s eyes lit up only when Danny Vega died. They opened wide three months later when an alarming fact emerged: Seattle suffered nine homicides in the first eight weeks of 2012 — nearly triple the average rate during 2010 and 2011. Six occurred in Southeast Seattle, three along one short stretch of Rainier Avenue just south of Henderson Street — the heart of Rainier Beach.

Pat Murakami, the crime prevention council’s chair, complains that Mayor Mike McGinn “didn’t assign new officers or even issue a press release” about the violence until someone got killed on his North End home turf, at Woodland Park on Feb. 20. That may be unfair; McGinn went to Rainier Beach to announce the new police deployments, after a particularly lurid incident there the night after the Woodland Park shooting helped concentrate the public’s mind.

George Hendricks Jr., still known by his youthful street name "Peanut" though he was 41 years old, was drinking with his wife at Maya’s Mexican Restaurant, a 33-year-old neighborhood institution a few blocks down Rainier Avenue from Henderson Street. He stepped outside to talk to a fellow called Lucky Dozier. A minute later both fell to the ground, shot. Both died the next day.

At first police cast about, trying to identify the shooter; was it a drive-by? Then a different story emerged. It appeared that Peanut and Lucky had shot each other over some dispute involving the former’s wife; whatever their previous gang ties might have been, this seemed to be something more personal. It was, as Lieutenant John Hayes of the South Precinct says, the kind of impulsive violence you can’t deter with more policing — “the hardest kind for us to prevent, those that are beefin’ on each other. Most of our shootings have been with individuals who knew each other, who just finished talking with each other.” And then, bang. “If people talk to us, tell us, ‘So and so’s beefing with him,’ we can try to intervene, talk to them before.”

Getting more officers on the street only indirectly helps that goal, if those officers can stay on a turf long enough and get out of their cars to develop relationships in the community. But sending in the cavalry can do a lot to deter and catch opportunistic criminals like the transit robbers and burglars. (Burglary is one crime that has risen citywide.)

The “violence prevention emphasis patrols” the mayor announced three weeks ago have already shown some results. Robbers and burglars have been nabbed — one with his swag in the trunk of his car, after a witness provided a particularly good description. So was one suspect who cruised past the viewing of Peanut Hendricks’ body at the South End Mortuary with a gun at the ready. Police Chief John Diaz has reinstated the department’s gang unit, which had been downsized down to nearly nothing. 

But at every public venue in Southeast Seattle, the police are at pains to say, “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem. Only the community can solve it” — by overcoming the stigma and fear attached to “snitching,” especially among minority communities, and talking to the cops, by providing the proverbial “eyes on the street,” and, above all, by not tolerating crime, violence, and the conditions that abet them.

The preferred tactic for rallying that community support is a ritual called the neighborhood walkabout: Good people gather and march conspicuously, at night and unarmed, through crime-afflicted areas, “reclaiming” them for the community. As a citizen-generated effort, the walkabout has many antecedents, from Curtis Sliwa’s controversial Guardian Angels in the 1970s and ’80s to the patrols undertaken by Block Watch groups on Mount Baker five years ago. Now, however, it’s the police who are leading them, together with the crime prevention council. Lieutenant Hayes brought the idea back to the South Precinct, where he’d served several earlier rotations, from the East Precinct, where he served his last . Hayes says he got it from the East Precinct Advisory Council, that district’s crime prevention council. Its chair, Stephanie Tschida, says another group, Colman Neighbors, actually initiated the walkabouts.

Walkabouts have blossomed as nowhere else in Southeast Seattle. Hayes, together with Murakami, has led them in at least seven other Southeast neighborhoods. They'll walk Georgetown tonight. Last Monday, March 5, they convened the mother of all walkabouts (billed as a “mega-walk") at ground zero, Rainier and Henderson. When the hour came, some 200 people gathered in the parking lot of the Safeway there. It was a time to see and be seen: the City Council’s Public Safety Committee Chair, Bruce Harrell, was there with his aides, as was City Attorney Pete Holmes and representatives of Mayor McGinn. Deputy Chief Nick Metz headed a large SPD contingent, dispersed among the crowd and guarding its flanks. At least one member in the crowd grumbled about Chief Diaz himself not showing up, but conceded he’s not really a meet-and-greet kind of guy.

Lieutenant Hayes is, and you couldn’t miss him at the head of the parade: a walking man-mountain, six-and-a-half feet tall and 250-plus pounds, with a voice that sounded over the din even without a megaphone and a pep-rally patter that didn’t stop. “I’ve been blessed with the gift of gab,” Hayes said later. It’s the first weapon in a street cop’s arsenal.

The point, Hayes told the crowd, was to let “those people” (he never used the familiar police-ism “the bad guys”) who made everyone else feel unsafe know that “the community” wasn’t going to stand for it. “Remember, this is your neighborhood,” he roared. “You’re not taking it back, because you never lost it!

“He’s our cheerleader,” Pat Murakami said, smiling. The walkabouts, ostensibly targeted at the criminals, are at least as much for the benefit of everyone else. The idea is to raise spirits and introduce neighbors to each other, to teach them to watch for buckled sidewalks, broken streetlights, overgrown bushes, and other dark concealments and safety hazards, to not fear to report trouble to the cops. To turn them into one big block watch.

An actual cheerleading squad strode behind Hayes, brandishing a megaphone and Rainier Beach High School Vikings banner. Fewer than 10 percent of the school’s students are white, but they’re still Vikings.

“What do we want?” the cheer captain cried. “Safe streets!” echoed back, plus the odd “Peace!” and “Justice!”

“When do we want them?” “Now!” Halfway through the walk, this refrain segued into “One, two, three four, money for schools, not for war. Five, six, seven, eight, don’t shoot, negotiate!” In a few years, perhaps some of these officers will face some of these kids at the next generation’s Occupy demonstrations.

Hayes and Murakami led the neighborly phalanx on a mile-long loop, up Rainier, east on Henderson, through the Lake Washington Apartments (a longtime trouble spot that's now better managed) to Seward Park Avenue, and back up Rainier to Safeway. They passed the library, elementary and high schools, Bank of America, Rite Aid, Starbucks, and another full-sized supermarket, Saar’s Marketplace. With all these, and many smaller shops and eateries, Rainier Beach is by far the best-served district in generally retail-sparse Southeast Seattle; nearby residential streets have walkability scores in the high 70s, and Lake Washington is just a block or two away. If such amenities were all that counted, this would be prime territory for investment.

Two nights later, the crime prevention council held its monthly meeting, and it too was a mega-version. More than 60 local residents and several dozen more police and city officials packed into the Southeast Seattle Senior Center. The City Council’s Public Safety Committee had trooped down to convene its own weekly there, before the crime council’s. Harrell, the committee’s chair, distributed electronic vote clickers to the non-official attendees and conducted an instant poll. Did residents “feel safe and secure” in their neighborhoods? No, a strong majority responded. Did they see a visible police presence there? No. Did they want more police presence? Yes. “I disagree,” one woman interjected. “We live at Renton Avenue and Fletcher Street. We have swat teams there, police buzzing by all the time. We have a daycare, and people see that and don’t think it’s safe to bring their kids there.” Presence, yes, but not that kind of visibility.

The public discussion, spirited but civil, exposed other faultlines as well. One white-haired, ruddy-faced gent, who announced proudly that he’d lived in the valley since 1942, referred bitterly to “the savages who beat Danny Vega to death.” Larry Evans, an aide to King County Councilmember Larry Gossett (whose district includes Southeast Seattle), lectured from the front table, “If we’re going to call our children ‘savages,’ I’m glad I came out here….”

Nevertheless, the mega-meeting and the mega-walkabout were manifestations of a decided warming in relations between Southeast residents, in particular those active in the crime council, and the top brass at the South Precinct, police headquarters, and City Hall. Those relations hit a nadir four to five years ago. The Nickels administration was widely viewed as a malign force in Southeast, mostly interested in condemning “blighted” homes and exporting more unwanted subsidized housing there. In late 2006 SPD’s then-chief, Gil Kerlikowske, reassigned a highly regarded South Precinct commander who’d built up the sort of community cooperation that is once again the watchword today. His prickly replacement rebuffed the crime council and chilled neighborhood participation. Two more, better-regarded captains followed in quick succession. The one still in charge, Captain Mike Nolan, knows the district; he served there twice before, as a patrolman and lieutenant. He’s seen as diligent, fair, and methodical, if low-key. For any cheerleading that needs to be done, Nolan has the barnstorming Lieutenant Hayes, who has even deeper roots in the district.

Mike McGinn’s administration is at the least seen as benignly neglectful, an improvement. But the Rainier Beach walkabout passed by one stark example of the consequences of neglect and delayed promises. In 2010 the city secured funding, plans, and a winning bidder to rebuild the worn Rainier Beach Community Center, home to midnight basketball and untold other alternatives to hanging out and getting in trouble on the streets. In January 2011 it demolished the existing facility, ready to proceed with construction. Then McGinn intervened. He declared that none of the bidders had met the legal standard for using women- and minority-owned contractors and ordered the project redrafted and rebid. The result: the new community center isn’t due to open until autumn 2013, after a gap of nearly three years.

The city Parks Department is scrambling to fill some of the gaps in service. It’s moved some of its activities to the nearest centers still open, on Beacon Hill and near Columbia City, one to three miles away — too far off for kids to walk. It’s reinstated its late-night rec program closer by, first at Rainier Beach High and now at South Shore K-8, but only two nights a week. That leaves nothing most of the time, and as Jeron Gates, who coordinates the department’s “youth violence prevention” efforts notes, afternoons are “prime time” for crime — including the rash of transit robberies. Gates and his colleagues are scrambling to find other venues. The problem: “There’s no money.” He hopes churches will help.

The Rainier Beach walkabout rounded back onto Rainier Avenue at a particularly poignant spot: Maya’s Mexican Restaurant. Since the double shooting in front, business there had crashed. That may have been a one-off tragedy, and the rough characters who used to sometimes hang around in front of the restaurant are no longer there. But fear and avoidance aren’t matters of rational calculation; in The Sopranos, Tony Soprano, unable to forestall a planned mob hit at his friend Artie’s restaurant, has the place torched so it won’t suffer the stigma.

Hayes mustered the 200 marchers into Maya’s parking lot and asked the restaurant’s manager (the owner’s son) to come out and meet the neighbors. “Let’s give him a big shout-out,” Hayes declaimed, without directly mentioning the shootings. “Let’s show him that we’re going to support his restaurant, that we support locally owned businesses, that we’re here for him.” He stepped out from his kitchen to a round of applause. “This really means a lot to my family,” he said shyly. “I hope we’re here for another 30 years.”

Maybe such spirit-rousing efforts can help connect people with their neighborhood businesses. A few doors up from Maya’s, the march passed Tino’s, a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria. “Have you ever tried it?” one walker asked. Yes, another replied.

“Is it all right?”

“Oh, sure … we get the quattro formagii to take home.”

“Good to know. I didn’t even know it was there.”

But when I returned to Maya’s on Saturday and had an excellent bowl of pozole, the waitress was disconsolate. “It’s still really slow,” she said.

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