Year in review: 2021's most important stories

Here are the stories that shaped Washington state this year.

Four photos: Bruce Harrell at a podium, people walking at a park, SPD officers, and an aerial view of Mt. Rainier

(Photos clockwise from top left) Seattle mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell makes a victory speech during his election-night gathering in November. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut); Pedestrians walk along Lake Washington Boulevard near Seward Park. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut); Protesters face off with Seattle Police Department in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut); Mt. Rainier is seen in an aerial image. (AP Photo/Ritu Shukla)

Did 2021 feel like being stuck in stop-and-go traffic for you, too? Gridlocked with pandemic closures. Feeling that cautious joy of movement as vaccines become available and the state reopens. More roadblocks in the form of emerging COVID-19 variants and renewed mask mandates

Suffice to say: 2021 has been A Year.

Below, we reflect on 2021 through the stories we helped tell about on health, politics, education, science and culture across the Pacific Northwest. We’re highlighting these pieces based on the stories you read most and recommendations from our newsroom.

A couple approaches a man seated at a table that's stocked with vaccine information.
Michael Chu and Sandy Nguyen of Renton visit a Public Health — Seattle & King County pop-up vaccination site together for a vaccine at the Renton Public Library on Aug. 25, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

COVID and health

It feels like a lifetime ago that all Washingtonians could get their first vaccines against COVID-19. In reality, it has been only eight months. Since then, many of us have set out to find some kind of normalcy — whatever that means anymore — with our friends and family. Crosscut’s Knute Berger has looked back to local history to find some inspiration from 20th century Washingtonians living through the unknown of our last pandemic.

But it’s not easy to pretend we aren’t creeping closer to a third year of this pandemic. There are still people on the front lines working through burnout to keep our communities alive and informed. Parents are trying to figure out schooling and child care as new coronavirus variants emerge. Some of us are still trying to persuade the vaccine-hesitant people in our lives to get the jab. Many of those who contracted coronavirus are coping with after effects like brain fog and other so-called “long COVID” symptoms as they recover. 


A line of SPD officers wearing helmets, face shields, and gas masks
Seattle Police Department officers hold a line surrounding protesters in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, July 25, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)


Much of 2021 was spent looking at law enforcement reform in Washington state — and whether state leaders were making good on their promises. Season 2 of our podcast, This Changes Everything, took a deeper look at the clear need for comprehensive crisis response, as well as potential solutions being employed in Washington and beyond.

This spring, Crosscut politics reporter Melissa Santos wrote about what she found in a nine-month investigation of how Washington continues to employ police officers with documented credibility issues, including bias, dishonesty and use of excessive force. The series, which received an award from the Washington State Coalition for Open Government, prompted local prosecutors to reconsider how they were doing business.

The Washington Legislature took on police accountability with some new laws that confused local police and the public, which may be why Santos’ story on what new Washington police accountability laws do was one of the most popular stories on Crosscut this year.


Seattle mayor-elect Bruce Harrell waves his hand from a stage
Seattle mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell is joined by family and friends as he makes a speech after early poll numbers give him a solid lead in the race, during an election-night gathering in Seattle on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)


Seattle will inaugurate its new mayor, Bruce Harrell, in January. He defeated sitting Seattle City Council President Lorena González and led to a somewhat more politically moderate City Hall. The city council and Office of the City Attorney both swung to the right, but voters kept in office the council’s most liberal member, rejecting an attempt to recall Kshama Sawant. After an exciting election season, Seattle will go back to dealing with the same issues on the table before voters picked Harrell as their new leader: Seattle’s housing and homelessness crises and the future of public safety and crisis intervention.


A person running around the Capitol campus
Washington state's capital building is seen in Olympia, Washington. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

State government

At Crosscut, we’re committed to helping Washingtonians better understand what’s happening in state politics and why it matters to them and their communities. From the environment to policing and homelessness, the Washington Legislature was busy in 2021. Readers turned to Crosscut to find out if their taxes were going up, and why. They sought a relatable explanation for the political redistricting process. And they wanted to know how news on the national scene was resonating in this Washington



Marquee at the Paramount reads "One year closed 3/11/20 - 3/11/21"
The marquee of the Paramount Theatre in Seattle on March 9, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Arts and culture

Between the pandemic’s initial closures and fluctuating mask-wearing and capacity restrictions, arts, music and cultural venues are struggling to stay afloat. A year into the pandemic, reporter Margo Vansynghel surveyed 125 arts organizations, from Tacoma to Edmonds, to see how they were doing. Their leaders’ emphatic message: Money is tighter than ever.

But there were plenty of bright spots and creativity amid the pandemic gloom: a new radio station Indigenizing our airwaves, a mall revamped for indie artists and makers and Black artists making their mark in the Central District.


Kids in a line in a school hallway. A banner overhead reads "Class of 2023"

Students line up to check in on day two of the Mount Tahoma High School Jumpstart orientation program, Aug. 26, 2021. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)


Understatement of the decade: Students, parents and educators have had it tough the past two years. Although Washington schools reopened in 2021, the ever-evolving pandemic compounded existing inequities and created new hurdles, including addressing kids’ strained mental health,  COVID-19 variants and vaccine requirements. And those were just the coronavirus challenges. Teachers, families and education officials also navigated difficult national conversations about race, the Black Lives Matter movement and school funding disparities.


Aerial view of Mt. Rainier
Mt. Rainier dominates the landscape around Seattle. (Ritu Shukla/AP)


As the pandemic slowed down daily life for many of us, it also opened up time — sometimes overwhelming amounts of it — to reflect on some Big Questions about our surroundings. We leaned into curiosity about wilderness. (How are birds doing — and, um, is that a beluga in Puget Sound?) We asked how we can be more inclusive. (Is there a better name for ‘murder hornets’? Can we make the outdoors more equitable?) Some of us definitely got a bit existential. (Is Mount Rainier going to kill us? Where the heck is Cascadia on climate change?)

We hope you’ll stick around as we keep unpacking these questions in the new year.


People walking around a park as magnolia blossoms fall. A sign staked in the grass reads "Crowded parks lead to closed parks."

Pedestrians walk along Lake Washington Boulevard at Seward Park in Seattle on April 28, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Opinion and perspective

Earlier this month, Crosscut sunsetted its Opinion section, which has been a fixture of our newsroom since Crosscut’s founding in 2007. Up next: finding ways to uplift underrepresented community voices that don’t feel heard by local media. As we figure out how we’ll move forward, we want to thank all the writers who have contributed to Crosscut Opinion over the years, especially our regular columnists, Claudia Rowe, Clyde W. Ford, Katie Wilson, Rubén Casas and Samantha M. Allen, and Crosscut editor-at-large Knute Berger. 

Here are some of the Opinion pieces readers liked most this year:

Protesters standing in a park. One holds a sign reading "Racism is killing my patients."

People gather to listen to speakers at a rally for Black health equity at Laurelhurst Playfield Park in Seattle on Jan. 9, 2021. The group came to show solidarity with Dr. Ben Danielson, a renowned pediatrician and medical director at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic who resigned in November to protest what he says were racist patterns at Seattle Children’s Hospital. (Jen Dev/Crosscut)

Race, equity and everything else

Some of our most popular and important stories and video series in 2021 didn’t fit neatly into any of these categories. We hope you’ve recognized that Crosscut has been digging deeper into issues of equity and racism, trying to get to know the communities of our region and centering the voices of our Indigenous neighbors. 

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