A year after George Floyd’s murder, what’s changed in Washington state?

Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests fueled major actions on police accountability, tax reform and environmental justice. But no one thinks the work is done.

Sakara Remmu sits with her hands clasped in her lap

Sakara Remmu, the lead strategist of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, in Seattle on May 20, 2021. Remmu said several major pieces of legislation wouldn't have passed if it weren't for citizen advocacy and last year's Black Lives Matter protests. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

When George Floyd called for his mother with his dying breaths, the police officers holding him down didn’t seem to notice — but the rest of the world heard him loud and clear.

Black people had been saying for decades that deep racism and violence exists in American policing. On May 25, 2020, that violence became something others could no longer ignore.

The protests that swept the globe in response to Floyd’s murder brought calls to dismantle our systems of law enforcement. Video footage of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, while three other officers did nothing to intervene, sparked a new wave of demonstrations against the oppression of Black Americans.

In Washington state, those protests paved the way for the passage of a dozen police accountability bills, including a statewide ban on police use of neck restraints, stricter limits on police uses of force and a stronger system for decertifying problem police officers. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee also signed bills into law to create an independent agency to investigate police killings, build a statewide database of police uses of force and require officers to intervene when they see other officers engaging in excessive force or misconduct. 

Many of those bills were championed by family members of people killed by police, during a session where lawmakers said they made racial equity a key focus.

Sakara Remmu, lead strategist of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, called the statewide policy advancements of the past year “unprecedented.”

“They started doing their jobs last year,” Remmu said of state lawmakers. 

Still, no one believes the work is done. 

“I would say the 12 bills that passed and were signed by the governor have really attacked police accountability at different angles,” said Maya Manus, the advocacy organizer of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. “Now, I think it is on the community, as well as local jurisdictions and lawmakers, to make sure those are implemented.”

In addition to passing police accountability legislation, state lawmakers enacted a sweeping cap-and-trade policy that included commitments to environmental justice, along with tax reform legislation. All of those will benefit people of color, Remmu said. 

Many of these proposals, such as a capital gains tax aimed at high earners, had been discussed in the Legislature for years, but repeatedly failed to advance. 

For many, there’s a lingering sense that change shouldn’t have taken this long.

“Everything we did, it felt like, ‘Why didn’t we get this done years ago?’ ” said state Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way, who was elected last fall and now chairs the Legislature’s Black Members Caucus.

At the same time, Taylor said, “we still recognize that 400 years of systemic racism cannot be undone in one legislative session.” 
 

Things that changed

State Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, said the Legislature approached bills differently in 2021 than in the past. 

For one, law enforcement groups weren’t playing a leading role in conversations about how to reform policing, as they often had before. 

Instead, people of color and families of people shot and killed by police were at the forefront of those conversations, Johnson said. Law enforcement groups were brought in several months later.

That approach is one reason lawmakers were able to take big steps to beef up the process for decertifying officers, despite concerns from police unions. In the end, Senate Bill 5051 broadened the lists of offenses that would lead to an officer’s decertification, while adding more nonlaw enforcement personnel to the state commission that makes those decisions. Police groups thought the bill put too much power in the hands of the State Criminal Justice Training Commission, instead of leaving certain decisions in the hands of local departments and police labor unions.

Also this year, the Legislature approved restrictions on police shooting at moving vehicles, limits on the use of tear gas and a ban on no-knock warrants. A no-knock warrant is what police used to enter the home of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, last March, killing her in the process. Taylor’s fatal shooting by police was another loss of life that fueled last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Johnson said he thinks those policies wouldn’t have passed without the furor inspired by George Floyd’s murder and the killing of Breonna Taylor inside her home. 

“When the George Floyd moment happened, that was a real line in the sand,” agreed state Rep. April Berg, D-Everett.

State Rep. Jesse Johnson stands with his arms folded across his chest

State Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, on April 21, 2021. Johnson sponsored multiple police accountability bills that were recently signed into law. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

State Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way, on April 21, 2021. Johnson sponsored multiple police accountability bills that were recently signed into law. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

A more diverse Legislature

But the changing makeup of the Legislature may have also played a role in the advancement of some proposals this year.

The 2021 session ushered in the largest number of Black lawmakers in Washington history. Six Black women and three Black men now serve in the Legislature, nearly double the number that served the year before. Overall, people of color now make up nearly 20% of the Legislature and about a third of the Democratic caucuses, which control both legislative chambers.

“You can’t bring people who have this life experience, who actually experience all the things that we work on, and expect that we are not going to do legislation on it,” said state Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, one of five Black women in the state House. She said the process of diversifying the Legislature gained steam in 2018, when she and several other new members of color were elected.

After the events of 2020, majority House Democrats started analyzing legislation differently, making racial equity a core focus in every bill they decided to advance, Johnson said. Senate leaders similarly prioritized legislation that included racial equity components. Both legislative chambers are controlled by Democrats.

“I haven’t seen another session where everything we talked about, we had to talk about how it advanced racial equity,” said state Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, who has served 14 years in the Legislature. 

Those changes led to lawmakers prioritizing not just the police accountability bills, but also a measure to ban landlords from evicting month-to-month renters without cause, as well as the tax on capital gains, which will raise money for expanding child care programs. 

Other bills that passed included measures to eliminate school lunch fees for low-income students (House Bill 1342), require that juveniles have access to an attorney before police can question them or search their belongings (House Bill 1140), make Juneteenth a paid state holiday (House Bill 1016) and keep children with their parents or other relatives instead of placing them in foster care (House Bill 1227).

In response to a court ruling that essentially legalized drug possession in Washington state, legislators also changed how drug offenses will be treated for the next two years. Instead of being a felony, as it was before the state Supreme Court’s Blake ruling, simple drug possession now will be a misdemeanor, with a person diverted to services or treatment for the first two offenses.
 

People power

Yet Remmu said one of the biggest changes that happened in 2020 didn’t occur at the legislative or judicial level at all. It came from the people of Washington state, who realized they could “use their own institutionalized power to move the needle,” she said.

“We — we, meaning the nation — rediscovered the sanctity of small ‘d’ democracy,” Remmu said. “I think that’s what shifted the game irrevocably.”

Remmu’s group helped thousands of Washington residents email lawmakers, show up to testify on bills in committee and take part in the process in ways they hadn’t before, she said. Other organizations led by people of color engaged in similar advocacy, buoyed by a remote legislative session that allowed more people than ever to comment on legislation without traveling to Olympia.

Some bills focused on racial equity spurred intense debates at the Capitol. Senate Bill 5044, which will require school board members, staff and teachers to be trained on diversity, equity and inclusion, prompted critics to say the measure would insert radical politics into schools. 

State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, worried some of the proposed training could be “corrosive and divisive” and questioned whether it would be the best use of public resources. 

He said when he talks with parents and students, “what they want is they want a quality education: They want to be able to read, do math, write, do programming — computer programming — at a high quality level."

A similar debate unfolded about Senate Bill 5227, which would require racial equity training at the state’s colleges and universities.

Ultimately, those two bills passed and were signed into law despite those concerns. 

Remmu said that after the events of the past year, elected officials saw that if they didn’t take new actions to address racial inequality, voters wouldn’t stand for it.

“It became, ‘you can either do this, or we will, and then you’ll be out,’ ” she said. “We’ll come back and sweep you out — it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you fall on.”

Sakara Remmu sits and looks to the left off camera

Sakara Remmu, the lead strategist of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, in Seattle on May 20, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Sakara Remmu, the lead strategist of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, in Seattle on May 20, 2021. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

What didn’t get done

Still, not everything that community advocates wanted made it through this year. A bill to create community oversight boards that would oversee local police departments and investigate uses of force, House Bill 1203, stalled in the Legislature. 

So did a bill to reform qualified immunity, House Bill 1202. That measure would have created a new path under state law to sue officers who violate people’s constitutional rights. Right now, such lawsuits are limited by federal case law.

Lyn Idahosa, executive director of the Federal Way Black Collective, said she’s also disappointed more wasn’t done to remove school resource officers from the state’s schools and provide stable housing for young people, including those transitioning out of the juvenile justice system. Similarly, she thinks the Legislature could have done more to address students’ mental health needs — especially coming out of the pandemic, which has hit families of color particularly hard. 

Fundamentally, when it comes to public safety, Idahosa would have liked to see the Legislature do more to overhaul policing as we know it. That would have included making larger investments in alternative programs that can respond to people in crisis, while taking those situations out of the hands of police. 

She noted that state lawmakers were quick to pass a law this year that banned the open carry of weapons at protests and at the state Capitol. That came after armed protesters breached a gate at the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia and a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.  

Yet she said politicians hadn’t been willing to ban open carrying of firearms before that, when protesters of color voiced concerns about armed militia groups and white supremacists confronting them in the streets.

“Incremental change was not allowed when it came to protecting their lives, right? They locked the Capitol down,” said Idahosa, a core member of the group Washington for Black Lives.

“When their lives were threatened, incremental change was not enough.”

State Rep. David Hackney, D-Tukwila, said he agrees there’s more work to be done on drug possession, which ultimately he would like to see fully decriminalized. He thinks the Legislature also needs to revise long sentences for other offenses besides drug possession — work that he said was delayed this year as the Legislature responded to the Blake decision.

In particular, some people who committed crimes as juveniles are sitting with unreasonably long sentences that need to be revisited, he said.

“We’re throwing the lives away of these young people,” Hackney said.

Many Democratic legislators also want to repeal the state’s ban on affirmative action, Initiative 200, which applies to public hiring, contracting and university admissions. The Legislature voted to repeal the ban two years ago, but voters narrowly reinstated it after a referendum campaign. 

In addition, state Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, said next year the Legislature must work to improve health care access for Black Washingtonians and address the higher maternal mortality rates among Black people who give birth.

“What I am hoping with this new session is we will listen to Black women, and we will listen to them not just about how you are killing our sons, but that you are killing us," Entenman said this month. 

All of that will leave the Legislature with a full agenda when it reconvenes in January of 2022.

Remmu of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance said that whether the changes made this year will last depends on who Washington voters elect going forward. She said the election of Donald Trump is one example of how “whenever the pendulum of progress swings in one direction ... it will move violently back in resistance to that progress."

“People really need to not get comfortable, and not lose sight of that fact,” Remmu said. “If you want to maintain these advancements, you need to put people in place who will protect them.”