From 2020 to now: 4 Seattle Black activists reflect on their work

Inspired by George Floyd protests and the pandemic, local changemakers share their journey for justice, from art to policymaking. 

Now a podcast host and musician, Garin Peyton spent much of 2020 protesting the killing of George Floyd on the streets of Seattle. He and other Seattle activists have been figuring out how to use their voices in new ways in the years since. (Grant Hindsley for Crosscut)

Now a podcast host and musician, Garin Peyton spent much of 2020 protesting the killing of George Floyd on the streets of Seattle. In the years since, he and other local activists have been figuring out how to use their voices in new ways. (Grant Hindsley for Crosscut)

Garin “PeyDay” Peyton was out in the streets of Seattle, chanting, singing, dancing and marching for around 200 days toward the end of 2020 as part of an informal group of young Black leaders in Seattle who called themselves Engage. They led marches in the city after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. 

The group Engage no longer exists, but its initial goal was to engage people who wouldn’t normally be part of conversations surrounding racial injustice, police reforms or systemic failures for the Black community.  

Peyton, who was born in the ’90s, recalls the protests as being some of the best moments of his life. 

“I really wanted to be part of something that actually made sense to what we can do in the future,” Peyton said. “If what happened in 2020 didn’t happen, I feel like we would still be behind.” 

Many Black Seattle activists started their journey with the same determination and fire to fight for change. Four years later, some have taken different paths toward their goals, and some have left those avenues altogether. 

Peyton remembers the fatigue that accompanied mobilizing every day without proper food or rest. 

“We were tired, exhausted and everybody’s pointing fingers because we want to see change happening within a week rather than doing the groundwork to make it happen later on.” 

That urgency for change is what Peyton remembers as a core reason why Engage disbanded, and also why he took a break from organizing.  

Now he channels his activism through his social media, Living Colored, and his music. Peyton said he created this space to allow artists to express themselves regardless of the color of their skin. 

He also recently started a podcast called “The Hot Seat,” where he interviews artists from the Pacific Northwest and plans to feature artists involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. 

In the center of chaos 

Abie Ekenezar was also on the front lines of the 2020 marches in Seattle, and has made films related to the scenes they saw that summer. One of their films, Prefer Racial Treatment, included footage they took when police were gassing protesters. 

As an eight-year U.S. Navy veteran, Ekenezar was familiar with war zones and conflict, but was bewildered by the loud bangs and scenes they saw in Westlake Center and on Capitol Hill. 

“These are regular, everyday citizens that are marching. We got permission from the mayor … and so we were really confused because we’re not sure what the hell is going on,” they said. 

Ekenezar had to be hospitalized for injuries, including difficulty breathing hours after getting gassed by police and straining a spinal disability received in the Navy. One protester, Summer Taylor, died after being struck by a car during a march on Interstate 5. Ekenezar was one of 50 people who sued the city of Seattle for police brutality against activists. The city agreed in a court settlement to pay them $10 million.  

Nearly four years later, Ekenezar does not feel the city has changed much.

Filmmaker Abie Ekenezar is one of 50 plaintiffs in the $10 million lawsuit against the City of Seattle for injuries caused by the Seattle Police Department during 2020 protests. Ekenezar continues to use filmmaking to call attention to racial inequality and the problems they see in policing. (Chloe Collyer for Crosscut)

“They did something that should not have been done,” they said, referring to the city’s response to that summer’s protests. “It just boggles my mind, why you as a city, knowing full well, you made a mistake. People resigned because they knew they made mistakes.” 

Ekenezer said accountability was instilled in them during their active naval duty. ”The fact that our government, the people who we used to work for, aren’t doing what they instilled in us is such hypocrisy and so gross,” Ekenezar said. “I just don’t know what else to do, I have no words.” 

Since the protests, Ekenezar has continued to make films and documentaries. Their most recent documentary, Bad Ass Women Doing Kick Ass Shit, is about several women of color involved in politics. 

Despite their experiences during the 2020 protests, Ekenezar said they will still continue to protest and be an example for their son. 

“I’m never going to be happy because no amount of money is ever going to be enough for what they did. It’s never going to be enough for what they are continuing to do,” they said, referring to the settlement. 

They specifically pointed out how a Seattle police officer struck and killed a pedestrian in 2023, and another reportedly laughed about the incident, illustrating for Ekenezar that things haven’t changed much in the intervening years.

More than three years later, Ekenezar feels people are still not being held responsible for their actions during the protests. “I’m sick and tired of it and if I need to make more films that call this into question and bring this stuff to light, then I’m going to continue to do that. That’s my mission.”  

Looking at the next generation 

Jelani Howard was a senior, 17 going on 18, when he decided to take a knee with his Garfield High School football team during the playing of the national anthem. 

In 2016 he understood the gravity of Colin Kaepernick doing the same. “Taking the knee just shows how much change high school kids can make, and I guess that was something that I am passionate about because I saw the change I was making around my city,” he said.  

Now 24, Howard works full time, but continues his activism by staying involved with youth and engaging them in conversations about race and inequality – for example, speaking with a former high school teacher’s classes from time to time. 

“I like seeing how people are starting to get the opportunity to have open discussions, and I think that’s a big motivation,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t see that happen, but now that I’m becoming an adult and seeing changes, it makes me happy and makes me want to do it.” 

He says he is inspired by younger kids who are continuing to push and fight for change, including racial justice. Howard also volunteers as an advisor to the Mariners on how to mentor youth of color. 

Jelani Howard got his first taste of activism taking a knee during the national anthem with his football teammates as a student at Garfield High School. Howard, now 24, uses his voice to encourage other youth in their push for change. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Howard also participated in various 2020 protests, and was at CHOP, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, near his home. He thinks there has been significant change in Seattle, including more opportunities for people of color. He said he is unsure about supporting some efforts that came out of the protests, like defunding the police, since he’d like to know specifically where money is being moved to. 

A mix of politics and activism

Girmay Zahilay considers himself a mix between an activist and a politician, or as he puts it, a “changemaker.” 

As the District 1 representative on the King County Council, he began his term in 2020 during the protests and the pandemic. He says he combines advocacy, activism and policymaking to make change as a Councilmember. 

At the beginning of his career, Zahilay thought his job would involve tackling big policy challenges like climate change, housing shortages and other more abstract things to support democracy. But since 2020, his goals have shifted toward helping people survive right now.

“That feeling of being disappointed, jaded, traumatized, hurt, we can’t let that make us give up,” said King County District 2 Councilmember Girmay Zahilay. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

He wrote an op-ed in 2020 for Cascade PBS to try to use the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement to propel the Black community toward prosperity. Four years later, he doesn’t think they’ve made significant progress.

Several policy changes came out of the 2020 protests; for example, new King County law-enforcement accountability laws, and making the King County Sheriff an appointed rather than an elected position, so the Sheriff would no longer be an independent politician with little oversight outside of Election Day. Voters also reallocated certain public-safety functions away from the Sheriff’s office and into public health, including mobile crisis responders. 

“All those things didn’t exist before 2020, and so yes, I do think positive things have happened,” Zahilay said. 

Growing up in Skyway in South Seattle, Zahilay noticed a lack of community resources and public transportation. As a policymaker, he made it his goal to change that, and created community gathering and resource centers, expanded public transportation and invested in affordable housing. He said his biggest accomplishment on the Council is the Crisis Care Centers Initiative, which assists communities of color struggling with addiction

Some activists have mentioned a feeling of exhaustion after not seeing the change they want in their cities or in the nation. Zahilay says he understands that exhaustion, but doesn’t feel it himself. 

“It’s been hundreds of years of activism by African Americans trying to create a more just society, and we’re nowhere near where we need to be by most metrics of well being,” Zahilay said. “That feeling of being disappointed, jaded, traumatized, hurt, we can’t let that make us give up.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that the Seattle police officer who killed and struck a civilian in 2023 laughed afterward. This story has been updated to state that it was a different officer who laughed after the death of a pedestrian.

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