By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s hard to know from a photo if Matt Chan’s amazed and outraged look is from his cancer diagnosis or from what he is hearing at a public safety meeting put on by the Mayor’s office. The flat, fatigued, and blasted look on his face is like that of a man who’s sat back down, stunned, after trying to get up unsuccessfully.
It might represent the feelings of the community.
Throughout the long months of protests and meetings that Chan helped lead, he struggled with a tumor on his kidney that then spread to his lungs.
So when he suddenly spoke up and told the officials it was time for them to do more listening to the community, he not only had nothing to lose, for himself, but had everything to lose for the Chinatown-International District (CID).
His malady is being treated by immunotherapy, which seems to be working. But that of the CID may be beyond cure.
“From the beginning, both deputy mayors said they were under a time constraint,” said Chan, who quit his position as special advisor for public engagement for the city after his diagnosis.
“They would field a question and go on in some length, often veering into areas that didn’t directly pertain to the CID. So I asked them to keep their answers short and let the community members speak, since they were there to listen to us.”
Chan’s frustration was shared even by community members who felt the conclave was a good start in dialogue between the city and the CID, as he did.
The meeting was held on Nov. 10 and attended by Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell and Deputy Mayor Greg Wong, who invited about 40 community “stakeholders,” although it was not entirely clear how the list was compiled.
The purpose of the meeting, according to Wong, was to continue to engage in a conversation with the community about issues its advocates had raised as they fought to halt the expansion of a nearby homeless shelter, when there are already 18 shelters within a one-mile radius of the district.
It was also to provide “updates on programs the City had launched that immediately address some of [these] issues,” said Wong in an email.
A history of futile efforts
Still, Harrell and Wong faced an uphill battle. On one hand, community advocates felt that city hall had largely been absent from their protests and efforts to stop the megaplex shelter expansion, although city officials did hold several meetings along the way with organizers.
But perhaps a deeper feeling of mistrust and helplessness stemmed from a sense of deja vu—that officials have asked the community to come up with public safety plans in the past, then ignored them. According to a report by Trang Tu, a consultant for the community, there have been 20 public safety plans requested or commissioned by the government over the past decade.
“There is a history of asking the community to come up with public safety plans, but then there’s no action,” said Tanya Woo told the Northwest Asian Weekly after the meeting.
Woo has been leading efforts to ask the city and county for funding to redress past harms and implement current plans.
“We already have solutions, but no funding,” she said.
Still, some community members said they thought they saw Wong holding in his hand the most recent public safety plan from the CID Public Safety Council during the meeting.
Absent: public safety plans
After the meeting, some community members and organizers who were present expressed a sense of betrayal, saying that the proposals put forward during the meeting had nothing to do with public safety, at a time when the community is besieged with constant violence, shootings, open drug use, vandalism, theft, armed robbery, and harassment of residents.
“This added nothing to increase public safety,” said longtime community advocate Frank Irigon. “It was a public relations stunt.”
During the meeting, according to community members who were present, Teresita Batayola, president and CEO of International Community Health Services (ICHS), told of an active shooting incident inside the front hall of an assisted living community run by ICHS. The police did not respond, she said. Nor did they respond to multiple other life-threatening incidents, according to a letter she published in this newspaper.
Historically low police staffing
In response to such concerns, Wong wrote, “Public safety issues that have been created over decades cannot be solved overnight.”
As for slow or negligent police response, he pointed to the low levels of officers available—city statistics show the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has lost over 400 officers in the last few years.
“In response to community requests and despite limitations that include SPD’s staffing crisis—the department currently has the lowest number of deployable police officers in over three decades—we have and continue to put in place programs and police presence to deliver effective, sustainable safety.”
Not a favored neighborhood?
But some community advocates contend that the CID is treated differently than other neighborhoods. Brien Chow, chair of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association Outreach Committee, sent the Asian Weekly articles about a shooting in the University District. They show that the SPD added patrols there three days after the incident.
Although community members say they have seen more law enforcement personnel driving through the CID, it was not immediately clear if the city had acted with similar alacrity as in the University District.
According to some of those present at the meeting, Harrell and Wong were short on concrete promises.
“It was just a lot of—‘We’ll see what happens in the budget,’” said Woo.
Felicita Irigon said she was so frustrated with the lack of commitment from the officials that she interlaced her comments with the f— word.
“We meet and we meet and we talk and we talk and nothing happens,” she said.
Chow said officials may not realize that the CID has become a “ghost town,” with windows boarded up and people regularly doing drugs in the streets.
“No one wants to come down here at night,” he said.
Wong, responding to such concerns, noted that the city “currently funds programming in the CID, including funding directly to community-based organizations, as well as strategic planning, the neighborhood’s public safety liaison, and more.”
He said the city would continue to look for opportunities to provide funding.
“We are fully committed to improving public safety in the CID,” he said.
Closing the distance
Chan said he was impressed by the fact that Harrell and Wong had come personally to meet with community members. City Councilmember Tammy Morales herself was not present but one of her staff members, Evelyn Chow, was.
“What I found different was that they said it would be a ‘special conversation’ that would continue,” said Lau.
Lin Mei-Jui, president of Chong Wa, said the officials took great care with the layout of the meeting, specifically instructing her to make sure everyone was seated in an equal fashion—rather than giving tables only to Harrell and Wong.
“They wanted to close the distance,” she said.
The meeting was held at Chong Wa headquarters.
A pilot program: so far so good
There was broad acknowledgment that the city’s eight-week pilot sanitation program, in the short run, at least, had left the streets and alleyways much cleaner.
“We’re not walking over needles all the time anymore,” said Woo, who helps lead a block patrol several nights a week that delivers food and clothing and hot chocolate to people living in the homeless encampments.
But at the same time, the very brevity of the program, and the uncertainty about whether it would continue, raised fresh questions.
Other community members said the city’s unwillingness to commit to any longer than eight weeks is “racist.”
Asked about the future of the pilot program, Wong pointed to an expansion of what the city calls a “Unified Care Team,” that involves workers making contact with people living on the streets, developing relationships, and encouraging them to move to shelters, which expedites cleaning up of encampments.
Other pressing needs
With the lack of police presence, community safety plans have called for the hiring of security guards—unarmed or armed—to patrol the neighborhood. Many businesses are trapped in multi-year leases while their insurance companies will no longer cover them, due to the ongoing multiple break-ins, smashing of windows, burglaries, and armed robberies that have become routine. Chow proposed at the meeting that the city underwrite insurance for CID businesses that could not get coverage.
“We need the city to pick up insurance for the businesses,” he said. The city also needs to help businesses take down the boards covering their storefronts, he said.
In his emailed responses, Wong did not exclude any possibility, although he was not responding to specific community complaints.
“At this meeting, we were asked about the temporary nature of the pilot program and how it could be made permanent. As such, there are elements of the mayor’s proposed budget that support these expressed priorities of the CID,” he said.
“The intent of this meeting was to listen and respond to community needs.”
Support for the mayor’s budget
Some community members came away with the impression that the city was asking them to show their support for the mayor’s budget in order for them to receive any support. Irigon said his takeaway was that the city was saying, “You won’t get any support for public safety unless you support our budget and increased funding for the SPD.”
Lau said, “They encouraged people to go to the city budget meeting.”
Others thought the primary purpose of the meeting was to encourage community members to attend the city council budget meeting in support of the budget. Still, longtime political observers say that, for the most part, the city council passes the mayor’s budget with relatively little change.
Wong said, “Public safety improvements in the Chinatown-International District are not reliant on public support for the mayor’s budget, but sustainable improvements do require adequate funding for the mayor’s priorities.”
Join the SPD
Officials also made a plea for community members to join the SPD. Some attendees were outraged and pointed to the lack of any Asian Americans in the command staff (Capt. Steve Hirjak recently sued the SPD for discrimination).
“Residents across the city are encouraged to apply to join the police service—something we highlight at meetings across the city. Mayor Harrell believes the SPD should reflect the diversity of our city with a commitment to community policing. Having officers who are from our communities and know our communities will only enhance their ability to serve the community,” said Wong.
Many who attended the meeting were cautiously optimistic about future engagement.
“You’ve got to give people the benefit of the doubt, otherwise you’re not going to work together,” said Connie So, president of OCA Asian Pacific Advocates of Greater Seattle and a teaching professor in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington. “But you also have to call them out and people don’t always do that.”
At a recent King County Council budget hearing, community organizer and CID Public Safety Council member Gary Lee shared a map showing the 18 shelters in the vicinity of the CID.
Lee said he shared this information during the meeting with Harrell and Wong and explained the concentration of shelters was due to hazy zoning requirements.
The officials promised to follow up with him, and he sent them an email asking for a meeting.
“They told us, ‘If you have an issue, you don’t need to protest, just email us,’” said Lee. “But if they don’t follow up, I’ll be out there protesting again.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.