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RE-AIR: Investing in Community: Interview with Girmay Zahilay

Hacks & Wonks

Release Date: 12/29/2021

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On today’s rebroadcast, Crystal’s interviews King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, and they discuss police accountability and what it really means to invest in community. In the conversation they discuss the King County Charter Amendments that were on the November 2020 ballot and have since been approved by the voters, changing how the sheriff is selected, and requiring investigation over all police related deaths. Councilmember Zahilay also goes into the important work he's doing to increase investment in Skyway, without displacing the people who already call it home.

A full text transcript of the show is available below, and on the Hacks & Wonks blog at https://www.officialhacksandwonks.com/post/king-county-councilmember-girmay-zahilay-talks-sheriff-reforms-supporting-skyway.

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and Councilmember Girmay Zahilay at @girmayzahilay. More info is available at officialhacksandwonks.com.


Articles Referenced:

Learn more about the King County Charter Amendments from People Power at https://www.wethepeoplepower.org/kcca.



Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we don't just talk politics and policy, but also how they affect our lives and shape our communities. As we dive into the backstories behind what we read in the news, we bring voices to the table that we don't hear from often enough.

So today on Hacks and Wonks, we are excited to be joined by Girmay Zahilay, King County Councilmember for District 2, who has been doing a lot of work in the community. You've probably seen and heard from him - he's everywhere, just about, but we are excited to have a conversation today just about what you're working on. So thanks for joining us. 

Girmay Zahilay: [00:00:52] My pleasure, Crystal. Thank you for having me. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:00:54] So I guess starting out, what are you working on? What's top of the agenda right now?

Girmay Zahilay: [00:01:00] We're working on a lot of stuff. I would say the two biggest policy agendas that we have are number one, Skyway, which is a neighborhood just south of Seattle and north of Renton. And that encompasses all things for the wellbeing of that neighborhood. And the second area that's our top priority is our criminal legal systems and imagining the future of public safety and making sure that marginalized communities are uplifted, supported, and feel safe rather than brutalized by a system that is racist and that hasn't seen much of any innovation for a long time. So, I would say those are the two biggest and we can dive into each of those umbrellas, as you like, Crystal, but there's some exciting stuff in each one of those. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:01:46] Sure, absolutely. I mean, both of those are related - Skyway has the largest African American population, in the State, per capita. And so we see under-investment, and an under-resourced  area that's been ignored and neglected, despite it's absolutely prime location. And so the conversations that we're having with public safety go hand-in-hand with conversations that we're having there, and that, if Black Lives Matter, as you've said, Skyway has to matter - and the types of considerations that we're talking about in public safety extend to the whole conversation - just about racism and inequalities, and really setting people up for very different outcomes in life from the very beginning, based on the way we're set up systemically. So in terms of public safety, what are you working on?

Girmay Zahilay: [00:02:48] Right. Your point, Crystal, about these two issues being intersecting is so spot-on. Right now we're seeing possibly the largest civil rights movement in the history of the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought in millions of people nationally and tens of thousands of people locally. I grew up in South Seattle, so seeing our streets packed with tens of thousands of people like we have, shows me that there is momentum to support Black Lives. The Black Lives Matter movement is not just about ending police brutality. Of course, that's a central message, but it's also about ending all kinds of systemic harm and uplifting Black people because our systems have not done that so far. And like you said, Skyway is the place where we must start. It has the highest proportion of African Americans in the state of Washington and simultaneously, it's also the area that has been disinvested from the most. When you have an area that has the highest proportion of Black people and the area that has been disinvested in the most, that is systemic racism, plain and simple. So it, just to me, it points out this issue where again, our region says one thing and does another. We can drive around South Seattle and Skyway and see Black Lives Matter signs everywhere, but we don't invest in Black people the same way that we should. These issues are intersecting - Skyway, our system of public safety, police brutality - these are all intersecting issues. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:04:29] They're absolutely intersecting issues and have been issues for so long, and we're really late in having this conversation. And it's a matter of having a representative in your position continually stress that this is a priority - this is urgent. And someone with lived experience who this is not a theoretical issue for and who has spent many years leading up to this, working on how to change from the root, systemically, the issues that we're dealing with. And one thing that I do want to point out that, from my perspective I appreciate, is, as an elected representative, we want you to take great votes and people are certainly excited about that. But the leadership goes beyond just what you do in the meetings and the votes you take. And you talked about being part of the largest civil rights movement happening right now, that we're in the middle of, and there were nights when we saw horrifying video coming out of the streets of Seattle and surrounding areas and, certainly SPD, behaving questionably. And some just, unambiguously, inappropriately and violently. And there were protesters and people in the community who said, Hey, we need help down here. We need someone down here to witness this, to address this. This is wrong, from being teargassed, to being beaten, to being corralled, and you answered that call. You were there, you were available - one, you were in a position to even see that. I mean, between Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, you are there and present when a lot of other people are not. And you were like, Hey, I'll be there. And you were there. And that just meant a lot to me, it means a lot to community to see - not only as someone willing to take the vote, but this is personal and this is real, and they're willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lines and say, You know what, I'm part of this too. And this affects me too. And I'm in a position to use my platform and power to change this, not just when it comes to taking a vote, but just using your voice, shining a light on it all around. So I just want to say - I appreciate that, I saw that, I know a lot of the community sees that. And it matters to have someone who understands and who has felt and experienced, what this really means and the consequences of these actions. And so beyond that, or I guess looking through that lens, what is your approach to turning just the understanding, the pain, and the need into policy - and what is in process?

Girmay Zahilay: [00:07:30] Thank you, Crystal, for highlighting that. There were a number of other elected officials who came out that day as well, and just the community members who've been organizing and protesting for the past six months. They've been putting their bodies and their lives on the line every day, to advance justice. And we, as elected officials, need to be out there with them. 2020 is such a special and different year, right? Before 2020 happened, we already had so many crises - it's not like we were in peace times before this and there were a lot of issues to resolve. But then 2020 starts and the issues get bigger and our tools for resolving them diminished greatly - because the usual tools that we have for advocacy engagement, understanding one another, are completely obliterated when we're not allowed to gather or be near each other.

So as elected officials, we have to find other opportunities of engaging and learning and listening, because it can't all happen virtually. We cannot believe and be lulled into the false sense of understanding our constituents from a laptop or from a cell phone. We have to be out there. And that's why I try my best to be out as much as I can, in a safe way, every opportunity that I get - whether that's outside delivering masks - I could have my staff or King County officials go out and do that for me, but I want to be out there, I want to see people, I want to talk to them - or that's going out and protesting with people, because I need to experience the police brutality and overreach firsthand if I'm going to shape effective policies. I think it's really important for us to be out there, to be visible, to show people that we're truly listening, and crafting our policies based on what we're seeing and hearing from our constituents. Otherwise, we're susceptible to just believing the spin, and the narrative, and whatever media agenda there is out there of the people who have access to media, telling the story for us. And I think the most perfect example is the evening marchers and the young people who are organizing and marching every night. If I were to just to open up my news apps and read about them, I'm seeing - mobs, destructive mobs. When I went out there and actually sat with them and spoke to them, I was blown away by the level of nuance and informed discussion that I was able to have with these teenagers and young adults. They were pulling up our voting records, they were pulling up things that we have said in the past in various committee meetings. It was just the most intellectual conversation that I've had in my time as a councilmember. And I would have never known that if I hadn't gone out there and spoken to them. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:10:28] Well, and what you talked about is very important in needing to be present and experience it yourself 'cause you just mentioned, if we watched the typical evening news, they'll focus on, Hey, if there is some property damage, if there is someone that they can view looking aggressive, or if the police department says, Hey, this is our take on things today, whether or not that story changes later on down the line. That's really been the focus of our local TV coverage that a lot of people catch. A lot of people don't have the time or ability just to do a deep dive into news and the social media and to see what's actually happening. So for you to be able to experience it yourself and be on the ground and understand that this isn't - these aren't people without a plan. These aren't people acting impulsively.  These are people who understand that lives are at stake and who have taken it upon themselves to educate themselves, to arm themselves with knowledge, and to say, You know what? We are going beyond what we've done before and we're demanding better. And I tell you, young people are the best at holding everyone accountable. And out of necessity - because their preceding generations have slipped and didn't do the job they should have. So they're actually coming around and saying, Okay, let's actually show you all how it's done. And we just saw that result in the Seattle City Council recently - overriding Jenny Durkan's veto of the rebalanced budget that significantly defunds SPD and sets the stage for even more defunding in the next budget. 

Girmay Zahilay: [00:12:16] Right. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:12:16] So, from the County perspective, and talking about the Sheriff's that are within your jurisdiction - are you also looking at defunding and what are the specifics of the plan?

Girmay Zahilay: [00:12:29] I would encourage everyone to look into Charter Amendment #6, which will be on your November ballot. When anybody who's listening to this opens up their ballot in November to vote on things like who they want their next president to be, they're also going to see a list of seven King County Charter amendments, and four of these amendments relate to your County system of public safety. If you vote Yes on Charter Amendment #6, it would allow the King County Council to shape the future of public safety. This is not some kind of symbolic, or incremental, or performative change around eliminating police brutality. This would allow the King County Council to move away from a system where we send armed police officers to respond to every single challenge on the streets of our city and county - to assist them - that is a diverse toolkit of public health alternatives. So, if we see a mental health crisis on our streets, we can send trained mental health professionals. If we see somebody in need on our streets, like an encampment, we won't send officers with guns - we send rapid response social workers who can help people in need. If our youth are having conflicts or issues, we can send violence interrupters and mentors to respond. If somebody has routine, everyday things like a noise complaint, or wants to do a wellness check, or a fire code issue, we can send code enforcement officers who aren't armed. Our default response to every single issue does not have to be to send police officers who have guns, because that's how Black and Brown people die unnecessarily. That's what we've seen all around the nation and this charter amendment, if it's passed - and it is something that our office proposed - would remove certain restrictions that would allow, then, the King County Council to transfer public safety functions away from traditional law enforcement and toward community-based and public health alternatives. I think this would be a huge and beneficial change for our county and all it takes is our public approving it through the voting process.

Crystal Fincher: [00:14:49] You're listening to Hacks and Wonks with your host Crystal Fincher on KVRU 105.7 FM.

So that's going to be on the November ballot. 

Girmay Zahilay: [00:15:30] The one I described is just 1 of 7, but there are others - like shifting our Sheriff from an elected position to an appointed position, which would increase accountability to the Council and allow us to give the Sheriff policy instruction, which we can't right now.

Crystal Fincher: [00:16:24] You just mentioned the charter amendment to make the Sheriff appointed and not elected. A lot of people feel like, Hey, if we elect people, they're directly accountable to the people - we can hold them accountable, we get a consistent voice. Why is having them report or be appointed and accountable to the council a better system? How does that increase accountability? 

Girmay Zahilay: [00:16:56] Well, an independently elected sheriff is exactly that - more independent, and we do not need a more independent police department. We need better checks and balances, we need to be able to oversee them, we need to be able to provide policy instruction to them. And yes, on the surface, it does feel like electing someone feels like accountability to the voters, but once you've elected them for four years, who are they exactly accountable to? The Council right now has budgetary power - we can provide incentives through budgetary sticks and carrots, but we cannot give them policy instruction. We cannot transfer public safety functions elsewhere. And the King County Executive right now - if the Sheriff did something wrong, the King County Executive cannot fire the Sheriff, for example. There would have to be a recall process, which is way more complicated than a King County Executive just saying, Hey, you've done something wrong. You are not being accountable to our constituents. We're going to look for somebody else. And also an appointed position would allow the King County Council and the Executive to do a nationwide search and find the best quality person for the job, whereas an election, you are inherently through that process - you're attracting politicians to that job. People who are going to be accountable to - more accountable to the police unions and to their donors - than to people who want better policy instructions for them. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:18:35] It's always interesting to have this conversation with politicians, but it's usually only politicians who hold themselves accountable and allow the public to hold themselves accountable, who want to bring that up. that is a legitimate issue - that there are a lot of politicians who do feel beholden to their donors and to, a lot of times, the special interests that helped provide the funding and resources to get them elected - but that often have competing agendas with the people who they're actually elected to serve.

So as we're looking at this overall - one issue that we have recently talked about in Seattle, and especially looking at the Mayor and the control that Jenny Durkan has over the Seattle Police Department, and even the Police Chief for the Seattle Police Department - not really having power or authority to impose appropriate discipline, to make appropriate changes, because of the police guild's contract for Seattle. Is that also an issue with the Sheriff's department in King County? And how do you fix that? How do you begin to change that, so that there is accountability? 

Girmay Zahilay: [00:19:49] It's a huge obstacle for justice and accountability. One of the things that we talk about most is the fact that oversight - the process of holding police officers accountable for misconduct, for example, that process is subject to bargaining - meaning that we can only hold police officers accountable in the ways that the police unions agree to. Imagine if any other profession, a high risk profession, say surgeons, or anything like that. Imagine if they told you, Hey, you can only hold us accountable the ways that we agreed to. Is that real accountability? Of course not. That's what we have here - that's the issue that we're facing here - the fact that oversight is subject to negotiation and bargaining. I understand why some things are subject to negotiation - we want workers to be protected - police officers are workers as well - things like benefits and workforce conditions, things like that, of course. But when we're talking about holding you accountable for misconduct, for example, that is not something that we should have to negotiate with you. That should be a completely independent function not subject to negotiation, but it is right now, because of state law. And last month, I actually held a round table discussion with several state-elected officials and community members, especially out in Skyway, and people in the union world, like MLK Labor Council. I had them all on a call and we discussed what can we do to solve this issue without deteriorating workers' rights? Because the last thing we want to do is have anti-union people using this police union issue as a way of deteriorating union rights. That's not what we want to do. Is there a way to carve out this specific, special situation? And that's what we would discuss with the state-elected officials as a state matter - it's not something that King County Council can change, but we did get some commitments from state-level people - that they are going to look into this and address the collective bargaining laws that  allow police unions to be an obstacle to true accountability.

Crystal Fincher: [00:22:16] Okay, that makes sense. So, in terms of what is possible in this next legislative session, are there fixes that they're committing to bring forward, or that are currently in discussions? And then how much is an issue of state law preventing that, and how much is an issue of direct negotiation of the contract?

Girmay Zahilay: [00:22:41] So it's both for sure. And I, the sense that I got from the state-level people is that they are going to introduce something that allows - that would carve out police unions from this collective bargaining law. Or at least carves out accountability measures from the requirement to bargain and negotiate. Because again, that should be independent. I can follow up with them to hear if a specific bill is going to be proposed, but that's the sense that I got. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:23:12] Yeah, that makes sense. And, appreciate you trying, even though that is not in your direct area of control - to make an effort to work in cooperation with your partners at the state, and to say, Hey, we need action. What can we do? And to get that conversation started, and we will certainly be talking more about that here on Hacks and Wonks. 

So broadening the conversation - and we started talking about Skyway - and we started talking about the disinvestment and, really, the institutional neglect and hostility, which is certainly harmful and a form of violence. How do we - what are the best ways to address that? What change can meaningfully be made? What policies can be changed, especially right now in the middle of a pandemic, when every local government and state government is saying, We're experiencing a budget crisis at the same time - so what can be done? And looking at the near term, and then in the next six months to a year, what is planned? What is possible?

Girmay Zahilay: [00:24:29] For sure, Crystal, and I think the most important thing is to start off understanding what the problem statement is. The problem statement is not - how do we get more investment into Skyway? I actually just got into a Facebook argument with somebody on Facebook - which I tell myself every day, Don't get into Facebook arguments because it's a losing battle - you're not arguing rational people most of the time. But I posted how Skyway needs investments, et cetera, and this guy who, of course, had a vote Trump thing in his profile pictures, somewhere deep in there, was saying that, The easiest way to fix Skyway and to have it catch up with the neighborhoods around it, is to reduce regulations for developers, handout permits as quickly as possible, and private capital can flow in and we can develop it so fast - this is such an exceedingly simple solution. And I have to tell him, Again, you are working with the wrong problem statement. The problem is not where we need to find ways of having private capital flow into Skyway. If that were the only thing we're trying to solve for, the solution is exceedingly simple, right? It's just to eliminate all regulations, hand out permits to developers. And of course, they would take that in a heartbeat. The problem statement is - How do you invest in Skyway without displacing the people who already call it home? And the solution to that is much more nuanced and requires us to be much more thoughtful about how we proceed with development. It requires us to, yes, invite development, but do it in a way that is lockstep with anti-displacement measures, that invests in existing people and existing small businesses that are already there. It requires us to down-zone certain areas so that we can slow the pace of gentrification as much as possible. It requires us to be really thoughtful about what kind of requirements we're putting on developers - we're not just saying, Hey, developers, it's a free-for-all. No, you have to have a certain number of your units be affordable. You have to - right of first return to people that you displace in the process of development. You have to invest a certain amount of money in existing small businesses. You have to create community land trusts and community ownership. Those are all things that we're trying to do right now, because as far as I can tell, I have not been able to identify a single neighborhood or region in Washington State that's gotten it right so far. If it was so simple, I asked this man who argued with me on Facebook, give me the list of neighborhoods in our state where this has worked before. Just - we don't have to argue - just lay out the facts for me, because again, if you're going to point to places like the Central District - no. South Seattle - no. Anywhere you point to me, I'm going to show you that - no, we did not get it right. Yes, private capital flowed in and development happened, but what happened to the people who already live there? And that's what we're trying to solve in Skyway. And I can talk about the things that we've been working on so far, but I know it's always best to give myself some breathing room and not talk endlessly. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:27:50] Well, we do have a few more minutes, but it would be good just to get an idea of what the focus is.

Girmay Zahilay: [00:27:59] For sure. So the first thing that we did was help get a Skyway Land Use and Zoning Plan pushed across the finish line. This is something that people had been working on before I got here, but we helped push it across the finish line. And that's the first thing - is setting the foundation for investment - and that means we down-zoned certain areas from bigger commercial areas into smaller neighborhood commercial areas. Because again, we don't want speculative developers coming in here and putting in giant high-rises, and Targets, and Walmarts, and all that. Not yet. We also changed the areas that are already zoned for multi-family housing, like apartment complexes - we included some affordability requirements into those, so if you are going to develop areas that are already marked for multi-family, you have to have a certain level of affordability for lower income people to be able to live there. That's just setting the foundation. And then, now what we're working on is bolstering the level of investment that King County is willing to put in - for things like a community center, we just got earmarked for $10 million. For things like participatory budgeting, where the community gets to choose how it wants to spend money - whether that's for housing, or youth services, or roads and infrastructure - $10 million is going to go into that. We're getting $4.6 million - and this is all part of King County Executive Dow Constantine's proposed budget - $4.6 million is going to be redirected, of marijuana revenue, is going to be redirected from law enforcement and go toward community-based alternatives. So you lay the foundation of slowing the rate of gentrification, and then you slowly invest and build up - and at the same time, in lock step, we're going to also be placing, preparing anti-displacement measures, like just cause eviction, which would require that landlords and other big commercial developers - that they have a just reason for kicking out tenants and can't just do it for commercial reasons, or whatever it might be. 

Crystal Fincher: [00:30:21] Right. That is helpful, certainly. And excited to hear that you're picking that up - other local jurisdictions have taken that up, and so others are just beginning to follow their lead and I'm glad to see that you're on the leading side of that.

So I appreciate you just talking to us about everything today and what's going on and just understanding more of one central point. It isn't simple. It isn't simple, it isn't easy, but that is not an excuse not to do the work. And in fact that means that we really have to double down and dive in to understand the issues and get to work now, because we really can't wait any longer. We can't afford to wait any longer - people's lives are at stake and in the balance - and everything from health to education, just to what someone's neighborhood and school and street looks like, and what their future is set up to be - depends on the work that we're doing today. So I appreciate you spending this time, I appreciate the work that you're doing. Can you give your Twitter handle one more time, so people can get more information about what we've talked about today? 

Absolutely. It's @girmayzahilay. Thank you so much, Crystal. I Girmay Zahilay: [00:31:48] really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. I really love the work that you do, and your whole team does. Thank you for highlighting the voices of our most marginalized communities and some of the solutions that would get us on track to being a region that works for everyone.

Crystal Fincher: [00:32:10] Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks. Thank you to KVRU 105.7FM in Seattle where we record this show. Our chief audio engineer is Maurice Jones, Jr. And our producer is Lisl Stadler. If you want more Hacks and Wonks content, go to officialhacksandwonks.com, subscribe to Hacks and Wonks on your favorite podcatcher, or follow me on Twitter @finchfrii. Catch you on the other side.