As an Asian kid who rides a bike to work, some people may assume I moved into Seattle for a six-figure paying tech job. In reality, I ride my bike because it’s free. That way I can spend my bus money on things like rice and lentils.
Though the young, white (or in my case, East Asian), and well-paid are the most visible elements of gentrification as they displace of longtime residents for the sake of bespoke cupcake shops, NIMBYism and the great political power of entrenched white capital have more to blame for the displacement of the poor, black, and brown.
When wealthy property owners dictate zoning policy, gentrification will always ravage those communities that white flight abandoned, that housing covenants walled in, and that car-centered transportation priorities pandering to white suburbs cut apart. But we know this, and we’ve seen the end results for the displaced of San Francisco’s catastrophic battle with gentrification.
What’s less well understood is how central police are to urban settler-colonialism. Law-enforced racism has made the divide between the gentrifier and the displaced not only possible, but also actively protected.
While tourists, hipsters, and tech workers now line up to buy legal weed at Uncle Ike’s on 23rd and Union, police profiled and arrested black people on the very same corner before the Central District was colonized. Black and brown people were disproportionately punished when pot was illegal, and are do not benefit from its legality the way white people are.
Police departments are also the ultimate enforcers of eviction orders, as seen in March in the eviction of the CD’s Umoja PEACE center, and often do so following court cases that are one-sided and lack transparency. Police surveillance and violence always serve white capital.
Police have long practiced “order maintenance” policing, despite its questionable empirical legitimacy. However, these policies of surveillance and control of non-serious offenses have taken on a new intensity and unique role in the context of gentrification.
When new, wealthy residents move into historically poor neighborhoods, arrests and citations in those neighborhoods for trivial offenses increase dramatically, and on racial lines. Seattle Police Department data show an increase from 1,973 police reports in the Central District in 2008 to 3,206 reports in 2016. While 23 police reports were filed in 2008 regarding “disturbances,” 116 were filed in 2016 for the same category, suggesting increased police presence and activity as property values rise and new residents move in.
A map of policing in the San Francisco gentrification battlegrounds of the Mission and Tenderloin districts illustrates this relationship, with “danger of leading an immoral life” an actual offense that resulted in a vast number of the recorded arrests and citations. These policing practices criminalize existing residents, encouraging their displacement from the community.
New, rich, and mostly white transplants to a gentrifying neighborhood become an active, integral part of police surveillance, by calling the police on people who do not look like them or for minor “quality of life” complaints. But moreover, to be seen as different, or “other”, in a gentrifier’s gaze can result in the police shooting you dead, no matter how long you have lived in your neighborhood.
This happened three years ago, when police killed San Francisco native and security guard Alex Nieto. Evan Snow, a “user experience design professional” who had moved to San Francisco six months earlier, argued with Nieto in a park then texted a friend that “in another state like Florida, [he] would have been justified in shooting Mr. Nieto that night.” Two other recent transplants saw Nieto, interpreted his job-issued Taser as a threat, and called 911. Four cops then arrived and shot Nieto with 59 bullets. No charges were filed.
The killing of Alex Nieto is a cautionary example of what happens in cities undergoing rapid gentrification, with police practices that surveil and target brown and black people in order to protect the influx of new wealthy residents and luxury development. For working class communities of color finding themselves on a listicle of the “hottest neighborhoods” in the city, gentrification tends to end either in displacement or death.
It is easy to imagine a similar tragedy unfolding in Seattle’s Central District or Beacon Hill, with the influx of tech money and workers who have never lived in a historically brown or black neighborhood. San Francisco is a model for gentrification run amok – housing that is unaffordable except for the extremely rich, underscored by violence towards marginalized communities.
For Seattle to avoid becoming San Francisco requires a deep and intentional interrogation of what gentrification means for policing, and vice versa, in addition to the needed action on zoning policy and construction of housing and transit without displacement. Gentrification operates on a history of economic and political inequality, enforced by institutions like the police. For research organizations like EOI, studying how our city is changing, and what these changes mean for different communities, is crucial to fulfilling our commitment for economic security for everyone.
This post was written by EOI Policy Intern Louis Lin.