Dear SPD Officer Couet,
We’ve never met. That’s not exactly true, but during the 10 or so minutes I stood centimeters from you on Sunday, August 13, as you propelled me backward with your bike, we never really got formally introduced. I was standing on a public sidewalk, and someone, not you, someone you take orders from, decided I was in the way. I wasn’t the only one corralled off a sidewalk we pay significant sales taxes to freely walk down. In a very technical sense, I wasn’t even part of the extremely valid, anti-fascist, anti-racist, peaceful protest. My heart was with them, but you blocked my body. Indeed, had you and your compatriots not decided I was in the way, there would be no record of my participation in Sunday’s march, no further evidence of SPD’s continued and blatant use of excessive force. But now I have bruises up and down my thighs where you pushed your bike into my body. You were wearing body armor and dark sunglasses. Your name and badge number were written on a piece of duct-tape, stuck to your chest piece. I was wearing a pair of jeans and a crop top. I wasn’t really prepared for the protest. I have been recovering from mono, so I just wanted to be a body for 30 minutes, before I got too tired. I wanted to stand in solidarity and denounce the very same Nazism you protected on Sunday, not let my illness overcome my convictions. I knew my gesture would be small—the absolute least I could do. And considering the arrests and pepper spray that others endured at SPD hands on Sunday, considering the recent murder of Charleena Lyles, my gesture was small.
When you told us to move, I just knew, I wasn’t going to help you. I looked at my boyfriend in silence, and we both knew. We would practice non-compliance. I put my hands in my pockets and I faced you. Why did I do it? I just did it.
You pushed me. You stepped on both my feet, causing me to momentarily lose a sandal. With each push, you yelled “Move Back,” and made sure your orders were followed. During those ten minutes, you never met my eyes. I looked, and I looked, silently, gazing. You were wearing sunglasses, but I could still catch the light off your irises, never looking me in the face. As you pushed and pushed, I thought to myself, even here, even now, you, officer Couet, are human. I will give you humanity by looking you in the eyes. Why did you never meet mine? You would not afford me the same courtesy I was affording you. Maybe you just haven’t read enough Levinas.
I want to be absolutely clear about one thing. What you did, if you had been anyone else, would be assault.
I said one thing while I stood across from you. A debate had begun between the officer to your right and the men to my left. The other officer tried to get out of being accused of upholding a racist system by saying that America is racist, so doesn’t that make us (the people being pushed) racist too? Of course, to him, being called racist is an insult, so he thought we’d be mad to hear him affirm the very reason we showed up in the first place. I have no delusions about how racist I am. Of course, you didn’t know that. You didn’t know that the only difference between my racism and yours is that I acknowledge and fight against mine. But you wouldn’t know that, because we’ve never really met.
I regret breaking my silence to speak. Not because I was wrong or unsteady. But because you weren’t hearing anything that was said. What I wish I had done was sing. I have a good voice. At my birthday parties, every year, my friends push me into singing “La Vie en Rose” by Edith Piaf. I did once on a boat on South Lake Union, so now they want me to do it every year. I kill at that song. But that’s not what I wish I had sung on Sunday. I wish I had sung “Down by the Riverside.” My boyfriend and I have been practicing. I heard a version of it that I loved at a church service in college, so when we started building a repertoire of protest songs, I added that one to the mix. Maybe you’re familiar with the lyrics, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside and study war no more.” Of course, swords are really passé, and you didn’t have a shield. You had body armor and a bike. But you get the point. It would have felt really good to sing in the middle of being afraid that the officer behind you, strutting around with his pepper spray out and unpinned, was just itching to use it. It would have felt good to make something beautiful while you were using force, violence, and threats to prevent us from peacefully observing a protest. And you see what you did right? When you pushed. We stopped being the observers and became the protesters, separated from our march.
I want to say a few words about the people who have suffered (not just been pushed around) at the hands of SPD, those who have been pepper sprayed, unjustly arrested, murdered. Charleena Lyles, Che Taylor, John T. Williams. They are, more often than not, people of color. The people on the south side of the street on Sunday, the ones who were more vocal than me, the Black people, they knew that they were already risking so much more than me by being there. I didn’t get to hear from them whether your fellow officers pushed harder or used stronger threats. I know that I had an easier time for being white, that your final statement before you rode off on your bike so recently weaponized against me, “No hard feelings,” may not have been uttered but for the color of my skin. (Also, of course you had no hard feelings. You had all the power and all the protection. Why would you harbor hard feelings for us?). All of this is to say, I know that there are people risking more, people who stayed with the march longer, people whose trauma will outlive the tape I have on replay in my head of you pushing me backward. I know that what I do is little, that I’m opting in with my whiteness when I work toward anti-racism. I know I can leave when I get tired, go through most of the world as if it were made for me (yeah, we’ll a put pin in how you handled rape allegations against Sheriff John Urquhart, and how I can’t escape sexism). But I will keep putting my body on the line, even if it’s just to create a little breathing room between you and the people of color I’m showing up for.
This part isn’t for you, Officer Couet, but I hope you read it anyway.
I know I can write these things because of my whiteness. I know that the potential for white outrage is higher because of my whiteness. I hope anyone who reads this, who finds themselves angry about the idea of a white woman and her white boyfriend being pushed around by riot police infuriating, check yourself. How mad were you when you found out Charleena Lyles and her unborn child were killed? What are you doing to make it possible to prosecute a police officer in Washington state? How will you put your body on the line? Have you paid a Black woman today?
See you around, officer Couet. Next time, I hope I have the presence of mind to sing while you assault me.