How Tacoma Killed A Generation Of Black Liberals

The killing of Manny Ellis is unsurprising for this Tacoma resident

People listen during a vigil for Manuel Ellis, a black man whose March death while in Tacoma Police custody was recently found to be a homicide. Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

The last time I got stopped by a Tacoma policeman, it was early February 2018.

I walked up G Street to the Best Western (now the Tacoma Dome Hotel) when I heard the feet of someone behind me, moving fast. I turned and saw a slightly portly shadow that I couldn’t recognize. I moved forward and started to run at him ’til the streetlight came on — and revealed that the shadow was a cop.

Petrified and wanting to deescalate the situation, I told him how sorry I was. “Please, it was in the dark. I didn’t know who you were,” I said. “I didn’t mean any harm by running up on you.” We went through the usual stages: He asked for my ID. I told him I would pull it slowly out of my back pocket. He asked me who I was and where I was going. I told him that I was a writer going to a diversity conference the next day.

“So, you’re gonna talk about me?” he asked.

For a moment, I thought I got his rhetorical gist. But I took a second look at him and was surprised. He wasn’t like any of the big, steroidal Tacoma cops who had stopped me in the previous 30 years. No, he was round and scruffy headed. He had a tremor in his dimples that made it look like he had a pout. His voice was low enough to make his high pitches noticeable. I took a deep breath and asked him, “What do you want from me?”

He stammered for 30 seconds. As I started to feel sorry for him, he told me his story. In the waning hours of daylight, he relayed to me his trials growing up poor in Auburn and not being able to fathom White privilege when two Black kids picked on him in the 11th grade.

No, as a little ghetto nerd who took too much in and pissed off too many, I considered the coalition my protectors. They were committed to getting shit done, no matter how small or pragmatic that shit was if those things helped the community.

He told me of his anger and alienation in high school, and how teachers and students made him feel like an outcast because he didn’t like Ta-Nehisi Coates. He ruminated on the women who belittled and rejected him because he played video games and was heavy. Perking up a bit, he told me of the bonding of his Three Percenter brothers and left me with a message that his group wasn’t violent, nor was it all White. No, they were here to “defend what was important of Western civilization,” something that “violent” Black activists and Black Lives Matter members were “trying to destroy every day.” And while his group was not violent, they were not above “self-defense.” When he finally walked off, I had a sick feeling, and not just because I had been subjected to a police encounter.

My interactions with cops have been complex. Growing up in the area with a crackhead father, I remembered when The Hilltop Action Coalition vehemently retook back Tacoma neighborhoods from gang and drug activity. And like most Black people in the neighborhood, I revered them for it. I had no patience for the local activists and rappers they had pissed off; the progressive heroes I had heard of seemed remote, or at least remotely evil to me.

Witnessing violence and living every day in fear of being robbed or beaten up by Crips because I was a nerd, I had (and continue to have) no sympathy for anything resembling “the trap.” As a busing kid who saw the UPS and PLU kids who constituted the “hardcore rap scene,” I hated local hip-hop and the suburban kids who thought the pain of my neighborhood was a gangsta party. I found the Nation of Islam too poisonous to redeem their record of community uplift.

No, as a little ghetto nerd who took too much in and pissed off too many, I considered the Coalition my protectors. They were committed to getting shit done, no matter how small or pragmatic that shit was if those things helped the community. They were there, via services, food, or support. Like almost everyone I loved, their members were profane, pragmatic, politically incorrect, and mostly Black women-centered. They did not care who they pissed off or allied with, as long it made the blocks safer and got the violence to stop.

In doing those little things, they produced Hilltop’s transformation from one of the most dangerous places to live into a relatively safe area. And they did it with the help of good cops.

My interactions with the Coalition don’t negate that I had an array of terrible experiences with police since I was eight years old. Yet with my own eyes, I saw the allegiance with cops who cared about the community, and I would be lying to you if I said that they didn’t exist.

Yet why was I sick at the sight of this Proud Boy cop? It wasn’t a Paul Mooney- styled “Nigga Wake-Up Call”; I already told you I knew corrupt cops existed. No, it was that for the first time, I saw the perverse verities the bad cop shared with the Crips who frightened me, and the dope fiends like my dad who helped build the toxic Tacoma drug culture of the late ’80s. They believed they were mistreated by a distant other: My father and the Crips by society; the Three Percenter cop by poverty and his graduating class. They took that mistreatment and metastasized into something that had tortured a community.

I saw how the Tacoma police department would treat people — especially young people — like cattle. I saw cops cornering them in the downtown library as they tried to pick up books. At Freighthouse Square, I saw them violently frisk people with money in their hands, waiting in line to buy food. I didn’t see officers involved in summer picnics, midnight basketball tournaments, or local community civics lecture. No, I saw crews looking to roughhouse.

This year, that violence took the life of Manny Ellis. On March 11, Ellis slammed the trunk of a police car with his hand because of his fear that four members of the Tacoma Police Department would arrest him for prior warrants. This act caused four cops to wild out for nine and a half minutes choking him to death, all captured in four agonizing graphic videos.

Those four videos also went against a police examination that claimed he had fought them in an epic struggle and collaborated a coroner’s report that said his death was a murder. All of this anguishes me out of my fucking head. I am surprised by none of it, precisely because of my experience with the cop under the streetlight. I am not surprised that the Hilltop Action Coalition, a bedrock of Black liberalism, came out vehemently against it. There was no salt-of-the-earth men on one side, no nihilist moral undertow hurting the community on the other, no air or nuance in which a greater good can come out. There was only a brutal, graphic murder, and the fear of a city they had loved and fought for being controlled by thugs again — only these had much more of a network than the ones they fought in 1989.

It is here where the debate over Ellis will rest. Not in the idea of whether the cops are guilty or not, because to debate about the merits of a tape where someone is choked to death for nine minutes is sadistic. Nor will it be about the rightness of a crooked system. The debate will be about whether Black Tacoma is a section of a town or an occupied territory. Only like so many cities with so many police departments with so many murdered Black people, there will be no networks to save us. And every block will be so hot. And there will be nothing to get this violence to just fucking stop.

Writer. Author. Former Jack Straw and Artist Trust Fellow. The baddest ghetto nerd on the planet.

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