Investing in Community: Interview with Girmay Zahilay

Investing in Community: Interview with Girmay Zahilay

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 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

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

Articles Referenced:

Learn more about the King County Charter Amendments from People Power at


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, subscribe to  Hacks and Wonks on your favorite podcatcher, or follow me on Twitter  @finchfrii. Catch you on the other side.