By Chris B. Bennett
The Seattle Medium
Jesse Hagopian, a community activist and history teacher at Garfield High School, recently reached a $100,000 settlement with the City of Seattle for an incident in which he was pepper-sprayed, without provocation, by a Seattle Police officer after he gave a speech at a community rally on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2015.
At the time of the incident, Hagopian was on the phone with his mother– arranging plans for a ride to his two-year-old son’s birthday party — when Seattle police officer Sandra Delafuente assaulted him with pepper-spray.
“That day was deeply painful, and not only because of the burning in my ears, nostrils, and swollen eyes,” said Hagopian. “What hurt the most was the fear that I brought to my two sons who were deeply troubled watching me writhe in pain and pour milk on face to try to sooth the burning.”
The pepper-spray assault was caught on video and garnered millions of views online and was the subject of national and international news stories. As a result of the video, Hagopian was able to show that the incident was unwarranted.
“It is deeply disappointing that we are in this place again that we see how protestors and peaceful marchers are treated by the Seattle Police Department,” said Attorney James Bible, whose law firm represented Hogapin in his claim against the City. “I think the question that should be posed by many is what would happen if there, in fact, was no video in this particular case. We’d be stuck with nothing but the narrative of law enforcement and what we know now is that the narrative of the law enforcement rarely, if ever, matches the video that we’re able to capture and gather on occasion.”
Hagopian, to his credit, has turned the incident into an opportunity to support people who are making a difference in the Seattle area, as he is providing money from the settlement to support the work of groups and individuals to improve the plight of people of color.
At a press conference held Monday at the NAACP office, Hagopian announced the establishment of his Black Education Matters Scholarship for student activist. Hagopian presented three high school students – Marcelas Owens, Ifrah abshir and Ahlaam Ibraahim – with $1,000 to use in order to continue their work in the community.
Marcelas Owens has been on the recognized for her work both locally and nationally on healthcare and transgender issues.
Ahlaam Ibraahim hosts an annual Islamophobic event to educate people who may be afraid of Muslim people due to media bias. In addition, she also uses social media to address bad things that are happening in schools and has been instrumental in getting building improvements at some schools through her use of social media.
Ifrah Abshir helped lead the Transportation Justice Movement for Orca Cards in Seattle Public Schools. This started off as a quest to secure Orca Cards for Rainier Beach students that lived more than a mile from school and were getting to school late or missing school because they did not have the financial means to pay for bus transportation. The two-year battle culminated in the City of Seattle providing Orca Cards to low-income high school students in Seattle.
“I’m really excited to say that the real heroes in our community are the young people who are making big change and getting ready to make even bigger change,” said Hagopian. “We are going to turn all this pain into positive movement forward and into action.”
“Already you’ve transformed Seattle Schools,” he said of the recipients. “I can’t wait to see what you guys do moving forward.”
In addition, Hagopian also announced funding for the Africatown Center for Education and Innovation, and Families of Color Seattle – two community-based organizations that are also helping to make a difference in the community.
Africatown Center for Education and Innovation is an organization that has developed a concerted effort to change the trajectory of African American students by providing a culturally responsive learning community that fosters hope, resilience, and academic achievement.
Families of Color Seattle is a local organization that provides parenting support and cultural programming for families of color.
“It’s meant so much to me to see the work that you’ve done with families of color across Seattle to empower them and this is exactly the type of work that I want to continue to support in Seatttle,” said Hagopian about his donation to the organization.
Hagopian says that the awards are not one time gestures and that he plans to establish a fund so he can give out funds to deserving people each year.
“We’re going to put thousands of dollars into this fund, so people can get it,” he said.
As it relates to the pepper-spray incident, the outcome is bittersweet for both Hagopian and the NAACP.
“This is a victory in that it has received an outcome,” said Sheley Secrest, Vice President of the Seattle King County NAACP. “But this is a lesson that Seattle has already had the opportunity to learn. SPD should be ashamed because they know that they have a problem when it comes to policing these types of protests.”
“We’ve told them over and over again and the fact this it has cost them over $100,000 for their failure to learn from their mistakes is a lesson that as taxpayers we cannot afford,” Secrest concluded.
With the settlement the City of Seattle did not admit to any wrongdoing. The Office of Professional Accountability recommended that officer Delafuente be suspended for one-day without pay for her actions. However, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, reportedly, choose to give Delafuente an oral reprimand instead of suspending her.