Seattle: The Punch, the Past and the Connection

What might be a simple case of police self-defense becomes troubling when you consider the turbulent history of police-minority relations in one of America's most tolerant cities.

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For the past week, courtesy of a video on YouTube, it's been the punch thrown 'round the world: On June 14, during an arrest for jaywalking and a fracas that resulted from that arrest, a Seattle police officer punched a teenager in the face after she shoved the officer while being arrested.

The teenager who did the jaywalking, Angel Rosenthal, was apparently wrong as two left feet, and she admitted as much to the arresting officer, Ian P. Walsh, in a private meeting on Friday (the same day she was charged with third-degree assault). Rosenthal's friend, Marilyn Levias, 19, was arrested for obstruction of justice for coming to Rosenthal's aid and briefly tussling with the officer. The Seattle Police Officers Guild has rallied to Walsh's defense. The Seattle Police Department is investigating the incident internally and reviewing its training procedures.

The physical aspect of this likely case of police self-defense has troubling antecedents in Seattle's history of police-minority relations. The punching incident and another highly visible occurrence, eight weeks earlier, are reminders of the sometimes poor state of those relations in a city that prides itself on cultural tolerance and a laid-back lifestyle.

Seattle police gained earlier global YouTube visibility after an April 17 encounter. In that incident, a police detective used a racial slur and stomped on the hand of a Hispanic man being questioned in a robbery case while lying prone on the ground. ''I'm gonna beat the f***ing Mexican piss out of you, homey, you feel me?'' the detective said. Another officer, who stomped on the man's leg seconds later, was part of a group of officers who severely beat and Tasered a homeless man in Seattle's Belltown district in 2003. The Hispanic man was later found to have been mistakenly identified and released.

Seattle's minority communities were outraged. Estela Ortega of El Centro de la Raza, a social-justice advocacy organization, said the April arrest pointed to ''a culture of acceptance of the brutality and violence that is obviously now being waged on the Latino community.'' In May, James Bible, head of the NAACP chapter in Seattle, said the organization would ask county prosecutors to have the incident classified and investigated as a hate crime.

The interaction between Seattle police and minority citizens is one of the subtexts in the city's current (and hotly debated) search for a new police chief. Seattle police have been under fire from civil rights groups over previous incidents. Bible said the punching incident is indicative of an old relationship between blacks and the police. ''This is the relationship that people of color have with law enforcement,'' he declared. ''This is the relationship that needs to change.''

Another incident remains seared in the conscience of black Seattle. On April 13, 2005, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes was savagely beaten by three cops after arguing with a police officer because his friend had been held for littering outside a Capitol Hill nightclub.

Later, two of the officers were exonerated by Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who also let the 180-day union contract deadline for disciplining the third officer expire. The civilian director of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which presides over internal police inquiries and which called for disciplining the officers, was rebuffed. The OPA determined that two of the officers were guilty of excessive force and that all three had violated department rules of conduct.

It would be tempting, almost comforting, to look at this small cluster of recent events as the extent of the issue. But the friction between Seattle police and blacks and minorities has a long chronology, revealing a disturbing historical trend that runs through black and minority life in one of America's most tolerant cities.

From available historical evidence, documented in numerous scholarly reports, that friction goes back generations.