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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Why are you trying to get me fired?’: Ex-activist re-engages after interaction with Spokane police

Anwar Peace was rolling a cigarette during his last 10-minute break before closing at the Mister Car Wash near Francis Avenue on Dec. 29 when he heard a car accelerating full bore down Division Street, followed immediately by sirens.

The wailing stopped abruptly. Peace, 45, assumed the police got their guy.

“Then I saw (a patrol car) coming full speed from the Jack in the Box parking lot” next door, Peace said, recalling how the car’s spotlight was glaring down on him when the officer jumped out of the car.

“Naturally, as a black man, as he’s racing toward me I’ve got my hands up,” said Peace, remembering how some officers drew their guns after they parked.

Body camera video / Spokane Police Department

Body-worn camera footage shows the tense interaction that ensued, when Peace refused to give his name but insisted he wasn’t the suspect the officers were after and had done nothing wrong.

Police were looking for Vincent Gardner, a 49-year-old white man wearing blue pants, a blue hoodie and a black jacket and reported to have held his estranged wife against her will with a machete for the past 26 hours. The woman had called for help from Jack in the Box.

Instead, they had rolled up on Peace – a former Seattle police activist with a long, embattled history with the West side department – sitting on a concrete barrier in the car wash’s back parking lot, just across from the fast-food chain.

Peace was wearing his navy Mister Car Wash jacket, black pants and gray sweatshirt. He said the officers could verify he was an employee by asking his supervisor. Peace told The Spokesman-Review he didn’t want to give police his name because he didn’t have identification to prove it and was worried that would worsen the situation.

He asked the police for a description of the person they were looking for, but officers only told him the suspect’s name when Peace asked for his race.

Officers told Peace they could resolve the situation more quickly if he just told them his name. Peace remained unwilling to give his name but complied with other commands while exchanging harsh words with officers.

Police left after a few minutes, when they found a jail booking photo of Gardner and determined Peace wasn’t him.

“I’m kind of shocked that I had guns on me,” Peace said about his reaction to the stop. “But due to the situation, I could understand that.”

But this initial incident wasn’t what led Peace to file a complaint with the Office of the Police Ombudsman.

Peace became concerned when Chris Johnson, who wasn’t among the police officers who detained Peace, came to the car wash about an hour and 15 minutes later to complain to Peace’s supervisor about how he delayed their investigation.

Because Johnson did not immediately activate his body-worn camera during his conversation with Peace’s supervisor, the first minute of video footage provided through a public record’s request does not include audio and it does not capture the officer arriving at the car wash.

But after Johnson did activate the camera, Peace can be heard asking him, “Why are you trying to get me fired right now?”

“Me? Because you did not act like a normal citizen should do when we’re trying to help a female who had a guy try to attack her with a hatchet,” Johnson replied. He said later, “You delayed and hindered our investigation.”

The car wash supervisor stood by and supported Peace throughout the encounter, according to video footage. Johnson also noted that police officers clean their cars at Mister Car Wash.

Peace said Johnson should arrest him for obstructing a law enforcement officer if he truly hindered the investigation. He acknowledges he acted unprofessionally when he lost his temper and cursed at the officer as he left the car wash.

“The fact that he tried to use the contract the city has with my car wash as some sort of manipulating tool. … That’s why I kind of lost my lid at the end of the interaction,” Peace said. “I was like, ‘This is crazy.’ ”

‘Does that sound familiar?’

The incident with Johnson gave Peace a sense of déjà vu, given that he was fired from two different security jobs after confrontations with police while protesting in Seattle.

Throughout the 2000s he stood outside Seattle police precincts and City Hall with bull’s-eye signs around his neck protesting excessive force, police shootings and unequal treatment of people of color. In particular, he demonstrated against the shooting death of John T. Williams, a Native American man who was killed while holding a 3-inch wood carving knife after he did not respond to an officer’s commands. The department ruled the shooting in 2010 was unjustified and the officer resigned.

“I know that officers have a hell of a job. It’s a couple seconds interaction and a lifetime of questions that can happen in one incident,” Peace said. “They are worried about going home to their families. They are worried about making communities safe. They have a very hard job and they are under-resourced, under appreciated. … My activism has never been about being against them; it’s about wanting them to be the heroes I think they should be.”

Peace’s relationship with Seattle police deteriorated quickly around 2003, when he said he followed Chief Gil Kerlikowske’s car with a sign that said the police chief didn’t care about black people during the Seafair torchlight parade. Kerlikowske had previously promised him a meeting when he became chief in 2001 but didn’t follow through, Peace said.

Peace said he was arrested for protesting so close to Kerlikowske at the parade. After he was released from jail, Peace said he filled the chief’s voicemail with messages explaining why he was an activist and what happened at the parade.

Kerlikowske used Peace’s phone calls, protests and other interactions with police as evidence to file a restraining order against him, Peace said.

The case and press about his relationship with the police chief led to Peace losing his job as a security supervisor at Key Arena, he said. Peace added the police department notified his company’s headquarters in California after he subsequently got a security job at Qwest Field.

“Does that sound familiar?” Peace said wryly.

According to court records, Peace appealed Kerlikowske’s restraining order all the way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where he later lost.

During that time, Peace said he met with longtime KIRO radio host Mike Webb for an interview about his activism and the case with Kerlikowske. From there they developed a friendship over their passions for police accountability, Peace said.

Then, in April 2007, Webb went missing. The Seattle Times reported family continued to receive texts from his phone, but the messages stopped when they demanded a phone call after a month. Seattle police sent a cadaver dog through Webb’s home about two months after he was last seen.

Less than two weeks later, the real estate agent for the rental home discovered Webb’s body hidden in a crawl space, the Seattle Times reported. He had been killed with an ax.

Peace said this was the first time someone close to him had died and he thought the police conducted a flawed investigation.

“So, instead of handling it correctly, I decided to drink four and a half bottles of wine that night and vented my feelings to the police chief’s public voicemail,” Peace said.

At one point he said, “I’m coming for you,” during the 17 messages he left, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

But instead of getting a charge for violating the restraining order, Peace was accused of intimidating a public servant, a felony.

“I was completely embarrassed about my behavior,” Peace said. “But nothing actually comes to the direct aspect of trying to threaten him.”

Peace still admitted wrongdoing, pleading guilty to the crime. He avoided prison with his credit for time served in jail. And for two years he stepped away from activism.

The last time Peace was arrested by Seattle police came in 2011 when he was walking to the park, he said. But the park happened to be the filming location for an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” at the time and a police officer, aware of Peace’s penchant for protest, arrested him for pedestrian interference.

Unable to pay his bail, Peace sat in jail for some 30 days awaiting video footage of the arrest. He later pleaded guilty, hoping to move on. In that time he’d been evicted, he said, so he lived without a home at the work site for the John T. Williams Memorial Totem Pole, where he was the head of security.

“Once we raised that totem pole, I felt like we were completely healed as a community,” Peace said.

He said he viewed the erection of the totem pole at Seattle Center and the reforms in the wake of a U.S. Department of Justice finding that Seattle police had a pattern of using excessive force as successes that stemmed from his and others’ activism.

“I felt my time as an activist was over,” Peace said.

A case for returning to activism

Peace moved to Spokane about five years ago with no intention to stir up trouble with local police.

But, he said, he’s glad the incident with Officer Chris Johnson happened, because it’s a chance to examine department culture outside of a crisis like a shooting or excessive force case.

The incident with Johnson, who has been awarded the department’s highest award, the Medal of Valor, in addition to other commendations, has become an active internal affairs investigation.

Mister Car Wash management has told Peace he won’t be fired or disciplined, he said. Managers also told him Johnson emailed the company’s headquarters to complain about Peace’s conduct and to cancel his personal account with the car wash.

Management “made it emphatic that what transpired was not appropriate,” Peace said. “I appreciate that from them because I was extremely worried about the pressure the officer could put on them.”

Center for Justice staff attorney Cam Zorrozua said she could not find a statutory obligation for Peace to give his name or provide identification to officers.

“I think that I would invoke my right to remain silent and seek counsel,” said Zorrozua.

She also noted Peace was wearing a uniform outside of the business where he worked, not milling about a back alley without a reason to be there.

Johnson’s decision to go to Peace’s workplace after the initial stop was “highly unprofessional” and “retaliatory,” added Zorrozua. “It’s just shameful.”

Johnson remains on duty, according to police Sgt. Terry Preuninger. Police officials have declined further comment pending the investigation.

As for Gardner, the domestic violence suspect, he was arrested two days after police began searching for him. He remains jailed at Geiger Corrections Center, according to jail records.

Peace said the interaction with Johnson convinced him he should take a look at local accountability issues – in conjunction with established organizers, though, and not as a lone wolf.

“I’m not trying to come in here and do what I did” in Seattle, Peace said. “There are a lot of community (organizers) out here that have been trying to change stuff for years.”

Peace said he is already in contact with the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council about potential causes he can pursue.

One is the complicated system he had to navigate to report his incident, he said. He has also attended meetings about opposition to building a new Spokane County Jail.

Accountability is “the first line of defense against misconduct,” Peace said. “I look forward to an opportunity where maybe me and this officer can chat this out and try to not have any bad feelings about the situation.

“I don’t see myself going on the streets with protest signs anytime soon, but if I have to, I guess I will.”