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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Anwar Peace: Walking while Black: Why it’s time to repeal Washington’s jaywalking laws

Anwar Peace

By Anwar Peace

As a Black man living in Spokane, I know that “walking while Black” – and crossing the street while Black – can be challenging and even dangerous. Being a Black pedestrian has led to countless times in my life when police have stopped, detained, searched, arrested or jailed me.

These incidents always involve the same probable cause, “vehicular interference” or “pedestrian interference” (also known as jaywalking), even though no interference occurred during most of these stops. My most recent arrest for jaywalking was, in my opinion, an attempt to send a message to me as a vocal Black police accountability activist.

The week Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted for killing George Floyd, I gave multiple interviews with local and statewide media about police accountability. A few days later, I was arrested for jaywalking.

The coincidence seemed odd, not only to me, but apparently to Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl. Spokane Assistant Police Chief Justin Lundgren wrote in an email that after Chief Meidl learned of the incident, he “had questions about what led to the arrest of Mr. Peace and the appropriateness of the Pedestrian Interference charge under the circumstances.” I also learned later from Meidl that the chief had issued a memo and went to roll call to tell officers to keep their emotions in check.

The night I was arrested, I was walking down North Monroe Street when a patrol car sped by. I raised my hands and chanted, “George Floyd didn’t deserve to die!” The car pulled into a gas station where a homeless man was charging his phone. The officer got out of the car and began harassing the man, so I crossed the street to make sure he was OK. I had chatted briefly with the homeless man earlier in the night and knew the owner of the gas station, who intentionally put a power outlet outside so homeless folks could charge their phones. The officer didn’t seem to appreciate me checking on my friend (or, I imagine, my words about George Floyd), and the situation became tense. I was informed I was being arrested for jaywalking even though I crossed the street safely and next to a crosswalk. I was handcuffed, and my personal items were confiscated by the civilian doing a ride-along with the officer.

The suspicious circumstances leading to my jaywalking arrest and the improper handling of my personal items, confirmed by bodycam footage, led the police chief to drop my charges.

An internal police complaint against the arresting officer was filed, and I ended up sitting face-to-face with him at mediation. During that meeting, he admitted he never saw me jaywalking. In my opinion, the bodycam footage showed he desperately wanted to arrest me for my verbal protest of the Derek Chauvin verdict that night.

Most cities in Washington have jaywalking laws, and those laws are disproportionately enforced against Black and Brown Americans and people who are homeless.

A 2017 Seattle Times article found that of the 1,710 jaywalking tickets issued by Seattle police from 2010 to 2016, more than 1 in 4 went to Black people, who represent only 7% of the city’s population.

National numbers make it clear that disproportionate enforcement isn’t just a Washington state issue.

More than a century ago, Spokane, passed an anti-jaywalking law that made crossing the street outside a designated crosswalk a punishable offense.

Soon after Spokane stopped enforcing the sit-and-lie ordinance that targeted the homeless people in 2018, public defenders saw a dramatic increase in jaywalking arrests.

This increase wasn’t because more people were crossing the street but because the low-threshold crime of jaywalking gave officers a convenient probable cause, allowing them to arrest someone for “mouthing off” (something I can personally attest to).

“Walking while Black” is a real phenomenon that doesn’t get talked about enough. Between 2011 and 2013, Black people in Ferguson, Missouri, received 95% of jaywalking tickets. A 2017 ProPublica Report showed that Black residents of Jacksonville, Florida, are three times more likely to receive a citation for a “pedestrian violation” than white residents. In 2016, half of the 233 jaywalking tickets issued in Sacramento, California, went to Black people, who only accounted for 15% of the city’s population. In Atlanta, 52% of the population is Black, 40% white, 4% Hispanic, and 4% Asian. Yet a whopping 90% of those ticketed for jaywalking and 81% those cited for not using the sidewalk were Black.

Here in Spokane, Black people represent just about 2.4% of our city’s population, yet data shows they are five times more likely to be arrested than white residents.

It’s time for the “Black and white” enforcement of jaywalking to be over. That’s why I’m proud to be working with Transportation Choices Coalition on the 2023 “Free to Walk Washington” campaign to repeal Washington’s jaywalking laws via Senate Bill 5383.

Crossing the street isn’t a crime. Being Black shouldn’t be a crime. It’s time for Washington, and America for that matter, to end jaywalking enforcement.

Anwar Peace is the chair of the city of Spokane’s Human Rights Commission, a member of the Washington Coalition on Police Accountability, a board member of the Revive Center for Returning Citizens Spokane, a Fellow at JustLead Washington, and a police accountability expert and activist with 22 years of experience.

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