SEATTLE — Ta’Vion Vaughn-Washington stopped going to nightclubs because he found himself with his head on a swivel, unable to enjoy the music and dancing because of his hyper-vigilance against potential danger.
“It’s not fun anymore,” said Vaughn-Washington, 27, a member of the YMCA’s Seattle Community Safety Initiative that works with youths and young adults affected by gangs and gun violence.
Vaughn-Washington and his co-worker, Enyé Dinish, said they have survived gun violence themselves, which helps them relate to the young people they mentor.
“It’s almost a calling because you’ve overcome what they’re going through,” Dinish said. “We know that sometimes being outside feels safer than being home.”
One month after two shooters opened fire outside a Rainier Beach shopping center during a weekly gathering meant to provide solace to residents affected by gun violence, Dinish and Vaughn-Washington were among the dozens of people who returned to help reclaim a corner of the parking lot.
Five people were wounded in the July 28 shooting outside the Safeway grocery store at 9262 Rainier Avenue South, including two members of the SE Network’s Safe Passage team, known in the neighborhood as “the blue coats” for their cerulean T-shirts and jackets.
After hosting a “community healing space” in the Safeway lot almost every Friday for the past three years, the Safe Passage team was absent the first three Fridays in August to give team members time to heal from their own trauma.
The entire team has this week off for their usual end-of-summer hiatus before the start of the school year Sept. 6, said Marty Jackson, the executive director of the SE Networks SafetyNet program, an initiative of the Boys & Girls Club of King County.
The healing space was launched in June 2020 after the shooting deaths of three young men who grew up in Rainier Beach. Connor Dassa-Holland, 18, was killed outside his house less than 1,000 feet from the Safeway lot that May and two weeks later, Christopher Wilson Jr., 35, and De’Andre Roberts, 23, were gunned down in the parking lot, caught between a shooter and his target.
Up until the July 28 shooting, there hadn’t been a single shooting in the parking lot on the Fridays when the Safe Passage team was present, according to Jackson.
But another homicide occurred at the location: She said the team left about a half-hour before gunfire killed 40-year-old Alleyeceeing Allah, who was shot in front of the shopping complex’s liquor store June 9 and died soon afterward at Harborview Medical Center.
Jackson said the team plans to host the healing space until 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. on Fridays, but hopes patrol officers assigned to the Seattle Police Department’s South Precinct can provide some overlap and maintain a presence in the lot even after the Safe Passage team leaves for the evening.
SPD Capt. Rob Brown, who started as the South Precinct’s new commander on the night of the Safeway shooting, told Jackson he couldn’t promise to always have patrol units on site for two hours after the Safe Passage team closes shop, but vowed he would do what he could depending on staffing levels.
“This area is a priority for me and my command,” Brown said.
Last Friday’s event was shorter than usual but was a crucial, baby step toward recovery, Jackson said.
Supporters who showed up included representatives from community groups involved in intervening in the lives of young people most at risk of being victims or perpetrators of gun violence, such as the YMCA, Community Passageways, Renegades for Life Youth Outreach and Moms Demand Action.
Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales was also there, as was her challenger for her District 2 seat, Tanya Woo. Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell made a brief appearance, too.
Pastor Otis Brown, whose Holly Park Community Church is less than 2 miles north of the Safeway lot, offered an opening prayer, asking for strength and unity among police, politicians, community workers and teachers.
“We want to pray for those who lost their lives, those who have been shot, those who have suffered, God. I pray for the families to be comforted,” Brown said. “We want to pray for the shooters, God, that you would change hearts.
“God, would you just bless and heal our community,” Brown continued. “And we want to pray for this particular space: God, would you make it safe … and send peace and love and goodness and mercy.”
King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, whose district includes the Central District and South Seattle, told the gathering that oftentimes dark incidents — like the deadly shooting at a Rainier Avenue South hookah lounge on Aug. 20 that killed three people and injured six others — get far more attention than the positive work of groups like Jackson’s.
“After three years of success, they feel like their work is upended,” Zahilay said. “We need hyper-focused intervention and prevention strategies [and] we need to rally around these organizations” so they can develop relationships and intervene in the lives of young people to stop the shootings.
Zahilay also said more money is needed to hire case managers to support surviving family members with items such as child care and rental assistance as they mourn loved ones lost to gun violence.
As people chatted in small groups and dined on gumbo and chicken fettuccine, Seattle police officers Mark Mullens and Mike Griffin talked about the work they’ve been doing to quell gun violence, reduce shoplifting and fights, and become a daily presence in the lives of South End residents.
Three months ago, the two officers — who have spent their 30-plus-year careers working in the South Precinct — were teamed up as second-watch “floaters,” typically working from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“This is the most diverse ZIP code in the country and I love being here,” said Griffin, noting in many cases, he knows the grandparents and parents of kids who grew up in the neighborhood and now have children of their own.
“They get to know you and call you by name,” said Mullens. “People give us information because they see us every day.”
They typically spend their time patrolling the Rainier Beach Safeway along with the Safeway and Ross Dress for Less in Rainier Valley Square 5 miles to the north, the Rite Aid on Rainier Avenue South and South Henderson Street, the Atlantic City Boat Ramp and the Polaris at Rainier Beach Apartments, where members of rival gangs have been “warring with each other,” Griffin said.
One recent Sunday, gang members were firing at each other in a hallway at Polaris, where Griffin and Mullens found mothers huddled over baby strollers and were directed to an apartment where two people had been shot.
Griffin, who had left the Safeway parking lot less than two minutes before bullets started flying, was the first officer on the scene of the July 28 shooting, with Mullens close behind.
“We’ve been here every Friday and it was more crowded than usual that night,” Mullens recalled. “I had the police radio on (when the shooting was first reported) and said, ‘Not again.’ “
The two officers spend much of their time in Sam sector, which extends north-to-south from South Graham Street to Renton Avenue South, and from Lake Washington to Interstate 5. They said new high-rise apartments are going up in the neighborhood, increasing density in an area serviced by four or five officers at night.
“It’s daunting,” said Mullens, especially as they respond to more shots fired calls. “Because of our numbers, we don’t find ourselves that close to the actual gunfire. … Early in my career, I’d roll up on it and it’d be right in front of me.”
Mullens and Griffin are confident they’ve contributed to a decrease in shoplifting and disturbance calls. They said they want people to feel safe and deter violent behavior.
“I find it very gratifying,” Griffin said. “I feel like I’m making a difference.”