The organizer of large, unsanctioned gatherings in Tacoma’s Wright Park held to foster Black-owned businesses and protest police killings of unarmed Black people says she fears death by police more than death by COVID-19. The events are not permitted by Metro Parks and in violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders.
Another Bite of Black Owned Business has been scheduled for Sept. 26.
Organizer Erin Sarvis says the July 25 and Aug. 23 events were protests, not fairs, and therefore not subject to permits.
“We feel like we don’t need to obtain a permit until they arrest the police that killed Breonna Taylor, Manny Ellis, Charleena Lyles,” Sarvis said. “That’s how we feel. When they follow the rules, we’ll follow the rules.”
Metro Parks says the group still needs permits, which the agency is not issuing to anyone.
“Very clearly, they are unsanctioned events because they’re in direct violation of state orders for gatherings,” said Metro Parks spokeswoman Nancy Johnson. “Metro Parks was not supportive of it.”
COVID-19 has shut down permitting for all events across Metro Parks’ territory.
Sarvis, 24, said there are higher priorities than the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID would be the least of my concerns,” Sarvis said. “I’m more worried about the police officers killing innocent Black people. I’m pretty sure we’re more likely to get shot by a cop then get COVID.”
The first event in July was held as part of Blackout Day 2020, a nationwide protest which involved spending money only at Black-owned businesses.
“So, the whole goal for July was to spend your dollars in the Black community, so we can build that community,” Sarvis, a Tacoma resident and stay-at-home mom, said.
“I said, ‘Hey, let’s throw a Black-owned business event.’ Have all Black-owned businesses come out and people from the community come out and buy their products and we can build a Black Wall Street.”
She rented tables for 35 businesses.
“It turned out to be over 100 Black-owned businesses that came out,” she said of the July event. Vendors came from all over Washington, she said.
The event had musical entertainment, dancers, live painting and an auction.
The success of the July event led to the August iteration, which attracted 300 Black-owned businesses. Many of the vendors were children, Sarvis said. Motivational speaker and Christian hip hop artist Bishop Freeze performed.
Metro Parks employees were on scene at the July Bite to hand out trash bags, advise participants to move their vehicles out of the park and clean the sole bathroom. The agency has to maintain safety at its parks even at a gathering that is not permitted, Johnson said.
“However, we got to a point where we could no longer even send our staff in because people would not exit the restroom to allow for cleaning,” Johnson said.
Normally, as part of the permitting process, organizers of an event the size of Bite would be required to rent about 20 port-a-potties, Johnson said.
Sarvis estimated that 5,000 people attended the August event.
“The park was massively filled,” she said.
Sarvis and her organizing group of 15 other young people, The New Generation 2.0, don’t charge the vendors, she said. They do ask for $25 donations. Tables are rented using the donations.
Permit fees, port-a-potty rental, garbage and other fees could easily cost an event like Bite in excess of $2,000, based on Metro Parks’ fee and permit costs.
Bite vendors drove their vehicles into Wright Park to set up booths and stands. Johnson expressed concern that spotters might not have been used to safely move the vehicles on park roads and that sensitive irrigation equipment could have been damaged.
Sarvis said she wants to maintain good relations with Metro Parks.
“They’ve actually been pretty awesome,” Sarvis said. “They actually did come out and give us trash bags. And we’ve actually been pretty cooperative with them. We respect their wishes with us not parking on the grass and picking up our trash.”
Metro Parks’ major concerns, Johnson said, are public health issues concerning COVID-19 and social distancing, adequate garbage containers, restrooms and food permitting.
“The governor’s orders are very clear on how we can socialize at this time in order to protect our community,” Johnson said.
Sarvis said organizers took COVID-19 into consideration. They asked participants to wear masks and social distance when possible. Organizers kept tent canopies and tables six feet apart. Hand sanitizer was available.
“But at the end of the day, it’s a protest,” she said. “So, we’re used to having masses of people together. And research studies show that COVID has not spiked since protesting has started.”
Johnson had no comment on whether the event was a protest or more of a fair, like Ethnic Fest or Tacoma Pride.
“People have their own perceptions of what it is that they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” Johnson said. “And therefore, we’re not going to try to categorize what the activity is.”
The Sept. 26 event is billed as a back-to-school event.
“There’s a goal and objective behind this whole thing,” Sarvis said. “It’s not to have vendor events. Actually, it’s to bring awareness and get people questioning what we’re doing and why we’re doing it so that we can bring awareness to the fact that police are killing unarmed black people.”