by Marcus Harrison Green
Yesterday’s King County Council meeting to approve the contract for the building of a new youth detention center turned into a marathon session of civil disobedience. What was intended to be a cut and dry public hearing ended up punctuated by police scuffles and full throated salvos against the county’s proposed plans as protesters refused to allow an end to public testimony until every last voice – against what they perceived as a noose around the necks of youth of color in the area – was heard.
Hundreds of protesters jam-packed the King County Council chambers and foyer area located on the 10th floor of the King County Building on 3rd Avenue and James in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district beginning at 1:30pm and did not leave until almost 7:00pm.
“I’m so tired of coming downtown to speak out about this stuff,” said Afam Ayika, who had spent the last two years actively organizing against the detention center. “I’m so tired of people making policies that affect our youth in the South End but but have no effect on children in Fremont, Magnolia and Mercer Island. They need to come down to Rainier Valley and see how our kids are being impacted.”
Ayika joined a swarm of opponents Monday to publicly decry the County’s plans to build a voter-approved $210 million juvenile detention center on 12th and Alder in the Squire Park neighborhood that would replace a pre-existing detention center in the same location drastically in need of repairs. County officials, workers and volunteers compared the current facility’s conditions to those of a dungeon or sewage plant.
Opponents, on the other hand, see the proposed facility as perpetuation of the county’s disproportionate incarceration of black youth – noting they make up 42% of the juvenile prison population while accounting for only 8% of the general population at large. Monday afternoon, which almost bubbled into bedlam between police and protesters, was just the latest in a series of public meetings many demonstrators had flocked to in attempts to delay the center’s construction.
Monday’s meeting was held to approve a contract with the design-build team for the new facility – presented as contractor, Howard S. Wright and the architectural firms HOK and Integrus – which would effectively lock the county into constructing the center.
The vote on approving the contract had originally been planned for January 28th, but was postponed after overwhelming public testimony – which had initially been prohibited at the meeting – forced the meeting to run overtime, pushing the vote back to another date.
Originally re–scheduled for February 18th, the vote was bumped up to Monday.
Public testimony on the matter proved far from exhausted however, as long lines formed in the foyer area about a half hour before the meeting with people signing up for two minutes of public testimony. While those in attendance were overwhelmingly against the prison, they made up a diverse cohort.
There were children as young as four years old and dozens of octogenarians and as many whites as there were blacks, with geographic diversity from professors from the Capitol Hill area, North End yuppies and South Seattle residents from Rainier Beach, Skyway and Columbia City. Many held black signs with white trim that read “No New Youth Jail”, waving them prominently as Council members took their seats for the deliberations.
“I’m out here to say that no way no how do we need a new youth jail, it’s disproportionately going to affect black children and there’s just so many better usages for public funds,” said John Lorang, a white protester who attended Monday’s proceedings.
Public testimony began with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant who said the county should re-think how the building of the detention center would contribute to the disportionality of black youth incarceration – which currently makes up 42% of the juvenile population while accounting for only 8% of the general population – instead focusing on preventative measures.
After Sawant departed, one by one, opponents came forward to speak out furiously against the jail – including a pair of white 4-year-olds who asked the council to “please not build a youth jail.”
In what had become old hat for many speakers who have beenrecurring fixtures at public meetings about the detention center, most tore into the county’s plans, eschewing a filter of politeness several thought the county no longer deserved at this late stage in the building of the jail. The center was repeatedly called an immoral, racist and inept usage of public funds. Their proclamations were cheered heavily by those in attendance, who broke out sporadically in chants of “no new youth jail,” “the people united will never be defeated” and “open the balcony” a reference to several protesters
who were forced to wait outside in the foyer area because of the limited seating available on the floor level of the chambers.
Frustration with the county’s plans built with every speech, a consequence of many having trudged from public meeting to public meeting over the span of a year without seeing any shift in policy on the building. Others I spoke with saw it as one final chance, so late in the building process, to alter the opinions of elected officials against the facility’s construction, which is why they weighed their words with urgency. Councilmember Joe McDermott repeatedly reminded people to “refrain from using curse words.”
“If we weren’t being polite enough for the county I could care less,” said a visibly perturbed Teri Youngman, a Beacon Hill native who thinks the detention center will serve as a magnet for black, brown and poor white youth of the South End. “People have tried to write thoughtful letters. They’ve come out in droves to speak respectfully at public meetings, but when people refuse to hear you, and actively ignore you – which is what they’re doing in attempting to build this prison – you have no other choice but to use language and actions that get their attention.”
Attention was granted in abundance after James Williams, a member of EPIC (Ending the Prison Industrial Complex) spoke. Williams, who had spoken at every city and county council meeting where the detention center had been discussed, started his testimony in very measured tones, gradually raised his voice to a shout, railing against the county callously “destroying the lives of black youth” by prioritizing the building of a prison.
And then, to sanitize the expression, the feces hit the fan.
McDermott shouted back that he was “out of order,” noting that Williams had gone over the allotted two minute time limit, as he was still talking seconds after his time expired.
Councilmember McDermott then called for marshals to arrest Williams, which immediately sparked outrage amongst the protestors in attendance. Shouts of “you can’t do this,” and “he made the mistake of being black and angry” joined a chorus of others as Williams sat in his seat non-violently refusing to be taken away and allowing himself to be handcuffed.
The crowd’s backlash only grew as most rushed from their seats making a halo around Williams, refusing to allow marshals to remove him from his seat. As McDermott called for order, police were called.
SPD joined King County Sheriff officers – 25 in all – in flooding the tenth floor chamber to respond to what was transpiring.
“You seriously need twenty cops to handle one black man?” a voice from the crowd surrounding Williams shouted.
Officers appeared to have little conscious as they aggressively darted from elevators like Marshawn Lynch through a defensive line, indiscriminately treating those who had already been packed into the doorways and foyer as tackling dummies, those who didn’t get out of the way swiftly enough found themselves trampled over, thrown against walls and parked on the floor including a 72-year-old man whose reflexes weren’t fast enough. Shouts of “please stop” met police as they barked orders, threatening to arrest those who stopped their progress as they flooded into the chamber to excise Williams.
In what many in attendance saw as yet another example of excessive use of police force that has become a pattern in local law enforcement, officers momentarily blocked off the 3rd and 4th Avenue entrances into the building.
Several in attendance took out camera phones to document police as they filtered into the chambers, with many proclaiming that Williams had done nothing wrong and that the county had done nothing but exacerbate a problem of its own creation as Williams had attacked no one, offering no physical resistance after being handcuffed other than sitting limp in his chair.
“You saw right there a prime example of what we’ve been talking about. The county officials are afraid of black people,” said Ayika. “[Williams] didn’t threaten anyone, didn’t do anything but raise his voice. He goes over his time by 30 seconds and they send in 30 cops.”
County officials soon relented, and ordered police to back out of the chamber. This was greeted by cheers from protesters, as Williams coolly sat in his seat. “I guess we’re just racist pigs apparently” an SPD officer chuckled as he passed by me towards the elevator.
From there, many witnesses jumped on social media encouraging people to come to the building downtown.
For the next three hours a “people’s filibuster” broke out as hundreds more flocked in and out of the council chambers. Though, ingeniously enough, they replaced their own raging against the “prison industrial complex” with arguably the most eloquent person to ever do so by taking turns during their allotted two minutes each to read from civil rights leader Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?”.
Throughout the almost five hour meeting, the council called for recess several times. A few council members, including Kathy Lambert, retired to their offices temporarily while protesters continued with their demonstrations. Councilmembers who stayed throughout the deliberations bore the brunt of protesters wraith, including Larry Gossett, the council’s lone black member, who was called out by speaker Laura Haldane for turning his back on the African American community for originally voting for the prison, which was approved by voters in August of 2012. Gossett stared blankly back at Haldane.
Around 6:30pm the county stopped allowing people into the building, no one who had previously spoken could do so again. Without anyone left to speak, public testimony finally closed and the council rushed to vote.
Approval of the contract passed council unanimously, 7-0. The decision was announced as opponents of the jail cried out that “black lives mattered,”as council members made a beeline for their offices, barely stopping for public comment. The vote effectively moved the detention center passed the point of inevitably despite the strong outpouring against its construction.
While there was definite disappointment amongst those who had spent most of their afternoon and evenings demonstrating against the jail, there was strangely also a sense of optimism amongst protesters in spite of what they had just borne witness to.
“What was showcased today is that there is a tremendous amount of momentum against this jail. Think for a moment about how many people came out here today, from all walks of life. Think about all they did today,” said Gary Perry, who twisted his ankle earlier in the day when police forcibly threw him out of the way in attempting to arrest Williams. “How the county can continue to claim that they are doing the will of the people is beyond me. Today we revealed that claim to be a farce. You can only ignore the people for so long.”