“Letter From A Birmingham Jail” Rings True in King County Today

by European Dissent

There is a powerful movement growing in Seattle. It is a movement led by youth and communities of color that brings together neighbors, faith leaders, and communities most impacted by juvenile justice, working together against King County’s new youth jail.  The people have shown overwhelming opposition to the construction of the $210 million monument to racism at recent Seattle City and King County Council meetings.

Despite community outcry, only one elected official has voted in opposition to ordinances which allow the construction of the new youth jail to continue. If this were a true participatory democracy, the voices of those most impacted by juvenile justice would be heard before the ordinances were ever brought to the floor. Or, upon hearing widespread community opposition, our elected officials would pause, reexamine, and change their votes.

On March 5, 2015, the Seattle Times published a tone deaf editorial claiming those who protest the construction of the youth jail are “drowning out opposition” by taking part in “disruptive hooliganism” at Council meetings. This editorial completely misrepresents the power relationships as they currently exist in our city.  It is clear that the only ones drowning out opposition in King County, systemically and ruthlessly, are King County officials.

The actions of our councilmembers demonstrate that they place more value on their political comfort and care more about the economic benefits for developers than the lives of children and families affected every day by incarceration. They are blinded by fear and an inability to envision a transformed juvenile justice system made possible through anti-racist community organizing.  This dynamic is nothing new. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action…         

“My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

Communities of color most impacted by the criminal justice system are not represented in the current power structures in our City.  Our elected officials and mainstream media outlets imply that people don’t deserve to be heard unless they follow Council rules and maintain an attitude of “civility.” Let us be clear, rules and norms of civility were created to maintain the current power structure.  Following them will not lead to the rooting out of racism embedded in our systems.

Rather than hearing truth spoken by groups like Ending the Prison Industrial Complex [EPIC], Youth Undoing Institutional Racism [YUIR], and so many others, our officials insist on removing people from Council hearings and creating “invite only” conversations. This has nothing to do with protecting so-called dissenting voices, but is exactly the kind of “respectability politics” that excludes entire communities from the political process. Again, from Letter from a  Birmingham Jail:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…”

These words written in 1963 are echoed in Martin Luther King County in 2015. Our elected officials and media gatekeepers continue to value “order” over the lives of people of color. While we should be talking about how Black youth are nine times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, we’re talking about how loudly people of color are raising their voices and the language they choose.

While we should be talking about how our diversion programs are working well for white youth and leaving youth of color in cages, we are talking about the emotional reactions of white elected officials. While we should be talking about the alarmingly heavy handed police action in Council meetings, we’re talking about how our elected officials are “intimidated” by people who are showing up and speaking their truth.

“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

This truth has been spoken today by the youth of color leading this movement, just as it was by Martin Luther King, Jr. It is time for white moderates and progressives to move out of the way of people of color as they lead us down a path towards true justice and equity. As a group of white anti-racist organizers, we stand wholeheartedly with all of the many community members, faith leaders, and organizations who have raised their voices in opposition to King County’s youth jail project.

If elected officials would listen, they would hear that the voices they are trying to silence have a revolutionary vision of what the juvenile justice system could be: a healing and transformative space, owned by community with the capacity to love and support our children. Our elected officials have shown over and over that they don’t understand these voices or the children they have in their custody. There is a better way, if the County is willing to set aside their egos, white moderate paternalism, and fears, to listen with their hearts and imaginations.

In a spirit of love and justice,

European Dissent

 About European Dissent: We are persons of European descent who recognize that our ethnic histories have been forged into a common White community. We have made a commitment to undo racism personally, in our families, social life, work places, religious institutions and community work.