Op-Ed: Tainted Appeals Process Speeds Construction of Youth Jail

by Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (E.P.I.C)

Seattle and King County are promoted nationally as progressive jurisdictions, and our elected officials, particularly right now, vie to distinguish themselves as aligned with racial and social justice. This week we had a special opportunity to examine the realities behind these claims. A month ago, a memo from Mayor Murray to King County Executive Dow Constantine was released, describing the Mayor’s serious concerns about the jail project.

Dow Constantine responded with a public statement about his shared commitment to a long-term goal of zero detention and his justifications for continuing detention at this time. However, this week, Murray’s and Constantine’s attorneys won the victory the City and County are actually seeking when they got the appeal of the jail permits dismissed.

In 2013 the City Council passed an ordinance that affirmed that community members and organizations could appeal permits for projects like the youth jail, but the City and County just successfully argued that, in fact, communities should not be heard on their concerns about the project. Murray and Constantine asserted their interest in the concerns of communities of color in public statements in February, meanwhile instructing their attorneys to deprive these same communities of even a minimal public process.

After the City granted the Master Use Permit for the new jail during the week of Christmas (no doubt hoping, but failing, to deter public reaction), 75 community organizations worked together to appeal the permit. Tuesday’s victory for the City and County affirm that those organizations’ arguments will never be heard.

On the one hand, it is a victory to see these politicians mirror back our talking points in their February statements: the damage that caging youth does and the need to redirect resources from policing and jailing youth to resourcing young people’s lives and the lives of their families and schools. On the other, it appears to be yet another instance of a think veneer of progressive and anti-racist rhetoric covering over the reality that these officials are not interested in the perspectives or experiences of communities of color.

“This decision shows us that the City of Seattle and King County Executive Office are not exceptional from the Trump administration given what is happening with this new youth jail, they are just more subtle. If Seattle is now considered a sanctuary city, I am wondering what the definition of sanctuary is. Locking up our kids in cages seems like hypocrisy to me,” says Dr. Gary Kint’e Perry, anti-racist organizer with Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) and the No New Youth Jail Campaign. 

“This city will not be bullied by this administration into abandoning our core values, and we believe we have the rule of law and the courts on our side,” –King County Executive Dow Constantine

“We do not push children and families into the shadows, and sow fear among our neighbors,” –City of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

These proclamations made by King County Executive Dow Constantine and City of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray do not mean anything to our community if the plan going forwards includes building or allowing for a jail that expands the incarceration of children of color, immigrant children, and undocumented children to be caged, deported or oppressed through upholding institutional racism. 

From the beginning, institutional policies, practices, and procedures have tried to silence youth and communities most oppressed by racism and the prison industrial complex.  The first public King County Council meeting, April 5, 2012 where we gathered to raise concerns about the plans, was stopped because the jail planners did not want to hear critical resistance. King County Council even eventually changed the rules to make it easier to kick people out of their meetings in response to our participation.

This latest decision to reject the community’s appeal to the Master Use permit is an “in your face” example of how structural racism works. We define this as the interaction between institutions, policies, and practices that inevitably perpetuates barriers to opportunities and racial disparities.  “People need to understand what is happening here. The government is colluding with private business to cage our black and brown children. This is what we mean by systemic racism!” says Karen Toering, a community member and organizer with E.P.I.C.

It is clear that our relentlessness and our continued exposure of their lip service about anti-racism is what has delegitimized this jail project and pushed them to use covert tactics to push forward on this project, while publicly distancing themselves from youth incarceration. “As an anti-racist youth organizer, I know that the appeal was always an exciting tactic but it was never our entire strategy. We clearly can never put our faith in navigating racist institutions, like the City of Seattle and King County’s Executive Office. Our movement does not revolve around illegitimate institutional power. We know that they will never be able to end their own racism and their solutions will always end in racial disparities. As a community, our relationships, our resilience and our realization of our collective power is where this campaign starts and ends. “ Says Asha Heru, an organizer with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) and E.P.I.C.

Dow Constantine and Ed Murray must work together to stop this jail-building project. It is not enough to say that some day we should have zero youth in jail while you build a new jail. We already know what justice deferred looks like, we saw the City’s plan to end homelessness come and go meanwhile developers and landlords prevail and homelessness is in a state of emergency.

Murray and Constantine say they recognize that the system is racially targeted and damaging to youth, but they still plan to solve it with programs that make youth go through arrest and then some kind of alternative process. Seattle’s youth should not need to be arrested and traumatized by racist police as a doorway to “services.” They imagine that enough police and court-led expert technical solutions will make policing “bias-free.” That has never succeeded anywhere.

The answer is to move the resources away from proven racist institutions. Our communities are the experts, and we have known for centuries what prisons and policing are.

It is clear that regardless of what anti-incarceration or anti-racist talking points our elected officials occasionally spout, they are still hell bent on building a jail. These are the same people who, because of fierce activism, just narrowly avoided building a $160 million police bunker in Seattle. Murray’s February memo and Constantine’s February statement indicate an ongoing belief the family and youth courts that target poor, black, and native families for disruption and process young people toward jail can become kinder, and gentler through further investment.

We disagree. Our City and County need to move away from policing, punishment and court-based approaches to the problems produced by racism and poverty. These approaches are harming youth and creating the very conditions they purport to address. It is time to sack this misguided project. We are tired of the double talk from Murray and Constantine. They need to stop the jail building now.

“This jail project WILL crumble and our focus at this time is to continue working on the anti-racist, community-owned solutions to juvenile incarceration (i.e. People’s Plan for Community Justice) that will thrive outside of these racist systems of government, criminal justice and private interests that have acted in collusion to fail our children once again.”  Says Senait Brown, co-chair of E.P.I.C. a coalition of anti-racist organizers leading the No New Youth Jail Campaign.

Featured image by Alex Garland