by Marilee Jolin
A warm, spring sun shone down Monday morning as 70+ people gathered on the corner of 1st Ave N and Republican, across the street from the offices of Howard S. Wright Co., to oppose the King County’s plan to build a new youth jail. To commemorate the start of Passover, as well as Holy Week, anti-racist Jews and Christians came together to participate in a shared ritual and action, expressing both faith traditions’ commitment to racial and social justice.
European Dissent and Jews Undoing Institutional Racism, in solidarity with EPIC: Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, YUIR: Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, and other anti-racist groups led by People of Color, gathered their respective communities to say “Enough!” to institutions benefiting and profiting from white supremacy.
Even as the sun vanished behind the clouds and cool rain began to fall, the singing, chants, and prayers continued, directed to the fourth floor of the concrete building across the street – the offices of Howard S. Wright Co. who have been awarded the contract to build the King County Youth and Family Justice Center, known to most as the new youth jail.
Protests against the county’s new youth incarceration facility have built in power since the original ballot measure was passed by voters in 2012 and led to amendments in the facility and additional support for alternatives to incarceration. Led primarily by EPIC and YUIR, many faith and religious organizations have joined the effort, lending their voices in opposition to the jail’s construction. Monday’s protest was the third year European Dissent has held this action, and the first time they’ve joined with Jewish faith groups to do so.
The action was composed of two distinct sections: the Christian liturgy and the Jewish Passover tradition.
The Christian liturgy was a series of readings from the New Testament story of Jesus overturning tables, interspersed with resistance songs (“Tyrant, we’re gonna tear your kingdom down”) and culminating in actual table flipping by clergy. Each table represented an organization complicit in the incarceration of youth in Seattle: Howard S Wright, King County, churches and white people. Attendees confessed their own complicity as members of those groups.
Megan Ramer, lead pastor at Seattle Mennonite Church in Lake City and an organizer of the action, notes that Jesus overturned the moneychanger’s tables to reveal the power domination system oppressing his people and that, today’s domination system is oppressing people through the building of the new youth jail. “As a white person, I’m complicit in these systems because they are all built on the foundation of white supremacy.” She goes on to say, “I am trying my best in my time and my place to follow Jesus and I think this is where Jesus would be.”
For the Passover portion of the action, leaders from JUIR (Jews Undoing Institutional Racism) led participants in a ritual grounded in the Passover tradition of “dayenu” or enough is enough. In addition to songs and prayers, JUIR shared a modified version of the Seder tradition of the Ten Plagues. Instead of recounting the plagues experienced by the Israelites in ancient Egypt, organizers brought a banner displaying the “#No New Youth Jail 10 Plagues to Understand” including deception, hypocrisy, racial disparity and moral bankruptcy.
Organizers explained that, traditionally, a drop of wine is poured out onto the Seder plate to represent the suffering inflicted by each plague. In today’s action, however, the banner was treated as the Seder plate and a cup of wine was poured on it at the reading of each plague to remember the ongoing suffering of those harmed by youth incarceration in King County.
Rabbi David Basior, of Kadima Reconstructionist Community, led much of the Passover portion of the action with his young daughter in a baby carrier on his back. Regarding the connection between Passover and the action at Howard S. Wright, he says “I have been taught and trained my entire life to think of Passover as a festival of liberation.” He goes on, “I can’t be liberated until we’re all liberated. I can’t be free until we’re all free. The holiday inspires me to seek out the places in our society where liberation is not found and to work toward it.”
After another rousing round of singing, the protestors began to disperse, returning to jobs, schools and families through the steadily falling rain. Hugs were shared liberally across faith lines as Seattle Jews and Christians came together in opposition to the construction of the new youth jail, forging a common identity: people of faith standing for justice together.