by Rabbi David Basior
Friday before last, I led a morning Jewish prayer service at the construction site of the new youth jail in King County, and witnessed police arrest six participants. I was leading the service as part of the People’s Moratorium, an effort to halt construction of the planned facility.
The moratorium is calling for King County to negotiate with community members to repurpose the buildings away from incarcerating youth and towards meeting basic human needs. As a crowd of supporters prayed outside the gates of the construction site, three faith community leaders were locked to beams inside the site. How did I get to this point, where my participation in the Moratorium has become a moral imperative?
As a Jew, my analysis of racism first sharpened when I went to Israel/Palestine in 2005. I had been interviewing Palestinian homeowners in Silwan (East Jerusalem) and learned of the racist city and national policies that did not allow permits to Palestinian people to build or add into existing homes as their family grew. I saw the ways in which racist practices were implemented as policy. It was in rabbinical school that I began reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, with a group of friends and fellow students. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown had already been murdered by protected citizens/the police. The existence of racism was not up for debate. The now more mainstream understanding of the prison system as a continuation of slavery in this country was beginning to gain ground.
When I returned to Seattle in 2015, after being away for six years, I became aware of the No New Youth Jail Campaign. I met more and more people involved in the campaign – lawyers, educators, activists, Black and Brown people, White people, Jewish people, Muslim people, and Christian people. I signed on to what I could and got organized by organizers and found myself organizing others. I took a public stand. I posted on Facebook.
After three years of connection to the campaign, which included some missteps on my part, I began to watch construction start at 12th and Alder. So much of the foundation is laid already as I write this today. The windows are tiny. The cages are being built.
How can a city that has voted unanimously in its city council for zero youth detention have given a permit to a county, which has also voted for zero youth detention, to build a jail for kids? How was this permit granted in the very neighborhood that was redlined into being a Black neighborhood (as well as Japanese, Filipino, and Jewish at various moments of the 20th century)? How does any elected official dare say that this is for the good of the kids? Report after report shows that juvenile detention leads to recidivism. Report after report shows that the old jail was about $1 million in renovations from being a suitable place to detain young people (temporarily). If the intention is to reduce to zero detention, why spend $233 million to build a brand new facility that is planned for obsolescence when we could spend a simple $1 million on a short-term solution while we build a future without youth detention?
Morally, let us look at the facts that as beds decrease in the facility, the percentage of Black and Brown kids incarcerated goes up. Let us look at how Black and Brown neighborhoods (which are Black and Brown because of racism and racial capitalism) get over policed and pushed into incarceration. Let us look to the national trend that has the US highly disproportionately incarcerating Black and Brown and Native young people and adults. Let us look at how incarceration is a continuation of slavery – which was a system intended to break and destroy the African body and spirit.
With all of this in mind, we are now witnessing part of that immoral, gross, and despicable system being built using our county dollars – Martin Luther King Jr. County dollars. We will let this stand?
We mustn’t. Many have been politicized since the 45th president took office. Many more before that with Black Lives Matter. Many more before that with the Occupy Movement, and many, many, many more before that with the disarmament movement, the anti-war movement(s), the anti-occupation movement(s), the LGBTQ liberation movements, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Black Power movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Labor movement, and more.
Can we unite? Can we say “Not in our county!”? Can we take a visible stand against the inherent racism in this youth jail and instead of investing in a future of Black and Brown overrepresentation in a county youth jail in our city, see $233 million be redirected to ending the school to prison pipeline? To programs that help young people build positive community relationships giving them opportunities to express themselves in safe, fun, creative, and communally accountable ways? Can we let our imaginations run wild beyond the racist system that has perpetuated for centuries?
I will not ever stop fighting the youth jail. I believe it to be a potential 50+ year investment into a system we already know to be immoral. I cannot stand for this grossly irresponsible lack of morality, imagination, and poor budgetary management. I see no reason, in 2018, why any King County resident would stand for this. It is time to galvanize our local political might once again and stand in unison saying: No New Youth Jail.
When I watched the six participants in my morning Jewish prayer service at the construction site be arrested last Friday while attempting to bring a moral voice to this issue, I understood. The people in power: Executive Constantine, Mayor Durkan, Police Chief Best, and each and every officer wearing a city badge, will not stop to consider the consequences. Their heels have been dug. Their hearts have been hardened. We must stand together to demand what is right and we must make the price of their hearts’ hardening known. The outcome of this fight, for a facility designed to last at least fifty years, will define how future generations of Black and Brown youth will be treated in this county. Now is the time to take a stand and redirect that future towards a just path.
Featured image by DJ Martinez