Black Lives Matter and Occupations
What a summer it has been! Immediately after my last column went to press on the COVID-19 murals all over town, George Floyd was murdered by the police in Minneapolis on May 25. An outpouring of protests against racism and police violence erupted all over the United States and around the world.
Here in Seattle we had nightly marches that escalated into direct confrontations with the police on Capitol Hill when they were not permitted to march past the 12th Ave precinct on Pine. At the same time, we had huge Black Lives Matter Marches. I went to two of them, one called “We Want to Live” beautifully organized without a police officer in sight in South Seattle. The second was the enormous silent march, organized by BLM, that started at Judkins Park. It was incredibly moving to be with 60,000 people who were all silent, both at the start for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd, and on the march itself.
“Let Us Breathe” and “I can’t keep calm, I have Black SONS” , June 7, courtesy Susan Platt
Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill on Pine Street between 12th and Broadway, the resisters took over the area. The police left (no one is quite clear on who gave that order), and Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) set up. It was a utopian moment. The community poured out donations, the people were peacefully talking to one another, gardens were planted. At the same time, the demands were clear: 1. Defund the Police by 50 per cent 2. Fund Community Restorative Justice, Housing, Healthcare 3 Freedom for all Protestors.
“End Police Brutality” and “Latinos for Black Lives”, June 7, courtesy Susan Platt
As everyone knows, utopia is hard to maintain, and by the time I went back it had deteriorated from a Black Lives Matter protest to a disorganized combination of homeless persons, activists of various stripes, and the original BLM occupiers. It got increasingly white. The police and the city put up wooden boxes as barricades, all of them were covered with graffiti.
So as your culture columnist I documented a lot of the art www.artandpoliticsnow.com/2020/06/capitol-hill-occupied-protest/
I also documented the intersection of BLM with COVID murals in the International District as the two huge events collided there in stunning murals. www.artandpoliticsnow.com/2020/06/intersections-in-the-international-district-murals-fish-vegetables-black-lives-matter/
George Floyd Mural June 24, 2020 now painted over, courtesy Susan Platt
Much less reported (indeed so far, I am the only writer on this subject) is the current occupation of the Northwest African American Museum entrance. The Colman School, site of the Northwest African American Museum, has been occupied since Juneteenth by Omari Tahir, Earl Debnam, and others to declare that they are the rightful owners of the property based on a purchase agreement and loan agreement from January 1998, a copy of which they provided to me. Tahir and Debnam were involved in the original occupation in the 1980s and 1990s.
They state that they are the “real museum” with the name of African American Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. They have a report from the Mayor in 1994, that was Norm Rice, outlining the programs for the museum that included a visual arts center, musical center, artist in residence program, intimate performing/workshop space, practice space, instrument library, and a recording studio.
“Why Do you See Me as a Crime?” at We Want to Live March, June 7 in South Seattle, courtesy Susan Platt
They occupied the school for an amazing 13 years between 1985 and 1998 during which they created an exhibition of displays of African artifacts that Omari brought from Africa, “led workshops, held concerts, engaged with youth to be proud of their heritage so they would not turn to the streets.” That was a huge motivation for both their original occupation and their current occupation: as shootings of black youth continue to escalate, their desire to connect to youth through African heritage is re motivating them to continue their campaign.
As stated in a July 7 article in Seattle Met that does not mention the current occupation: “ After an eight-year occupation, disputes between city leaders and activists related to the site’s functions and funds kept NAAM from opening until 2008, according to Trevor Griffey, the co-founder of UW’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.“ That article compares the occupation to that at the Centro de la Raza struggle (also a former school occupation, but only for three months), and Daybreak Star, by the famous Bernie Whitebear who “won” land from Fort Lawson (of course it was all indigenous land).
Omari and Earl with new supporters have returned to NWAAM. They state that the current museum is not “supporting the community.” I asked them what the NWAAM response to the occupation had been. The chair of the board called the police to evict them three times, but the program director has, according to their account, been more amenable to listening.
I went back just before this press deadline (August 18) to get an update and the occupation had expanded! It has spread over the two gravel courtyards on either side of the museum entrance. The occupiers are enacting their vision of a community-based cultural center: raised beds ( as well as free plants to take away), a hand painted people’s library, Earl Debnam’s painting studio, the Jimi Hendrix Musical Academy (I saw some instruments available for people to play), an announcement of Jimi Hendrix 50th Anniversary Celebration Sept 18-20, 2020. Hanging to the other side was a row of celebratory flags and an announcement of another festival, September 11-13 online by the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement. https://inpdum.org/.
So, what will happen next? Perhaps by October NWAAM will want to reopen and then we will see.
CHOP was dismantled on July 1, but the garden has survived. When I went back on August 15, some of the memorials were still there, many have been removed or painted out. Some of the art is being cataloged with the city
Cal Anderson Park still has a garden with raised beds run by Black Star Farmers (https://blackstarfarmers.org/ with lots of inspiring signs about African American and Indigenous history. But everyday something changes! Last week it was temporarily closed, and all the signs gone, this week it is open, with new signs. Drip irrigation has been set up.
The City Council precipitously acted on the “defund the police” demand, to provide more money for community services, but when they targeted our African American police chief with a forty percent cut in pay, she resigned. My personal opinion is that the police need massive retraining and lots more money can go to community services. But singling out our African American police chief for a huge pay cut that led her to resign was a big mistake. As with the NWAAM occupation, negotiation is the way forward. But given our national mood, negotiation is not happening. We are all too angry, stressed and anxious.
~Susan Platt, Ph.D.,