On Wednesday morning, K. Wyking Garrett arrived at MidTown Center in the Central District to find that the locks to Black Dot, a coworking space and small business incubator he co-founded, had been changed. In an e-mail to local media outlets, a media representative for the organization called on reporters to document what had happened. Wyking Garrett himself also sent out an e-mail blast, calling on media to document a standoff and “police raid” at the Umoja Peace Center on the other side of the MidTown Center plaza, at 24th Avenue and Spring Street.
There, King County Sheriff deputies, aided by Seattle police officers and a work crew, were evicting longtime Central District activist Omari Tahir-Garrett, who is Wyking Garrett’s father. Omari Tahir-Garrett had lived at the Umoja cultural center for eight years, at times rent-free according to a member of the family that owns the property. A group of community activists gathered outside the property chanting, “Hands off Omari’s stuff!”
Cliff Cawthon, an organizer with Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE), described Tahir-Garrett as a “community icon” who “poses no physical threat to anyone.”
Tahir-Garret has a considerable court history in Seattle. In 2002, he was convicted of assaulting former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell with a megaphone, shattering bones in Schell's face. Tahir-Garrett had been using the megaphone to criticize Seattle police for the death of Aaron Roberts, a Black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer. An inquest into that shooting found that the officer who shot Roberts was acting out fear of great bodily harm. The officer testified that Roberts grabbed his wrist and began driving away during a traffic stop.
Tahir-Garrett served 21 months in prison for the crime of assaulting Schell. More recently, Capitol Hill Seattle blog reports that in early March Tahir-Garrett was "served eviction papers" and told to vacate the Umoja cultural center property after "proceedings that included Tahir-Garrett being jailed after repeated courtroom outbursts." The blog also notes that yesterday's eviction was the result of a long running legal fight.
Seattle Police Lieutenant Grant Ballingham said police dogs were brought in when Tahir-Garrett was not found in the house during an initial search. Around 1:30 p.m., Lt. Ballingham said that Tahir-Garrett was not inside the building and hadn’t been seen all day. The Capitol Hill Seattle blog reported that a protest organizer confirmed “Tahir-Garrett is ‘safe’ and not in custody.”
Activists stood in the rain chanting and calling on work crews to stop the eviction. As they chanted, workers hauled out furniture and musical instruments, among other things, from inside the Umoja center. Some of the items were placed under a tarp on the sidewalk, while other things were tossed in a large dumpster. The work crew, which included friends and members of the Bangasser family, which owns MidTown Center, helped clear the lot outside. The lot had been piled with remnants of a homeless encampment. SPD officers stood along the edges of the house and the sidewalk to keep an eye on the demonstrators. Lt. Ballingham said that SPD officers do not have the authority to serve an eviction, but were called in by the county sheriff’s office to keep the peace.
Tahir-Garrett, Cawthon claimed, had paid rent to the Bangasser family. The family is currently trying to sell the property for redevelopment.
Tahir-Garrett, whose father helped found Liberty Bank in 1968, has been a lifelong activist in the Central District and an outspoken advocate for Black rights and the payment of reparations. Some of his work in the community eventually led to the opening of the Northwest African American Museum.
Tom Bangasser, who was once part of the MidTown Limited Partnership with his siblings, allowed Tahir-Garrett to live at the Umoja center rent-free, he said in a phone interview on Wednesday. Bangasser described Tahir-Garrett as someone who bought books and toys for neighborhood kids and purchased Christmas trees for neighbors. The relationship between Tom Bangasser's siblings and Tahir-Garrett soured after Tom was pushed out of the partnership in 2015, Tom said.
"He has been treated very badly by everyone—by the city, by [my] siblings, by the establishment," Tom Bangasser said. "I’m not at all in favor of how my family is dealing with this."
Hugh Bangasser, one of the current members of the MidTown partnership and an attorney at K&L Gates, worked on clearing out the Umoja Peace Center that afternoon. He did not wish to provide a comment regarding the interactions between himself, his siblings, Tahir-Garrett, and Black Dot.
During a press conference held late Wednesday afternoon at Black Dot, K. Wyking Garrett said his organization’s locks being changed and the eviction of the Umoja Peace Center “highlights the importance and urgent need for community-led development that reduces the vulnerability of small businesses to displacement.”
Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant was also in attendance. Earlier that afternoon she issued a letter, which called on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, King County Sheriff John Urquhart, and Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole to save the Umoja Peace Center.
“Along with working people, what’s being displaced are our small businesses, especially businesses belonging to people of color, which are an intricate and integral part of the fabric of Seattle,” she said. “If we lose all of this, we lose Seattle.”