Last week, when 20,000 people marched for immigrant rights in downtown Seattle, a group of erstwhile activists watched from the sidelines with envy. That should be us.

Sakara Remmu was one. She had been part of a dynamic generation of young black activists who flocked around Carl Mack after his 2002 victory in the election for president of the Seattle branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It had been the first contested election in 30 years, providing exactly the shakeup the moribund organization needed. With his thundering voice and grand vision, Mack had the bearing of a champion, the kind that seems scarce in the modern era. He had that quality—special to civil rights heroes—of being impossible to ignore. "He just walks into a room and you know he's there," said King County Executive Ron Sims, who has never encountered another with such a blend of charisma and genius: "Carl Mack is in a league of his own."

Remmu became Mack's specialist on education. When children were mistreated by a school district, she investigated the case, then reported to Mack. Eric Dawson did the same for discrimination at the workplace. Other bright, determined young people probed for discrimination in housing or prejudice by Seattle police officers.

And when Mack was in Seattle, they had to answer for it. He'd call a press conference or stage a demonstration, and the offending agency, or company, or school would feel for itself the shame of racism. "We unequivocally had the power to save peoples' lives." says Remmu.

But a talent like Mack's would not be long for nonprofit volunteer work. Besides, the National Society of Black Engineers offered a job that inflicted far less stress. He moved to Virginia in January 2005.

"My heart and soul is still with the Seattle NAACP," says Mack. He couldn't be here physically, but he hoped that at least his momentum would last.

He entrusted it to Alfoster Garrett Jr., a charming, fresh-faced attorney who had marched alongside Mack, who had some of that same personal magnetism, and who seemed to have the legal acumen that could yield milestone court victories for the organization's underdog clients. The first time he met Garrett in early 2002, Mack gave the young attorney a five-minute primer on a pending lawsuit. Mack said Garrett analyzed it, then hatched a strategy that produced a six-figure settlement.

"What I saw in him was a commitment—and sheer brilliance," says Mack.

He would regret those beliefs.

Where Mack had attracted followers, Garrett—who headed up the local chapter between February and December 2005—attracted critics. Those critics say Garrett botched political alliances, bungled a series of promising legal cases, and collected attorney's fees from NAACP clients, despite the organization's tradition of pro bono representation. This attracted the wrong kind of controversy, and as dissension spread within the NAACP ranks, Garrett refused to resign. By the time he did it was too late: There was almost nothing left of the NAACP that Mack had built.

"To see that come apart was painful to me," Mack says. And so it was for the next generation he had helped inspire. This month, Remmu's NAACP membership comes due—it costs $30 annually to belong. She says she won't give them a penny.

The Seattle branch of the NAACP has something to prove—again. The new president, Sheley Secrest, first enlisted with the organization in January 2003, so she saw the enthusiasm rise under Mack, then mass resignations under Garrett. She says it can rise again. But like Garrett, Secrest is a young attorney, and if her rebuilding project is to succeed she must avoid the same political and legal disasters that were his undoing.


In the five months since he announced his resignation from the NAACP, Garrett has kept a low profile, working as an attorney on small cases, like DUIs and personal injury. When I called him last week, though, he said that he was "finally ready" to tell the true story of his embattled presidency.

Garrett walks like a man pleased with the way his suit fits. He is tall—he played basketball at a small liberal-arts college in Ohio—and he looks even younger than his 35 years. During our interview Friday afternoon, he picks his words carefully. He has a conspiracy to unravel: The man who made him president, Mack, is the same man Garrett says orchestrated his demise.

But Garrett's blaming Mack for his failures might be more convincing if Garrett had established a leadership style of his own. Or, if it weren't so clear that Garrett's own blunders dealt the most crushing blows to the organization's legitimacy.

Garrett had inherited a branch with a membership growing both in numbers and in activism. With that came loads of political capital. Mack's NAACP had scorned Governor Christine Gregoire during a razor-thin gubernatorial campaign, so that after she won, she was in a mood to make friends. Last spring Gregoire's staff asked for a meeting. Here was Garrett's chance to make his first political splash.

Instead, Garrett arrived so late for his meeting with Gregoire that she walked out before he arrived, leaving him to talk only with her staff.

If Garrett was mortified with shame, he did a good job of concealing it. Mack, Dawson, and the branch secretary, Vicky White, all remember how a jubilant Garrett called them after the meeting to report that Gregoire assured him the NAACP could count on her support.

A few months later, Mack encountered a Gregoire staff member at a conference in Florida and he demanded to know why the governor hadn't delivered on the assurances she gave to Garrett. The staffer told Mack that Garrett's meeting with Gregoire never happened.

During our interview, Garrett denies he lied. It was a misunderstanding, "semantics": He assumed a meeting with the governor's staff to be the same as a meeting with the governor herself. But that doesn't jibe with the contrite quote Garrett gave to black P-I columnist Robert Jamieson about the incident: "I lied."

Of course, Garrett might be forgiven for making a few rookie mistakes in politics. His talents could shine in a more familiar venue: the courtroom.

The case against Kent School District provided that opportunity. A middle school had been slapping handcuffs on unruly children—many of them black—and volunteers like Remmu had devoted hundreds of hours to researching law and interviewing witnesses. Sixteen students gave their names to the suit. Before leaving, Mack had done his usual sterling job of promoting the case, such that the case was being hyped by every paper in Seattle.

Garrett's job was just to show up, and he made that look difficult. He missed one court appearance, was late for another, and the next time he arrived late, the judge tossed out the case. It was only a small consolation when Garrett promised his supporters that he would refile the case before the end of the week. Then he failed to do that, too. (The case remains inactive.)

Garrett explains that he was busy on other cases, that the students' families were slow to respond to his letters, and that, after all, "from a financial standpoint, these are all people who have no money." They couldn't pay him, nor pay other costs associated with a major lawsuit.

But these were the makings for another scandal: Not long after Garrett became involved with the NAACP, he quit his law firm and started his own practice. Naturally, he needed clients. While a great many people in need of legal services approach the NAACP, it is a nonprofit organization. Typically, say members, a lawyer outside the organization accepts a case pro bono or payment on a contingency fee basis.

Dawson chaired the labor and industries committee, which traditionally is the one that takes the most complaints from the community. He investigated these cases, but he had to deliver them to Garrett for action. "Every time he saw something that had some money, he said, 'I'm taking over from here,'" recalls Dawson.

As Remmu puts it, "They would walk in the front door of the NAACP and walk out the back door of his private practice."

Barbara Gibson and Jeannie Connor are plaintiffs in one such case. They, along with two other black women, felt harassed by white supervisors at the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and they feared for their jobs.

Garrett was still the vice president when the women were introduced to him in 2003, in a meeting at the NAACP branch office with Mack.

"He had us fooled in the beginning," says Gibson of Garrett.

"He's intelligent," says Connor, adding dramatically, "but he's a scam artist." (Garrett has never been charged with fraud.)

The women said Garrett did nothing to prepare them for depositions, and in those rare instances when he returned a phone call he told them he was busy. They asked him whether they should hire another attorney, but they say he told them, "It's under control." Still, Garrett repeatedly missed filing deadlines. Connor says she gave him a list of witnesses but they told her they never heard from him.

Finally, Garrett simply filed motions on his clients' behalf to dismiss the suit—only according to his clients, he did so without their permission.

Connor started at SHA 12 years ago as a janitor and worked her way up to administrative assistant. She says she paid Garrett about $3,500. Connor chokes back tears as she says, "You can't imagine how it felt to be betrayed by the vice president of the NAACP."

The women have filed a grievance against Garrett with the state bar.

But no one's story is as sad as Forrest Reid's. She went to the NAACP after her 14-year-old African-American son, an A-student and star athlete, was accused of sexually assaulting two girls in his class. Reid, who was then a teacher at Bellevue School District, paid Garrett $10,000 up front. She says her son looked up to Garrett and Reid was glad: She thought a young attorney who'd joined the NAACP was worth emulating. But that admiration didn't last through the trial. At some moments quoted in the file, Garrett's line of questioning suggests he is prosecuting—not defending—Reid's son. Reid herself had the same reaction.

Despite witness testimony that the contact was consensual, the boy was convicted on two of three counts. His mother hired a new lawyer who petitioned for a new trial based in part on Garrett's "deficient performance."

Reid also says she lodged a complaint against Garrett with the state bar.

Garrett himself said that all of these cases belonged to his private practice—even if he got the cases through his association with the NAACP. (Reid says Garrett's business card was two-sided: NAACP president on one side, private attorney on the other.) Garrett declined to discuss his handling of those cases, citing concerns about attorney-client privilege. He would only say that "the reason this is now an issue is because I pissed off certain people." Principally, Carl Mack.

Last June, shortly after the Gregoire gaffe and the dismissal of the Kent School District case, Garrett says Mack asked him to abdicate the presidency to Remmu or Dawson. Garrett refused. According to Garrett, Mack then said, "If you don't, then you don't want what's about to happen." About a month later, Garrett says he had three bar complaints filed against his license. He believes that people loyal to Mack persuaded the clients to file.

Remmu makes no secret of having helped draft Reid's bar complaint—Remmu first investigated that case and she feels Garrett should be penalized for fumbling it. But neither she nor Dawson say they encouraged other former clients to make complaints against Garrett.

By last summer, Garrett's handling of the presidency had begun to chase away many of the volunteers who had been galvanized by Mack. Vicki White, the branch secretary, declared in the middle of an executive board meeting, "I'm through," and walked out. In the months that followed Remmu and Dawson also resigned. In all, Remmu says that 11 board members quit the organization out of frustration over Garrett.

"There's only one Carl Mack," said Dawson. "But we expected Garrett to represent the organization the way it deserved, and if you can't do that, just get out of the way. Don't drag the organization down with you."

Garrett says that it's merely a case of his style being different—and more responsible—than Mack's. "What Carl was trying to do was use bully tactics to leverage settlements."

As an example, Garrett says he never conceived a legal strategy that led to a six-figure settlement, as Mack claimed. Rather, that was a case where a company had recently seen how a Mack-led march closed Seattle streets—executives didn't want a similar demonstration in front of their offices. (Due to a confidentiality agreement connected with that case, neither Garrett nor Mack could discuss that case's particulars.)

When in November Garrett finally announced his resignation, he said it was to spend more time with his son, over whom he'd waged a vicious, two-year custody battle, and devote more time to his private practice. But now he says that wasn't the whole story. "I got death threats, which is the real reason I resigned."

Garrett provided a letter signed by an attorney, informing Garrett that his life would be in danger "if you were to release some information to the bar with respect to a past client of yours."

The attorney does not name the person who made this threat. (The attorney did not return calls before the press deadline, so he could not confirm his authorship of the letter.)

Garrett can guess who made the threat. He believes that Remmu voiced it (she calls this allegation "completely ridiculous"), but that "Carl was probably behind it. I don't have dirt on anyone but Carl Mack."

Mack denied any connection with the threat or the bar complaints. He says that Garrett is "delusional."


One person who never left was 31-year-old Sheley Secrest, the new president, who worked alongside both Mack and Garrett. Secrest says that she's learned from Garrett's mistakes and vows not to let her nonprofit responsibilities overlap with her for-profit work. "That was wrong," she says. Secrest will not be asking NAACP clients for legal retainers. "There will be no more switching of hats," she says. In, perhaps, a slight gaffe right off the bat,

Secrest's name appeared recently on fliers advertising the Senate campaign kickoff rally for controversial Green Party candidate Aaron Dixon. But Secrest says that Dixon's campaign did not have her permission and she did not speak at the rally. As a registered nonprofit, the NAACP cannot make campaign endorsements.

Secrest says her emphasis will be police accountability, the government contract process, and educational disparities between minorities and white students.

Though Secrest won't be reviving the Kent School District case, she has talked with Representative Eric Pettigrew (D-37, South Seattle) about passing legislation that would make handcuffing students illegal.

Currently, Secrest is preparing for a showdown with Sound Transit, which Secrest says accepted federal funds based on the understanding it would hire a certain number of minority workers—a number they did not reach. She wants progress by April 27, or else. "It could be a protest or a rally or a boycott," says Secrest.

Mack calls Secrest "a fiery little sister" who will bring "a fierceness to the table."

Predictably, Garrett said that Secrest will only succeed if she can stay clear of the same office politics that he blames for his failure.

I asked Garrett if he didn't have other regrets—the missed meeting with the governor, a legal strategy that backfired. But mainly, he regrets what others did to him.

"The mistake I made is that I didn't go public with what was happening right away," said Garrett. "I should have, but I was trying to protect the organization, because I thought the outside community would say, 'Look at them. They don't know what they're doing.'"

Continue to Policing the N Word by Charles Mudede.