On November 12, Seattle police had a WMD moment. According to police "intel," four men had taken over the Horace Mann school building in the Central District, placed a sniper on the roof, and wired the building with explosives, Detective Renee Witt told reporters. Across the street, dozens of armed officers milled about. A SWAT team was on-site, and the entire block was cordoned off.
Like those nonexistent Iraqi nukes, however, "There were no explosives or weapons found on the premises," Witt admitted later that week in an e-mail. The most resistance they faced was 67-year-old activist Omari Garrett hollering from a window about the need for a proper warrant before he agreed to come down. The men were arrested, charged with criminal trespassing, and released hours later.
Those men were the final holdouts of a five-month schoolhouse occupation by a coalition calling itself Africatown. Through teach-ins and educational programs, the group sought to bring attention to the disadvantages that African American students face in Seattle schools, but some neighbors, education activists, and even reporters took sides against them, riled by what they deemed an unruly group of "squatters."
The disparities in Seattle schools are well documented. According to the school district's data, African American third graders pass state math tests, for example, at half the rate of white students. And over the last decade, suspensions and expulsions have been meted out to black high-school students at least three times as often as to white students, school records show. That prompted the federal Department of Education to begin an investigation last year into whether Seattle Public Schools "discriminate against African American students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly than similarly situated white students," according to DOE spokesman Jim Bradshaw.
All of this adds up to a sense of institutional racism that's been festering for decades. In the historically black Central District, Africatown (think Chinatown, but for African Americans) was trying to do something about it.
"It's really important that there's a centralized space where young people of color can find support from people who look like them and who understand their place in society," explains Nikkita Oliver, a UW law student who volunteered with the group. She says public school teachers who attended their meetings complained that they're "not getting the training to be culturally relevant" to African American students.
The activists also got mixed messages from the district. A September e-mail message to Africatown members from school superintendent José Banda said he'd witnessed their "innovative work and programs." Nonetheless, they needed to vacate the building so that long-scheduled renovations could move ahead, he said. Banda estimated that the school district was losing about $1,000 each day by postponing construction. Most of the coalition members—organizers of math, arts, and vocational classes, as well as urban gardening, dance, and video game programming workshops—packed up.
One of them was Julia Ismael, who runs the Al-Noor Academy, a math and arts program tailored to the needs of Muslim students that was based in the Mann building. Before the eviction, she posted a photo of the austere, empty structure on her Facebook wall with the caption: "Homeless."
So where does Africatown go now?
The district has been negotiating with the group for a new space since the summer. First, it proposed space at Van Asselt Elementary on Beacon Hill at reduced or free rent rates, according to Malakhi Kaine, a parent and member of the Africatown partnership task force created by the superintendent. But an official offer never came, and after an extended delay, the district instead offered Van Asselt at full price (meaning tens of thousands of dollars in unaffordable payments) or a lease on rooms at the Columbia Annex even farther south in Rainier Valley.
"Wait, where's the greatly reduced rent that you're giving us to serve your students?" Kaine says. Some reluctantly accepted the Columbia Annex, while others decided to continue occupying the building in protest.
School district spokeswoman Teresa Wippel says Africatown did not meet "the required level of community outreach to neighbors" for discounted rent.
But Africatown should have a home in Seattle schools, says school board member Betty Patu, who represents the southeast portion of the district. She says Superintendent Banda "could have done a better job, and executed faster" in negotiating with the group.
The district has treated its minority students like "second-class citizens" for far too long. For years, it's talked about "doing something" about it, Patu says. "And I've seen little progress. It took the Mann building to really open up a door that no one wanted to open."
That door may be open—a door that allows officials to address racial disparities head-on—but so far, the district doesn't seem willing to walk through it.