Seattle education activists arrested for trespassing

Africatown teaches culturally based curriculum for black students

Seattle police on Nov. 19 move in before the fourth arrest at Seattle Public Schools' Horace Mann building, which has been used by community groups for educational enrichment programs.
Ken Lambert/AP

Four men were arrested for trespassing at a Seattle school building where their organization taught a culturally-based curriculum for African-American students, police said Wednesday. They were released hours later, vowing to continue their work to close what they call a racial achievement gap in education.

Seattle Public Schools (SPS), which owns the off-campus Horace Mann building, said that it wanted to renovate the facility and called the police because some members of the organization had refused to leave.

The four who were arrested are part of an organization called Africatown, part of a nationwide community development initiative. In Seattle, Africatown says it aims to transform the historically black Central District into a vibrant cultural center. The group says its aim with respect to Horace Mann, which is located in the Central District, was to provide quality education that addresses the history and culture of African-American students who are in  public schools.

“We want a correct curriculum. We don’t want this European colonial storytelling,” Omari Tahir-Garrett, a historian who was among those arrested Tuesday at the school, told Al Jazeera. “The problem is it's a colonial curriculum that doesn't teach the truth about indigenous peoples, or about how they kidnapped us from Africa and brought us here.”

“It doesn't work for African-American children,” he said. “Our kids are on the streets, driven from the school system.”

Africatown had provided summer enrichment programs at the Horace Mann school building since the beginning of the summer, using the facility under an agreement with another community organization that leased the building from SPS.

SPS said it had rented the building to the organization, but had decided to renovate it and use it for a planned alternative school program.

“We gave all of the organizations notice six months ahead of time that they needed to vacate … and everyone left by Aug. 1 with the exception of one group of folks, the Africatown group,” Teresa Wippel, a spokeswoman for SPS, told Al Jazeera.

In every SPS lease, Wippel said, there is a clause saying the school system reserves the right to take over the building if needed.

At the request of SPS, police entered the Horace Mann building Tuesday afternoon and arrested the four men from Africatown for criminal trespassing, said Mike Jameson, a spokesman for the Seattle Police Department.

“The people inside were there against the will of the owner. They were asked to leave, but they refused,” Jameson told Al Jazeera.

He added that the department had information that led officers to believe the men inside might be armed, prompting the department to send in its tactical team to make the arrests. No weapons were found, Jameson said.

“They threw the SWAT team at us over nothing. The same mainstream press that blew up the story (about weapons) had to come clean and admit there were none,” Greg Lewis, an Africatown supporter who was inside the building at the time, told Al Jazeera.

Africatown members said that their group is nonviolent, and two of the men who were arrested at the building Tuesday said they were running a small radio station from the building and making posters there when the police arrived.

“We were making signs that say, ‘Decolonize Apartheid Curriculum’ when all of a sudden we heard loud banging. I opened the window and see five policemen pointing guns in my face,” Tahir said.

'Decolonizing' education

More4Mann, a group of activists who support Africatown, said that the police presence to extract the four men could be called “excessive,” and that police officers were “knocking down doors with rams and climbing in through roof top hatches.”

Lewis said the officers did not have a search warrant or probable cause. Jameson said they did not need a warrant because the owner of the building, SPS, had called the police to remove the men.

Lewis and Tahir said they are looking for another building because the one SPS offered as a replacement is not in the same area and is more expensive.

Tahir said it is important that they succeed in their mission.

“Schools need to stop teaching lies to black children; they don’t feel good about going to school and are pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline,” Tahir said. “How can you tell black children that Jefferson and Washington are their heroes?" he said, adding that Washington was a slave-owner. Washington had owned 318 slaves, which he released in his will when he died.

Tahir said his organization believes the curriculum should be career-based, so graduates can find jobs in a tough economy – instead of having to depend on what he called the “equal-opportunity employment” of dealing drugs on the streets.

 “You can lose money and get it back, but time you’ll never get back,” he said. “And these kids are running out of time.”

Al Jazeera

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