By Brett Hamil
A grassroots movement led by young people of color is transforming the way Seattle approaches youth incarceration. Assembling under the call to action No New Youth Jail, this movement formed to stop the construction of a $210 million “Children and Family Justice Center” (read: juvenile jail/courthouse) in the Central District, the city’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. They’ve drawn broad support that’s rippled outward from those most directly impacted to the wider social justice community. They’ve shut down council meetings, interrupted campaign events, influenced candidacies and galvanized a new generation of activists. They’ve even done the seemingly impossible; convince local politicians to withdraw support for a massive taxpayer-funded construction project.
In Seattle, huge capital ventures have a sneaky way of taking on a life of their own as they went through the region’s process-obsessed style of government. Both voters and legislators opposed subsidizing the $517 million new Safeco Field before it was rammed through in Olympia at the eleventh hour. Voters rejected the $3 billion Viaduct Replacement Tunnel by referendum then passed it four years later with a ballot measure that explicitly didn’t specify a tunnel. (This project is currently approaching a quarter of a billion dollars over budget). When there are exorbitant sums of money at stake, the Seattle Process finds a way.
This is why No New Youth Jail stands out. It’s an ongoing example of successful movement building, a hyper-localized model of the fight for racial equity in a system whose massive gears grind down even the most fervent opposition. It remains to be seen whether the movement will be successful in stopping construction of the facility, but they have made an indelible entry into the local political conversation. Every elected official and candidate in Seattle is now expected to formulate a position on the youth jail. Several notable leaders, including the mayor and the city council president, have publicly changed their positions under sustained pressure.
The new youth jail started as a last-minute addendum intended to leverage support for a ballot measure in 2010 that would increase sales tax to fund public safety services. The county contended that the current Youth Services Center was rundown and in need of extensive upgrades. That referendum failed. Two years later, a new property tax levy was mounted that would fund the Children and Family Justice Center. At $210 million, it’s over twice the cost of City Hall. Despite community efforts to organize in opposition, the levy passed.
Arguments against the new youth jail begin with the misleading language deployed in the text of the levy itself, which never used the words “jail,” “incarceration,” or “youth detention”; the facility was euphemistically described on the ballot as a place that “services the justice needs of children and families.” Additionally, the county’s 2011 analysis of the current “decrepit” Youth Services Center described it as “generally in good condition” and estimated that repairs to the building would cost around $800,000.
The central organizing group behind the opposition, Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), sued the county for an injunction to block construction, which is slated to begin this year. That lawsuit was unsuccessful and is currently on appeal.
Arguments against the youth jail go far beyond the fiscal. The central thrust of resistance has centered on the racial disproportionality of juvenile punishment in Washington, with black youth comprising only 6% of the youth population but 21% of those incarcerated. Further exacerbating this disparity, the site of the new jail is located in the heart of Seattle’s Central District, a historically black neighborhood and the most rapidly gentrifying area in the city, where residents are being displaced at unprecedented rates in the midst of a housing boom fueled by an influx of tech money and speculative real estate investment.
No New Youth Jail activists have taken the fight directly to the decision makers. In 2015 they disrupted King County council meetings, prompting Superior Court judge Susan Craighead to call them “a cancer growing on the City of Seattle’s body politic” in an op-ed. She later softened her tone and apologized for “not listening well enough to our community.”
No New Youth Jail has also put pressure on the Seattle city council to deny the master land use permit necessary to begin construction, and although the permit was granted—Mayor Ed Murray insisted he couldn’t legally intervene to stop the county-level project—it represented the movement’s unbending intent to pressure politicians into stopping the jail by any means available.
The mounting opposition began to yield concessions. In September of 2015, the city council’s Public Safety Committee unanimously adopted a resolution to set a goal of zero youth detention. King County decreased the number of detention beds in their plan from 144 to 112—the current facility has 212 beds—in an effort to show commitment to heeding community demands. In another nod to No New Youth Jail, the county directed funds from the levy to a new program, Creative Justice, a groundbreaking alternative to detention in which youth can have their nonviolent charges mitigated through participation in a 12-week arts program. Creative Justice has emerged as a national model and has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. King County has implemented an array of diversion programs including restorative justice-based peer mediation and family intervention services. These represent a significant shift in mainstream approaches to juvenile justice, directly motivated by both local community pushback and current scholarship on the dire long-term effects of youth incarceration.
Despite these steps forward, the youth jail is still slated to begin construction this year. Resistance reached a fever pitch last fall in conjunction with the work of Block the Bunker, an allied movement formed by POC-led community organizing group Seattle Black Book Club to stop the construction of a planned new North Seattle police precinct. At a cost of $160 million, the precinct—dubbed “the Bunker”—would be the most expensive of its kind in the world and another symbol of the same inequitable and unaccountable civic spending priorities exemplified by the new youth jail. Both groups advocate for ending the school-to-prison pipeline, demilitarization of the police, and civilian oversight, aims mirrored by the broader national push for police accountability represented by the Black Lives Matter movement.
In September 2016, Mayor Murray announced that he was delaying the Bunker after a series of antagonistic public exchanges with activists just before the kickoff to his reelection campaign. Flanked by his pro-Bunker allies on the city council, he announced that the project was indefinitely postponed while the city reviews the cost and conducts a Racial Equity Toolkit assessment. Block the Bunker folks were jubilant but skeptical.
A week after this dramatic about-face, activists converged on a city council meeting en masse to protest the youth jail, filling the chambers to capacity. The protesters held up signs and banners and demanded public comment time. Activists dressed as inmates and prison guards staged a piece of political theatre. The vocal crowd succeeded in shutting down the meeting for two hours, leading to what the Seattle Weekly called “an unprecedented public conversation” about police brutality and youth incarceration between protesters and the handful of councilmembers who remained in the room.
No New Youth Jail continued to escalate the political pressure through direct action. In December, they staged a protest in front of Murray’s Capitol Hill home. In January the civil rights activist Angela Davis spoke in Seattle at an event co-hosted by city city council president Bruce Harrell. Put on the spot in front of the iconic prison abolitionist and an audience packed with No New Youth Jail activists, Harrell announced that he would “demand a new solution” from the county council. By the end of the month he co-wrote an op-ed with county councilmember Rob Dembowski titled “King County Should Not Build a New Juvenile Detention Center.” That same week, Ed Murray called for a “second look” at the youth jail. The tide was shifting faster now; years of organizing, protest and legal action were bearing concrete results.
The power to stop the project still sits with the county council and King County executive Dow Constantine, who insists the jail must be built. Nevertheless, the day after Murray’s announcement Constantine jumped on the wave of reform by calling for the county to adopt a goal of zero youth detention, as the city had. He also pledged to create peacemaking circles between the pro- and anti-youth jail camps.
In March the city hearing examiner rejected the appeal put forth by EPIC and a coalition of other groups represented by Knoll Lowney of Smith & Lowney LLC. Their appeal contested the master use permit granted by the city and called for additional environmental review. It was denied on jurisdictional grounds, a ruling that was considered outrageous since city officials frequently cited the appeal as the next method of recourse for protesters during the contentious permitting process.
While local politicians and bureaucrats plod through the paces, a newly emboldened liberation movement has formulated a vision in public. Kshama Sawant, the city council’s strongest advocate for No New Youth Jail and Block the Bunker, proposed a budget amendment that would use the $160 million from the blocked Bunker to build 1000 affordable homes. That plan didn’t pass, but councilmember Lisa Herbold then put forth an alternative $29 million bond for housing that did pass, seconded by Sawant. That’s $29 million toward affordable housing for a city in the grips of a homelessness crisis. It came about as a direct byproduct of a prison abolition movement led by young people of color.
As political support for the Children and Family Justice Center erodes, the No New Youth Jail movement remains implacable. If a hyper-local, grassroots movement with no budget can stop a $210 million inevitability, it would drastically alter the political equation in Seattle. It would force the establishment to give more than the usual perfunctory nod to racial equity and police accountability. It would claw back funding from yet another massive capital project to prioritize and empower the communities most impacted in this current period of disruption and displacement. It would prove, once again, that direct action gets the goods.
Brett Hamil is a writer, comedian and political commentator based in Seattle. He’s a columnist for City Arts Magazine and a regular contributor to the South Seattle Emerald. He hosts a live political comedy talk show, The Seattle Process, as well as a satirical people’s assembly, The Shadow Council, both at the Northwest Film Forum. Hamil lives in the Southend with his wife, a baby, and two weird-looking dogs.