Since the summer, members of the historically Black central district community in Seattle have taken back the Horace Mann building from the Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Calling out the district for it’s racially biased suspension rates, lack of culturally relevant curriculum, and general oppression of youth of African descent, they have been running their own educational programs in the building, called the Africatown Innovation and Education Center (AIEC). Hundreds of Black youth have participated in learning activities there over the course of the summer and fall.
The school district wants to begin renovations on this building immediately, so that it can be turned over to a majority-white alternative school called Nova (even though many Nova teachers, parents, and students do not want to displace the AEIC). Africatown residents have refused to move, delaying construction and creating an accelerating political crisis for the SPS leadership. For background info, click here and here.
Horace Mann is located at 24th and Cherry St., Seattle. Barring a police raid, there will be a Black labor movie night and disucssion there on Fri at 6 PM. I encourage everyone to go by and check it out for yourself.
This week, the struggle kicked into high gear. In this post, I’ll attempt to provide an update based on my own observations as a participant in recent movement activities, as well as info from reliable sources within the movement. My goal is to provide an orientation for supporters who might be starting to get involved right now.
It’s especially important to orient ourselves because there’s been a wave of negative media attacks on the More4Mann movement that threaten to sew confusion among supporters. The movement responded with a powerful press conference on Saturday, and a strong presence at last night’s school board meeting. As Kiro 7 reports, the board meeting was packed, with people waiting in line to get in.
The agenda for the Nov 6th board meeting was supposed to include a vote on whether the school district would lease space to the AIEC to continue the educational programs they had started in the Mann building while Mann is being renovated. This was part of Superintendent Jose Banda’s public, verbal promise to help facilitate their temporary move to another building, part of the partnership he said he wanted to develop with the AIEC educators to help close the racial achievement gap. However, SPS legal counsel Ron English later informed him – suspiciously late in the process – that he could not make this sort of deal on his own and that it would have to be put up to a school board vote. This delayed the negotiations, causing libertarian-minded opponents of both Africatown AND Banda to become more and more enraged about how much money is being lost due to delays in renovations at at Mann.
The board was supposed to vote last night, but Banda asked for a delay, using the excuse that he wants more time to negotiate an effective solution. I wonder if the real reason might be that he was worried he might loose the vote if it was taken tonight. This would be a problem for him because he has staked a good deal of his political capital upon presenting himself as someone who can dialogue with activists from communities of color, and if the board prevents him from bringing a deal to the table, then he can’t claim he diffused the crisis and instead the community might just turn up the heat on the district even further.
Two of the board members (Patu and Peasley) seemed supportive of Banda last night, and another two (Debell and Carr) seemed openly hostile. The rest seemed on the fence, but I think they’re leaning against Banda because they kept criticizing him for “losing control of the building” and allowing Africatown residents to “occupy” it, violating district policies. Ron English intervened only once in the meeting, reminding the board that Banda couldn’t just table the vote on the lease- that the decision to table it would itself have to be put up to a board vote. They eventually did vote to table it, but some of us read this as Ron English and his bureaucracy reminding Banda who really calls the shots.
It is important that supporters of Africatown pay attention to these serpentine political twists. I’m not saying we should have faith in any of the politicians, or see any of them as our allies. But we should take inspiration from the fact that the actions at Horace Mann have created political tensions among the city’s managerial class, tensions that we could possibly exploit to further push our own agenda.
Banda’s opponents seem particularly angry at him because they think he has been too soft on people who have “broken the law” by holding a building to pressure the district to negotiate. Lynne Varner, Seattle Times mouthpeice for the corporate education “reformers”, has this to say in her recent blog post:
“ Banda has the right instincts to listen when people demand attention, particularly when it comes to the long-standing problems around academic disproportionality. But he should not put up with, nor subject his employees, to bullying, threats and intimidation. At this point, talks about a district-Africatown partnership ought to be off until cooler heads prevail. If the group wants to get serious, get rid of the fringe element horning in on what could be a promising community partnership.”
Melissa Westbrook from the Save Seattle Schools blog is worried that other groups will get the idea that they can also occupy buildings in order to get what they want. For example, will Pinehurst / AS 1 families and teachers occupy their school in order to prevent the district from closing it? As I wrote here , I agree with Melissa that a cascading chain of direct actions is a possibility right now; while she thinks it’s a looming disaster, I think it’s a great idea. In fact, I think the kind of direct action that Africatown folks have taken is exactly what we all need to do to save Seattle public schools – and transform them to meet our needs. Black folks in the Reconstruction South took action to create public education in the first place, and it’s no surprise that the attacks on quality, relevant, anti-racist public ed. have focused most viciously on Black communities, from Philly to Chicago to Seattle. So it’s also no surprise that the fightback is beginning most intensely in Black communities, and the rest of us should spread it into our schools and neighborhoods.
To keep this pressure going, activists at Horace Mann have set up barricades (visible in this news report). Supt. Banda and Peggy McEvoy announced at the board meeting tonight that they were coordinating with the Seattle Police to forcibly remove people from the building. Both sides are entrenching, and things are clearly coming to a head.
As a result, people across Seattle, and across the country are paying closer attention to this struggle, and to the much needed conversation that it has provoked about racist practices and policies in Seattle’s schools. As numerous speakers asked on Sat’s press conference and tonight’s meeting: “would the district even be addressing these issues of racial inequality if people had not refused to leave the Mann building?”
Residents of the Central District/ Africatown, members of the Black community more broadly, veterans of the Occupy movement, and others have been attending events at Mann, and I would not be surprised if a lot of people decide to mobilize in defense of the movement if Banda does call in the cops.
At the same time, racist elements are also showing up. Last night, a white man came by the Horace Mann building and called several of the people there “racist n*****s” . At the school board, a man said that Africatown’s anti-gentrification rhetoric is simply designed to manipulate “people who don’t understand the hard work involved in owning property.”
Given these rising tensions, it’s especially important that supporters of the movement seek clear information from More4Mann organizers, and that we don’t trust the distorting narratives that will inevitably be spread by district officials, cops, mainstream media outlets, and hostile social media forces. Here are some predictable narratives we should refuse to fall for:
“squatters” vs. “phds”
Tonight at the school board meeting, Superintendent Banda recognized a fact that the movement stressed heavily on the Sat press conference – that the curriculum for the AIC is being developed by highly experienced teachers, professors with PhDs, researchers, and educational consultants.
This is true. But the movement also includes working class parents and students, including folks with a wide range of experiences, from Microsoft tech workers to people who did time in prison. Movement spokespeople have been stressing the presence of folks with PhDs so much recently in order to counter a backlash of distortions coming from folks like Melissa Westbrook and others who have described Africatown as a bunch of squatters with no expertise and no capacity to actually teach students. These people are putting pressure on Supt. Banda, calling him irresponsible for even negotiating with the More4Mann movement for this reason. (it’s worth noting that Westbrook is something like a “kingmaker”; she was influential in taking down a previous superintendent, Dr. Goodloe Johnson).
Tonight, it seemed like the Africatown Educators and Supt. Banda were both trying to convince the fence-sitting board members to recognize the expertise that the educators bring to the table, so that the board would sign the lease allowing the educators to rent space from the district (in portables at Mann and possibly at Columbia Annex) where they can run the AIC programs until the Mann building renovations are complete.
This rhetoric of “squatters vs. phds” might be a turn off to those of us who believe that education should not be something that only state-certified teachers can do; many of are fighting for a future where teaching and learning are infused throughout society instead of enclosed within narrow professions. We are trying to create a present where teachers, parents, and students all learn from each other.
This rhetoric might also alienate possible supporters from the Occupy or anarchist movements. Many of them have experience squatting or occupying buildings in order to survive, and/or because they are trying to take back resources from the system to start building a life worth living.
It’s important to keep in mind that when Africatown educators say “we are not squatters”, this is just a temporary tactic being used by people who have themselves been taking back a building from the school district in order to build the kind of future they want. It’s also just one tactic within a broader diversity of tactics that make up the overall strategy the movement is putting forward.
Finally, taking back the building has not just been a bargaining chip in a grand reformist strategy. People have been serious about creating a free, autonomous zone at Mann, and the building has functioned as a hub where people can meet each other and grow community; in that sense, going there has reminded me of some of the best moments in the Occupy camp (but without some of the problems that came along with Occupy’s majority-white demographic).
Finally, people are rejecting the “occupier” and “squatter” labels because it’s insulting to be called a squatter in a building that was once a historically Black school in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified. Africatown folks insist they are not occupying the building, they are simply taking it back for their neighborhood, and if the district comes in and takes it over, they will be the ones “occupying” it through the force of their occupying army – the Seattle Police.
2) Responsible activists vs. violent radicals
Tonight Banda introduced another, more divisive element to the mix. He said that the “responsible” educators he is negotiating with have all left the building, and that those who remain in the building are not part of Africatown and hence are not part of the ongoing negotiations. Right after Banda said that, Peggy McEvoy reported how she was working with the Seattle Police and their legal team to prepare to remove these “other people” from the building even as Banda continues to negotiate with the educators. Banda openly supported this.
While Lynne Varner is trying to lump the people in the buidling in with the educators in order to shame Banda, Banda is trying to separate the two groups in order to make himself look like someone who only negotiates with what he called “certified community organizations.” Personally, I don’t trust Banda and I think that most of his attempts to negotiate have been attempts to coopt and diffuse the movement. But, in the the face of mounting pressure to his right, he might exchange the carrot for the stick; he might decide that he needs to send in police in order to show his critics that he can take charge of the situation.
He had tried cooptation first because he probably knows that violent repression could just create a bigger backlash of anger against him and against the city government. So if he does opt for the stick over the carrot, then he will probably instruct the police to apply force in a very precise and strategically focused way, in order to shape the political narrative in ways he can control.
Based on my experiences in past movements, the media often assists the police and politicians with this sort of operation, manufacturing the false claim that certain crucial elements of the movement are somehow outside of it, in order to isolate these elements and control the movement as a whole. We saw this with the whole “good Occupiers” vs “violent anarchists” divide that Dominic Holden and other journalists pushed during Occupy, which helped the police justify some of their repression. I predict there will be an increasing slew of media reports presenting the people who stay in the Mann building as violent extremists in order to justify a violent police attack on them, sending a clear message to other movement participants that they will be spared this repression as long as they distance themselves from the people inside.
We should all resist this pressure to distance and isolate them.
It is important to emphasize that this rhetoric about a split in the movement is Banda’s and the media’s, and is NOT coming from the Africatown educators themselves.
It is true that the Africatown educators are negotiating with Banda and the school board to rent a new space for their programs. It is also true that they made a tactical decision to move their educational programs out of the Mann building temporarily in order to secure their classes and equipment, leaving other movement participants to secure the building itself. Folks can certainly debate the pros and cons of this tactic, but we need to be clear on this: it is NOT true that they have given up on trying to take back the Mann building. Noone has publicly renounced that strategic goal which has always been central to the movement. More importantly, noone has denounced the Africatown residents who continue to hold the building.
According to Brother Preach’s interview with Kiro News , the folks inside are staying there in order to create a place to educate Black youth. In other words, they continue to reiterate the main, shared goals of the overall movement.
It is unclear to me exactly what the educators are demanding in their negotiations with Banda. They may be demanding the right to return to Mann in the fall after renovations, or they may be demanding a permanent presence during renovations. At several of the educational summits, spokespeople for Africatown have suggested they want to maintain a presence during renovations, and at the summits, press conference, and school board meeting, several organizers argued that the portable space offered by the school district negotiators is not adequate.
This statement was just released by people who have remained inside the building, arguing that
“The portable they have offered, and essentially forced upon Africatown educators, is unsafe, unclean, has no bathroom, and is not ADA compliant. Also, there is a birds’ nest in the ceiling. (see attached pic. And, the portable is open for you to see for yourself). More pics to be posted at allpowertothepositive.blogspot.com and elsewhere. The 2nd portable on the property is full of mold and unsafe, as is the Columbia Annex. Because of this, the educators cannot fully move out of Horace Mann and/or do youth programs, since they cannot set up in hose portables in that condition or store their stuff in any of the offered locations!”
One Africatown source said that it may be possible to continue educational programs in the Mann building itself while the new extension is built, then they could conduct these programs in the extension while the old building is renovated.
Africatown folks will handle all these details in the course of their strategizing and negotiations. But what all of this adds up to is this: there is no split in the movement, just a diversity of tactics. The people who remain inside the Mann building right now, behind the barricades, are also part of the More4Mann and Africatown movements, and are also fighting to create a community there, where Black youth can learn and grow. They are not some radical “break away faction” or “violent extremists” or whatever else the media will want you to believe. They have the same goals as the educators and folks with Phds who are trying to negotiate with the district.
3. negotiations vs. direct actions, or “control your people, then we’ll talk”
Significant pressures might be put on the Africatown educators to get the other Africatown residents out of the Mann building. The district and opponents in the media might argue that the none of their demands will be met until they convince people to leave. Or, the district might offer a barely inhabitable building for their programs, saying “we would have given you more if those people resisting the police eviction hadn’t given you all a bad name”. It’s kind of like a union negotiation where the bosses say they’ll only give the union leaders what they want if they show they’re able to control the rank and file workers, e.g. sucessfully convincing people to end a strike. Usually this doesn’t work because it is exactly the threat of disrupting business as usual that brings the bosses to the table in the first place and when that’s taken away, the bosses can do what they want.
In fact, right now – before any eviction defense actions – the district isn’t offering much; hence, the lovely portable with a birds nest in it.
The best way for the educators to get what they are demanding is for all of us to keep up the pressure, through a variety of tactics focused at Horace Mann and throughout the city. Some people might continue to hold down the Mann building. Others might provide them with food, water, etc. Others might engage in social media outreach. Others might start organizing direct action campaigns against suspensions or racist discipline on a school-by-school basis. The key thing is that we all need to remember that the act of refusing to leave Horace Mann is what sparked this movement in the first place. Without that direct action, everything else we do could easily be brushed back under the rug and ignored.
Finally, it’s important to remember that Africatown is a neighborhood, not an organization. It is a term that residents of the Central District have given to their neighborhood, signifying their desire to counter gentrification and to create a vibrant cultural hub among people of African decent. Just like there are many organizations and political tendencies in Chinatowns with different priorities, so too are there different tendencies within Africatown. The task force of Africatown residents that has been negotiating with Supt. Banda never claimed to represent or govern all of Africatown, and should not be held responsible for everything that people in Africatown or their comrades might choose to do.
It’s an old white supremacist tradition to collectively punish people of African descent for the behaviors of one or two people who the colonial settler judicial system / lynch mob decides are “criminals”. It’s also an old white supremacist tradition to tell Black leaders that they can only get respect if they separate themselves from the rest of their people. Non-black supporters must separate ourselves from the mob mentality that produces both of these pressures and must confront this bullshit whenever we see and hear it.
4) white outside agitators
One thing we know for certain is that the power structure is going to move swiftly against both those in Africatown who move from Mann and those who stay, so long as the Africatown movement keeps effectively developing a specifically pro-African public education project. As the empire attempts to crush yet another Black renaissance in Seattle, workers and peoples of all nationalities and cultures must decide which side they are on. Trying to be neutral simply means to side with the empire. At the same time, those who aim for the principled course of supporting and defending their Africatown neighbors must realistically expect to be branded as “outside agitators” by media and even by some fellow activists.
This is a predictable tactic that we’ve seen deployed in the Oscar Grant rebellions and the East Flatbush actions against police violence. By claiming that all direct action is done by “white anarchists from the suburbs”, the system can try to silence and preempt direct action in communities of color. Ultimately, this claim rests on the racist idea that Black people are too cowardly or too stupid to take action to benefit themselves, and that when they do take action they must be manipulated by white agitators.
In any case, the facts are clear: those who began the action at Horace Mann are people of African descent, and so are the majority of people who continue to hold the building. If you see non-Black people there, this is simply a testament to the broad-mindedness of Africatown organizers who are building a beautiful home and are graciously inviting in guests. It should also serve as a slap in the face of all the critics who are crying “reverse racism”, claiming that being pro-African means being against every person of European descent.
Here is my advice to those of us who will inevitably be called outside agitators: it is a lump that can and must be taken in stride, as Seattle’s Black population deals with much worse stress on a daily basis than being called a negative political term. The key is, while not being intimidated by such terms, to also not behave in any ways that said terms would accurately denote. In other words, respect the self-initiative of folks in Africatown, and its truthful saying that “nothing about us without us is for us”. This doesn’t mean uncritically deferring to every Black person you meet or waiting to take initiative until someone gives you orders. If you have concerns or disagreements, don’t hide them. But don’t come in telling people what to do or acting like a condescending savior either.
Note: This is also about equal access for Black workers
The folks who are staying in the building are also protesting the fact that Black construction workers are not being given clear information about where to apply for the construction jobs at Mann and at other school renovation projects funded by the BEX levy. For more info, see the open letter from members of the African American Longshore Coalition and A. Phillip Randolph Institute, or check out their film series
I encourage everyone reading this to get involved in the movement. This is a crucial struggle that will shape Seattle public schools for years to come, and could forge the kinds of solidarity necessary to reverse the attacks on public education and to challenge institutional racism in our schools. Don’t believe the hype, investigate everything you hear critically, and stay in touch with the Africatown organizers. There are many ways to take action – choose one and take it as far as you can!