Khalil Lee-Butler remembered the time a play fight turned into a run-in with the cops.
It was last year, and Lee-Butler was hanging in South Seattle with a 16-year-old friend. His friend’s younger brother, 14, joined them, and the two brothers started horsing around. Nothing serious, said Lee-Butler, but seemingly out of nowhere, the police showed up.
Lee-Bulter, now 19, said the police never paused to ask any questions or hear what he and his friend had to say. Instead, they arrested his friend and drove him away in the squad car. His friend spent three days in jail, he said. At the court hearing, assault charges against his friend were dropped, and he was released.
“It was just ridiculous,” said Lee-Butler.
On one level, it didn’t surprise him. Lee-Butler is multiracial. His friend who was arrested is black. Institutional racism, Lee-Butler said, makes him and other people of color targets of police. The term was coined by civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael to describe societal patterns that impose oppressive conditions on the basis of race or ethnicity.
For the past two summers, Lee-Butler said he has made use of a resource that helped him understand institutional racism and provided tools to dismantle it: the Tyree Scott Freedom School.
A nine-day intensive workshop held in late July and early August, Freedom School, as it’s often called, offers 15-to-21-year olds an opportunity to discuss and analyze institutional racism, poverty and the prison industrial complex. The summer program is a joint venture of the People’s Institute Northwest and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and it culminated this year with an August 2 youth panel at Seattle City Hall. (A three-day freedom school also occurs at the end of the year.) The program is free.
Lee-Butler said he was encouraged to attend in 2012 by friends and family members. He returned as one of 35 participants this year, he said, because last year’s workshop opened his eyes to the pervasive nature of racism.
“I had seen these things every day,” he said, “but I wasn’t aware of what [they meant] at the time.”
Memories of Emmett and Travyon
Freedom School takes place outside of a formal classroom, and Dustin Washington, director of the community justice program at AFSC, said the program’s core curriculum of undoing racism rarely gets discussed in school.
He said the workshop is named after Tyree Scott, a Seattle civil rights organizer and labor leader who was active from the late ’60s to the late ’90s. Scott worked on issues ranging from affirmative action to global economic justice. The first Freedom School occurred in 2001, and Washington said the program is more important than ever.
“Racism is killing our young people, our adults, our communities,” said Washington, “and we need young people to step up and take their rightful place in the movement for social change.”
Lee-Butler said that during one session, the group compared the deaths of Emmett Till and Travyon Martin. Till was a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago. While visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, he was accused of flirting with a white woman. In response, two white men brutally beat Till before shooting him dead. Martin was a 17-year-old black youth. While walking through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012, Martin had an altercation with a volunteer in a neighborhood watch program, who found Martin suspicious. After an alleged tussle, the volunteer, a multiracial man, shot Martin dead. The suspects in both cases were acquitted of murder. (The suspect in Martin’s slaying, George Zimmerman, was also acquitted of manslaughter.)
Discussing the deaths of Till and Martin, Lee-Butler said, caused him to think a lot about how his racial makeup could make him a target of violence.
“What can you do in this world of Travyon Martin?” Lee-Butler asked. “What can you do not to be an enemy?”
Andrea Lopez, who participated in Freedom School and is Mexican-American, offered a solution: make attending Freedom School a requirement. “Even for police,” Lopez, 19, said.
Lee-Butler said that at Freedom School, he and Lopez, who are dating, both learned to conquer their fear of public speaking. At the event at city hall, under the gaze of Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Nick Licata and Sally Bagshaw and City Attorney Pete Holmes, Lee-Butler spoke about the importance of education for young people of color, while Lopez talked about the struggles poor people face paying for college.
“How are we supposed to provide for ourselves and get out of the poverty cycle?” she asked the crowd of nearly 70 people.
From Mississippi to the CD
Empowering people sits at the core of freedom schools, programs often associated with the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, when most black Southerners were denied the right to vote, many schools in the South remained segregated. Shortly after that year’s March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, activist Charles Cobb proposed running free, alternative schools for the black residents of Mississippi.
The following summer, often referred to as Freedom Summer, Mississippi was the site of more than 40 freedom schools, held in churches and on back porches. Volunteer teachers focused on literacy, academic skills and black history, and they empowered students to become socially active in their communities. Older students, some of whom were in their 70s and 80s, were encouraged to vote. At the time, freedom school organizers estimated that more than 3,500 people attended.
One tenet of ’60s-era freedom schools was finding the power in personal stories, an aspect that carried over to the programs Lopez and Lee-Butler attended this summer. On the workshop’s fifth day, attendees participated in a session called “Know Your Rights with the Police.”
For 90 minutes, three group members instructed other atendees on what to say to and how to interact with an officer during a stop. Group members paired up to take part in a role play, one impersonating an officer, the other a civilian. Throughout the session, students recalled their interactions with police.
But some stories came later.
Days after freedom school ended, Lee-Butler and Lopez both recalled a police run-in last year in the Central District.
The couple had a tiff while in a car, Lopez said, so she stepped out to cool off. As she walked down the street, Lee-Butler drove next to her, then stopped the car and got out to talk, she said. He hugged her.
“Then four cops pulled up, and they pulled her away,” Lee-Butler said.
Lopez said she and Lee-Butler hadn’t been yelling or physically fighting, but an officer asked if her boyfriend had struck her. She told him no.
Lee-Butler said that an officer asked him about the nature of his relationship with Lopez and if there had been violence. He said he told the officer he and Lopez were a couple and there had not been an altercation.
Both said police continued to question them, as well as another friend who was in the car. Lopez said she continued to tell the officer she and Lee-Butler were only talking. Eventually, all four officers left.
Lopez said remembering that incident still makes her angry. She felt as if the police treated her, Lee-Butler and their friend unfairly because they were all people of color.
When it happened, she said she answered every question the officer asked. She said that because of Freedom School, she now knows she can ask an officer if she’s being detained and she can tell him she has the right to remain silent.
Lopez said Freedom School taught her more than she imagined: “Now I know I can stand up for myself."