Community organizers gathered in front of the King County Juvenile Detention facility Jan. 11 to offer not just criticism, but ideas.
To call the crew “protesters” or “opponents” failed to capture the full scope of their work, said Nikkita Oliver, an attorney, organizer and artist.
“What I see us as is the solution,” Oliver said.
More than 50 people from a number of community groups demonstrated that they, too, believed in solutions to what they see as a problem rooted in racism: The decision to spend $210 million on what officials in Seattle and King County call the Children and Family Justice Center, a new campus of courtrooms, offices, program space and a detention center.
That last component, which community members call the youth jail, is at the center of an appeal filed by Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (epic) on Jan. 4 to overturn the decision by the head of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to waive certain building requirements and allow construction to move forward.
EPIC and its partners believe that the county should file another environmental review of the project taking into account toxicants at the site, traffic impacts and the growing body of research that demonstrates the negative consequences that incarceration has on young people.
Alternatives to locking up kids, who are predominately Black and other people of color, should be formed and run by the community rather than institutions such as the jail, said Senait Brown, an epic organizer who led the Wednesday event.
“This is more than a brick-and-mortar building,” Brown said. “This is about our community.”
The county, for its part, holds that the existing complex is in disrepair and that the new facilities will have fewer detention beds, be in better condition and have space for alternatives to detention that the county already runs. According to the most recent statistics, the average daily population at the detention center was 51, less than half of what it was in 2003 and almost 70 percent down from the 1990s, wrote Alexa Vaughn, a county spokesperson, in an email.
Those drops are, in large part, explained by successful diversion programs. Officials believe they can get those figures lower, Vaughn wrote.
One of the more recent programs, launched at the end of June, is called Family Intervention & Restorative Services, or FIRS. The county took cells in the basement of the building and spruced up the space with colorful murals and furniture to create the program, which gives kids a place to cool down after a fight with family members to avoid charges of domestic violence.
Domestic violence filings against children have dropped by 62 percent since the program began, Vaughn said.
But those looking for alternatives don’t want to see programs created and run by government.
“On your best day, you can never be better than what we have built,” Brown said.
People mistrust the system, which they see as a source of racism and oppression that cannot be fixed, even by well-intentioned insiders. That extends to other aspects of the path that begins with an often low-level crime, continues through the court process and ends in detention.
“My son was in there. He was arrested in his classroom,” said Flora Ybarra, describing her son’s experience with an appointed attorney who recommended he plead to a crime he did not commit. He ultimately walked free.
“Ask me where he is now? He owns his own business,” Ybarra said.
The Seattle City Council voted unanimously to support “zero youth detention” and budgeted $600,000 for two years to support community groups such as epic to develop and pay for alternatives to detention. The Prosecuting Attorney’s office has supported the creation of alternatives as well, but neither level of government has put a stop to construction.
The SDCI had the most recent opportunity to stop the program. It could have refused to waive certain development standards and not issue the Master Use Permit, which will allow the county to build. That was a ministerial decision, which Mayor Ed Murray — who finds himself the target of protest alongside County Executive Dow Constantine — says that he could not influence.
However, if the county decides to withdraw its permit application, the city will not defend the SDCI decision during the appeals process, according to a statement released by Benton Strong, a spokesperson for the mayor.
That move seems unlikely. County officials have argued that poor conditions at the current detention center necessitate a new facility, and state law requires that any county with a population above 50,000 people must have a separate detention facility for youth.
If the county refuses to pull the permit, the community will fight the development down to the last nail, organizers signaled Wednesday.
“They have the opportunity to be on the right side of history,” Brown said.