A backhoe, flashing crimson against the backdrop of dark Seattle sky, rolled across trash and debris before coming to a halt. It bent down, opened its jaws and lifted a large, wooden sign that read “Umojafest Peace Center,” and crushed it.
The loud sound of cracking wood and metal broke a tense standoff between protesters who filled the sidewalk in cold rain and the law enforcement officers there to hold the line of the property. Several jumped the short retaining wall and rushed the backhoe, grasping for fragments of the sign as the machine lifted back into the air before police pushed the protesters off the far side of the lot.
Officers from the King County Sheriff’s Office and Seattle Police Department, as well as dozens of protesters, had gathered outside a pale green single family home on the 1100 block of 24th Avenue in the Central District around 10 a.m. The Sheriff’s Officers were there on business, to execute an eviction on civil rights activist Omari Tahir-Garrett, an institution in the Central District.
The protesters, hailing from a number of anti-racist groups, were there to make sure the eviction didn’t go down quietly.
The eviction was more than a Black elder losing his home, although that would have been enough for many who see Tahir-Garrett as a man who fought to preserve the history of the Central District as a home and haven for Seattle’s Black families and businesses. It was a critical skirmish in a larger battle to save the home and the block on which it sits, a fight which has pit the historically Black neighborhood against the White family that owns the property and which many believe betrayed a commitment to give the community ownership over the development of the site.
Where this block goes, so goes the neighborhood.
“This is the lynchpin to gentrify this entire area,” said Cliff Cawthon, lead organizer with Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction.
An incubator for equity
The backstory leading up to the eviction of Tahir-Garrett is practically Shakespearean.
It is a tale of two families connected across generations, of friendship and betrayal, of brothers and sisters torn apart over blood and treasure.
Tahir-Garrett and Thomas Bangasser go back decades. Bangasser, who partially owned the property until 2015, is a gregarious man in his 70s with a penchant for the podium. He worked more than 50 years to fulfill his parents’ dream of assembling the block in partnership with the Black community of the Central District. A symbol of their legacy can still be found near the corner of Union Street and 23rd Avenue, the Fountain of Freedom designed by the late Black sculptor James Washington Jr. dedicated to the elder Bangassers. It no longer runs.
In Tahir-Garrett, and later his son K. Wyking Garrett, Bangasser found willing partners.
Where Tahir-Garrett fought the battles of the Civil Rights era, cultivating hearts and minds and providing support to the community, Garrett organized, founding nonprofits that specialized in real estate and land use to preserve the area and business incubator space to support primarily Black entrepreneurs and artists in their goals.
Africatown, the nonprofit Garrett heads, and Forterra, a conservation nonprofit, worked together to finance a $23.5 million purchase of the 2.4-acre property at the end of February. If accepted, the deal would put Africatown in a lead role and give the organization a 20 percent stake, according to Capitol Hill Seattle Blog.
They envisioned affordable housing and commercial space, an anchor of property ownership and entrepreneurism in the heart of the neighborhood that had been the only place Black individuals and families could go in the era of redlining, a place that the encroachment of well-paid, mostly White newcomers now threatened. And all this squarely opposite Uncle Ike’s, a shop owned by a man reputed as the high king of gentrification himself, Ian Eisenberg.
If Thomas Bangasser had his way, that would have been that.
But Bangasser is one of nine children, and until 2015 he and four siblings had a stake in Midtown Limited Partnership, which owns the property.
The other four voted him out and have since put the kibosh on the deal with Africatown.
There is a purchase and sale agreement for the property, Hugh Bangasser said, but the details are confidential.
“My mother and father would be appalled by what is happening here,” Bangasser said.
Before law enforcement arrived on Tahir-Garrett’s front porch, the fight for Midtown arrived on his son’s doorstep.
On the opposite corner of the home in which Tahir-Garrett lived is a building home to a liquor store, a hair salon run by Midtown’s unofficial mayor Earl Lancaster and Black Dot, the entrepreneurial incubator space co-founded by K. Wyking Garrett.
When community members and reporters arrived on Monday afternoon, heeding a call for a press conference and organizational meeting, the furniture in the room had been pushed to the side, filing cabinets and chairs pressed up against the walls and a pile of miscellaneous objects shoved into a far corner.
“We did not make the space like this,” Garrett said.
Instead, the room had been entered without notice over the weekend, the furniture rearranged and other objects dumped inside. The Friday before, Garrett encountered locksmiths changing the locks under orders from the property managers. Though he stopped the first intrusion, Garrett took it as an attack on Black Dot and the Black community it serves.
Black Dot was founded a year ago to “create economic empowerment and mobility for a community that has been … disenfranchised and systematically kept out of the economy,” Garrett said.
The ownership pushes back on the narrative that Black Dot and Africatown belong on the property.
Midtown has never signed a lease with Black Dot, wrote Hugh Bangasser, an attorney for K&L Gates in an email. The most recent tenant terminated their lease, Bangasser wrote.
Garrett hopes the city of Seattle will let Black Dot repurpose the former Fire Station 6 as the organization’s new, permanent home.
It will be critical to the Central District’s future that Black Dot and other businesses succeed in establishing themselves in the neighborhood, and they want institutional support from government and Seattle’s brain trust and philanthropists to do it.
“Seattle is moving toward being a premier city for solving hard problems on the global scale,” Garrett said. “This is a local problem that we have to solve.”
World-class, not one-class Seattle
As of March 15, the day of the eviction, no one could say where Omari Tahir-Garrett was.
Initially, law enforcement thought that he might be inside the house, but when they called, he did not come out. They asked protesters for help, to have voices Tahir-Garrett trusted call into the building. Otherwise, they would have to send in a dog to find him.
Tahir-Garrett had a history of violence, said Sgt. Bob Lurry of the King County Sheriff’s civil unit. Unlike the other officers on scene, Lurry and his men had on blue jeans rather than the full uniform.
“We didn’t know what he would do,” Lurry said.
When told, Cawthon of Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction laughed. Tahir-Garrett is a 70-year-old man with a limp who walks with assistance, Cawthon said.
Tahir-Garrett had little warning, Cawthon said. The eviction notice came while he was in jail for contempt of court in conditions his son, Garrett, compared to Guantanamo, the U.S. military prison in Cuba.
Protesters resisted the eviction for him each step of the way. They gathered on the sidewalk. Seattle police pushed the crowd back as officers snapped fencing into place to prevent people from entering the yard.
Community members jeered from across the street as workers with little protective gear despite warnings of needles and other hazards walked into and out of the house, carrying items to either the trash or a pile covered with a tarp on the sidewalk.
“Is your home next?” they cried in call and response.
That is the fear, that Seattle is transforming from culturally distinct neighborhoods to a high-rise jungle for Amazonians to play in, one to which long-time residents are not adapted and in which they cannot survive.
It is the future that people like Garrett are fighting to avert.
“We want to move forward with solutions that make Seattle a world-class city,” he said. “Not a one-class city.”
Family ties: Artist Inye Wokoma follows his family’s history through the Central District at NAAM
Unity can be a painful process; and it doesn’t happen on its own overnight