July 29, 2020 (live press conference)
Response to Recent Attacks by NAAM and the Urban League
DUWAMISH TERRITORY, “SEATTLE, WA.” The African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center is the original campaign to divest from the Seattle Police Department and invest in the Black community. Today, like a quarter of a century ago, it is under attack by the Urban League and the Northwest African American Museum, whose first director was FBI agent Carver Gayton, and who just 10 days ago held a press conference calling for 2,000 more police officers.
Since Juneteenth, elder Omari Tahir who is the founder of the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center (AAHM&CC) along with a growing number of community members, including original AAHM&CC artist-in-residence Earl Debnam, have been asserting the AAHM&CC’s property rights by hosting an outdoor museum with exhibits and programming from 10am-8pm, that is guarded at night by 74-year-old Baba Omari and museum volunteers.
This past week, we heard that an Urban League board member called a number of Black community leaders in an attempt to generate support for the violent and unnecessary act of calling the police to suppress the peaceful protest. Yesterday, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) circulated a mass email full of false claims calling activists “disrespectful” and “violent” in a clear attempt to set the stage for our violent eviction at the hands of the police or the feds who are currently in town. It would not be the first time.
At its’ heart, and since its inception in 1981, the AAHM&CC has been about divesting from the police and investing in community. For three years, elders Omari Tahir, Earl Debnam, Patrick Haggerty and others, occupied the site of a proposed police precinct at 23rd and Yesler and successfully blocked the placement of a precinct within the historically Black Central District. The activists countered the city’s intention to invest in policing with the proposal to instead invest in a cultural institution dedicated to uplifting and empowering the Black community, especially the youth. In 1985, the community declared the abandoned Colman School building as the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center, marking the start of the longest occupation of a public building in US history.
At the time, the AAHM&CC’s occupation was nominally supported by the establishment. Norm Rice, the former Mayor, sponsored a committee that included Omari and Earl and committed to creating a world-class museum and cultural center at Old Colman School. The building was sold to the AAHM&CC in 1998; however, not long after they were evicted by a Seattle Police SWAT team. The building was then illegally sold five years later to people with downtown money, who did not fight for or share the vision of the original museum’s founders, and who worked closely with the city and the feds in order to uphold the city’s violent institutions. NAAM’s recent press conference calling for 2,000 more police officers shows that this relationship has not changed.
The AAHM&CC’s outdoor museum is drawing attention to how the Urban League colluded with the FBI, the family of Bill Gates, and corrupt officials within the Seattle School District to steal Colman School from the AAHM&CC, who are the rightful owners of the property according to a signed purchase and sale agreement with Seattle School District, a publicly received $50,000 down payment, and filings made by the AAHM&CC to the WA Secretary of State — all of which predate the Urban League’s documents. The AAHM&CC proves that they had the resources to actualize their vision, exhibiting their receipt of an approved loan for the full purchase amount stated in the agreement, in addition to the federal block grant money that was secured by the AAHM&CC, but ended up being co-opted by the Urban League.
NAAM and the Urban League have responded to the AAHM&CC’s outdoor museum asserting their property rights with a range of violence from calling police multiple times, to outright slander of the predominantly young BIPOC community members supporting our elder’s reoccupation of Old Colman School. We now respond point by point to their false claims:
- They have claimed that we are trespassers, “obstructing entry into the building for museum staff and contractors to do ‘vital work.’” Firstly, we are land defenders, healers, and community members, not violent trespassers. We are organizers creating positive programming, honoring and building upon the legacy of our Elders and the original 13-year occupation on stolen Duwamish Land.
Since June 19th, an alarm company, a rat inspector, the fire department, the police, and NAAM’s own maintenance worker have all freely accessed the building through separate entrances. No one has been denied the opportunity to do vital work, not even NAAM’s maintenance worker who was ordered to board up the windows to the front door, unnecessarily.
- We are here with one single demand: “Any and all entities obstructing the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center’s rightful control over our land and infrastructure are asked to please cease and desist from such obstruction. Former obstructors will be welcomed to participate in our project under the AAHM&CC’s leadership, as long as they are willing to do so. We are here for justice, not revenge.”
We fail to see how this is threatening or menacing. We are deeply rooted in an understanding that no one is free until Black and Indigenous Peoples are free. We are guests here on Duwamish Territory, in Africatown, and take leadership from our Elders. If anything, The Urban League and NAAM have been threatening and menacing to us, not only with ultimatums, but with their own actions.
- NAAM has not shown an openness to collaborate. They called the police on us three times before anyone from the organization actually came to engage with us. Against the wishes of Baba Omari and his family, they then called the Fire Department for a wellness check, claiming that he’s mentally unwell (calling him “diseased”) in an attempt to diminish the righteousness of his well documented claims, and to distract from the fact that their first course of action was to call the police and bring violence and harm directly to us.
By doing so, NAAM has “maligned” its own reputation, not us.
- We have engaged directly with residents to share the original and persistent vision of a world class African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center and to express care that they transition to safe, comfortable and affordable housing. The truth is that none of the design options considered in the 45-page 1994 Mayoral report ever had any apartments. While we sorely need more low-income housing, it is equally true that we need positive cultural institutions controlled by the grassroots of the Black community. A number of the residents whom we spoke to understand this and have told us that they would rather live somewhere else and see the Colman School building fully actualized into the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center that it was meant to be.
We have been told that Coast Management, hired by the Urban League and approved by the City, maintains a climate of fear and intimidation. Management regularly leave notes to residents in the elevator threatening eviction and referencing tenants who have been evicted. In contrast, a resident has asserted to us: “You humanize the building. You bring humanity and light”.
- In their letter, NAAM claims that “Residents, families, and children of low-income housing and the broader community around the Colman School building, including some visitors to the parks adjacent to the Colman School building such as the Jimi Hendrix Park and Sam Smith Park, are distressed and frightened of the trespassers’ disruption and damage”.
We are deeply disturbed by this lie. Since Juneteenth, Baba Omari, Earl Debnam and museum volunteers have brought new life to the building and its surrounding areas. From picking up garbage every morning, to providing water and food to visitors of our area, and to supporting those in need. We are hosting art exhibits and have open studio time. We have been collaborating with many organizations to bring family friendly positive programming, including working with Black Star Farmers to create garden beds that bring literal life, food and nourishment, to the community right in front of the museum where the land is sadly filled with nothing but gravel. Community organizations have partnered with us in solidarity for healing justice, Filipinx liberation, anti-imperialism, and education about anti-Blackness. Families, community elders, and Black youth have filled the space with art, teach-ins, cook outs, rallies calling for defunding the police, and conversations about the history and their vision for the future of their community.
We invite the Urban League and the NAAM to show us exactly what damage has been done, other than to their reputation, which has been completely self-inflicted.
In closing, we reaffirm our commitment to uplifting the legacy and heritage of Black artists and cultural workers decolonizing spaces for Indigenous & Black liberation and healing.
We warmly invite you to visit us this Saturday from 1-9pm during Umojafest Day of Unity, to see for yourselves what has been built here. There will be a march from 23rd and Union to Jimi Hendrix Park. We hope to see you here.
In Unity & Struggle,
The African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center