Out of AfricaTown: Seattle police clear out school squatters

Amid threats of snipers and explosives, the Seattle Police Department cleared squatters out of the Central District's Horace Mann school building Tuesday.
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Police arrest two men who were occupying the Horace Mann school building illegally.

Amid threats of snipers and explosives, the Seattle Police Department cleared squatters out of the Central District's Horace Mann school building Tuesday.

Armed with a battering ram and rifles, police took control of the Central District’s Horace Mann school building and arrested four squatters who claimed to be associated with the after-school tutoring group AfricaTown on Tuesday. Police said the raid, which ended a 14-week standoff with the Seattle School District, was prompted by threats of snipers and explosives in the building. When they searched the building though, they found neither.

A chain-link fence surrounded the 100-year-old school building, lined with African flags and hand-painted banners that read, “We stand with AfricaTown” and “Separate ≠ Equal.” Intermixed with the banners, construction signs detailed the Seattle School District’s plans for the building, which was originally set to be renovated this September and opened as an alternative school in fall 2014.

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Banners lining the fences that surround the school building show support for AfricaTown. Photo: Jillian Stampher

During the 2012-13 school year, AfricaTown, an after-school tutoring group, was legally using the building through the independent Seattle Amistad School, an immersion school that teaches in both Spanish and English. However, when the school district chose not to renew the lease with Seattle Amistad School this August, a small group of people continued to occupy the building, costing the school district approximately $1,000 per day in construction delays.

The AfricaTown Center for Education & Innovation is a coalition of community groups with a focus on African American culture. AfricaTown provides tutoring and classes to K-12 students in an attempt to close the achievement gap and encourage economic development among African American youth.

Teresa Wippel, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools, said the school district is working to find a new location for the original AfricaTown group. Wippel said the majority of that group left when the lease ended.

“The reason why we’re working with this AfricaTown group and working with them to find another place is because they are working with students and providing enrichment activities and helping us figure out ways to address that achievement gap that maybe we haven’t thought of,” Wippel said. “The people that were left in the building, that was not their purpose.”

When Charlie Mitchell moved to the Central District from Philadelphia over the summer, he needed a place to keep his stuff. Friends pointed him to the Horace Mann School, which had a reputation as a welcoming community center. Originally, Mitchell said, he supported the AfricaTown movement.  

“Anytime there’s a movement and I think it’s positive, I’m going to support it,” Mitchell said. “We’re just brothers making a stand trying to help kids.”

Still, he didn’t approve of how the situation escalated after the school district tried to close the Horace Mann building. “This is not a movement anymore,” he said.

Shawn Keenan, who lives across the street from Horace Mann, said that over the summer it was common to see people entering the building.

“We heard them all the time. It was cool, it really is,” Keenan said. “Then the fence went up. My feeling is they were making good use of the space and had something good going on, and they really wanted the space but, you know, rules and everything else came colliding.”

On Nov. 9, the school district voted to shut off power to the building. Those that remained began using a generator for heat.

Last week, police and media began hearing threats that the building was wired with explosives and that a sniper on the roof would retaliate if police tried to take action. On Nov. 10, KIRO 7 received a voicemail warning the news station that somebody on the roof had ‘an itchy trigger finger.’ SPD also heard of a rumor about explosives through intelligence work.

Ironically, as SPD Detective Renee Witt said, it was those threats finally drove Seattle police to take action. Until that point, neighbors said, the movement had always been peaceful.

This is not the first time the Central District has seen activists occupy an empty Seattle school building in an attempt to convert it for other uses. In 1981, a task force began pushing to remodel the former Coleman School into a museum. After years of lobbying and planning, the Northwest African American Museum opened in 2008.

James Walker, who has lived in the neighborhood since he was a child, said that, in many ways, the Horace Mann movement mirrored the change that took place blocks away at the Coleman School.

“This building could probably be used for some things and the Seattle School District has just let it sit dormant, so I can see how people in the community would want this to be used as a resource other than just [sit] here empty,” Walker said. “They want Seattle School District to change the curriculum and have more of an Afrocentric curriculum for minority students, and I guess this is how they are trying to get their point across — by taking it over.”

Wippel said the group that was forcefully removed on Tuesday did not appear to be using the building for education. Neighbors had not seen people using the building since the fences went up in August.

“I don’t know what their reasoning was to stay in the building when it was clear the majority of folks had agreed to leave and work with us,” Wippel said. “It would have been very easy for us to turn our backs on them and say, you know, ‘This is our building, get out. We want to remodel it.’ But instead, we spent a very large amount of time negotiating with them, talking with them, trying to figure out what would be the next best thing.”

SPD and the school district plan to provide around-the-clock security for the building until renovations begin.

  

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