The brothers who killed my grandmother happened to be black. It was early Halloween morning of 1998 when they came in through an open window, took a kitchen knife and cut the phone line. They went through rooms looking for things to steal, and while one of the brothers was rummaging through jewelry in my Nana’s room, she awoke and attacked him. As they struggled, the other brother rushed in and stabbed my grandmother with the knife multiple times.
I flew from Seattle to Chicago, where the murder had taken place, to attend their trial. Lawyers detailed the brothers’ activities leading up to the crime. Both in their early 20s, one had recently been released from prison. The day before the murder, they cashed the family’s Social Security checks and bought winter jackets. They came to my grandmother’s neighborhood to rob houses for things they could sell. The crime ended in a tragic, inexcusable act, but it began with an economic motivation.
The troubling relationship between race, crime and economics has plagued our country since its inception. Policy decisions guided by conscious and unconscious biases have continued to economically disadvantage people of color. Prison construction surged around the time slavery ended, and diversion programs replace incarceration mainly when the economy is weak — because locking people up is expensive.
This fall we have an opportunity to confront these issues locally, as Seattle City Council and King County representatives consider moving forward with plans for a new youth detention facility in the Central District.
On the surface, replacing the present King County youth detention center at 12th and Alder seems like a no-brainer. The building is old, ugly, riddled with costly maintenance issues and suggests conditions on the inside that might border on inhumane. A $210 million replacement facility was approved by voters in 2012 and is scheduled for completion in 2018; meetings on the project at this point should be merely procedural. With surprising insight and force, however, more than 200 people have attended committee meetings of the City Council to recommend further study and a possible change of plans.
Led by groups such as Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) and European Dissent, the mostly young and minority opponents are making a compelling case. Youth incarceration leads to more crime, they point out, as was the case for one of my grandmother’s killers. And the population of our youth prison has gotten proportionally more black, as King County admits, even while the total numbers incarcerated have shrunk. In short, the new jail may perpetuate institutional racism of the kind that can arise despite our best intentions.
In Chicago, for example, when my grandmother's killers went on trial that winter, seating in the courtroom was divided into two sections: the victims’ section, where my grandmother’s friends and family — all white — sat, and across the aisle the family and friends of the defendants, almost all of them black. People on our side were referred to as victims, which suggested that those in the other section, even if they were just as powerless as we over what had happened, shared in the defendants' guilt.
On the first day, a friendly Victims’ Advocate introduced herself to people on our side of the room. Over the weeks to come, she walked us through the process, arranged for detectives and lawyers to meet us and answer our questions, and sat with us through most of the trial. She gave family members passes to the official parking garage connected by a skybridge across the street, normally reserved for judges and police officers, because parking near the courtroom was scarce and switched to a no-parking zone after 3pm. The family on the other side of the aisle had no Advocate.
During a break one afternoon midway through the trial, I rode in an elevator with the elderly father of the accused and two of his teenaged daughters. Tubes ran from his nose to a portable oxygen tank he rolled behind him. His daughters were pleading, “Why can’t we stay?” The trial would continue that day for another two hours. The father explained to the sisters that they couldn’t stay because the week before, his car had been towed from the post-3 p.m. no-parking zone. The impound fees were steep, and he couldn’t afford to make that mistake again.
I could have taken a taxi to court every day to avoid parking problems, just as I'd had the resources to afford a plane ticket, borrow a spare car from family and take time away from work to attend the trial. Yet I was given a parking pass, while the other family was not. I know no one in my family who has been forced to decide between staying warm and paying bills or eating, but a choice like that might have been what brought those brothers through my grandma’s window, just a day after buying winter coats.
In the eyes of the courts, the media and most of my family, justice has been served in the matter of my grandmother’s murder. The brothers were convicted and are serving life sentences. I can’t help but wonder, though: If we’d been effective at dismantling systems that hindered the economic progress of black people in the past, might my grandmother have slept peacefully through the night that Halloween?
Proponents of the new youth jail rely on one main argument other than the fact that the old one is in disrepair: 55 percent of county voters approved it two years ago. There is evidence, however, that the County failed in its due diligence before bringing the project up for a vote, and that voters were misled on the ballot.
King County touts the Equity Impact Review (EIR) as a planning tool it uses to ensure that its projects have racially equitable outcomes. Yet an EIR was never completed on the youth jail. County officials are now arguing that the omission should not delay the project. “[EIRs] happen before you build or decide not to build. We decided to build years ago,” said Claudia Balducci, Director of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention.
But shouldn't a county committed to racial equity put the project on hold until studies are complete? Some even argue that the project should be scrapped entirely and a new measure submitted to voters when they can be better informed.
Public commenters at the September 18th meeting of the City Council's Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee noted that the facility proposal in the 2012 Voter’s Pamphlet failed to mention the words ‘criminal,’ ‘jail,’ ‘incarceration,’ or ‘correctional’ and mentioned ‘detention’ only when referring to the facility to be replaced. As one speaker put it, “the obvious implication… is that the detention facility is going to be replaced by something non-incarcerational, something non-detentional.” The language of the measure may have led voters to approve something other than the county's actual plan.
Speakers opposing the youth jail project attended the committee meetings September 18th and September 30th because there was a tangible decision on the table about the use of $210 million. They will surely be there on October 13th, when the full City Council votes to pass the issue back to county or not. Protesters are not showing up simply to have their voices heard, but because the money on the table, if used more thoughtfully, might make a difference to communities of color.
It’s easy for white people to forget about the economic aspects of racism, such as capital infrastructure decisions that will impact black children for generations to come. We might do better if we started by being more honest about our own attitudes. I, for one, consider crossing the road when a black man walks toward me at night. I assess my safety when a black person enters the room. I enjoy getting away with breaking a law and feel superior to those who get caught — perhaps because of the color of their skin. I’m a racist. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
When I risk acknowledging my own racism, then I’m more likely to see it when it comes up, and I’m free to choose not to act on it. If, on the other hand, I deny my racism, my unconscious biases will steer my decisions in ways that may only show up cumulatively, when added to the denial and decisions of similar people — an effect known as institutional racism.
Mistakes in the path toward a new youth jail may have been unintentional, but they nevertheless suggest institutional racism at work in our midst. That phenomenon hardly needs the additional momentum of $210 million.
The Seattle City Council will vote on this issue Monday, 10/13 at 2 p.m. at the Council Chambers at Seattle City Hall, Floor 2, 600 Fourth Avenue.