You Have History: Occupied Seattle in 1970, 1972, and 1985-'93
by Jen Graves
on Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 1:14 PM
"Time to stop occupying and start doing!" someone threw at me recently on Facebook.
With all due respect and even acknowledging Occupy Seattle's flaws, I call bullshit: Occupying is doing. And there's more than one way to Occupy: If you didn't like the ragtag Westlake occupation and you don't like the SCCC increasingly homeless-encampment occupation (which, hey, if you don't like it, your chief problem shouldn't be with Occupy but with homelessness), so what? These two Occupy Seattles already were different from each other, and the next incarnation has yet to be written. It looks like Occupy Seattle's days are numbered at SCCC, but I believe the tactic of physical occupation of spaces still has plenty of life in it.
It also has inspiring history in Seattle.
Let's start in 1970, when Native Americans led by Bernie Whitebear reclaimed land in Discovery Park—eventually securing 20 acres that now houses the cultural center Daybreak Star. The story:
On the morning of March 8, 1970, two half-mile long columns of vehicles began forming in a south Seattle neighborhood. The vehicles moved north towards Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood and the recently decommissioned Fort Lawton Army installation. As the convoys headed north onlookers could see the red cloth banners streaming from the antennas of the automobiles. When the caravans reached their destinations, both the north and south sides of Fort Lawton, the occupants of the cars launched a coordinated effort to occupy the fort and establish it as a cultural and social services center for Seattle’s growing Native American population. ... The Native activists who invaded Fort Lawton that day were ultimately successful in their goal of establishing an urban Indian cultural center at the site. While similar centers already existed in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and New York, what was to become Daybreak Star Center was the first to be established through militant protest.
Fast forward to October 11, 1972, the day when Beacon Hill School was surprise-sieged by a bunch of Chicano students and organizers—the day when it began to become the hub for Seattle's Latino community, El Centro de la Raza, which is still flourishing. People hid in parked cars and behind bushes while a chosen delegation of three went up to take a "tour" of the building. The janitor who'd unlocked the door asked the delegation whether they'd mind locking up—and Juan Jose Bocanegra seized the opportunity and grabbed the key, he recalled to me by phone.
We’d been planning this takeover for a couple of months. We had originally tried to rent the facility from the Seattle School District, and they asked for this exorbitant amount of money that we couldn’t pay—we were just a small organization, at that time we were all working with the chicano ESL program, and I was volunteering with the Chicano health services, and we were looking to consolidate. So before the takeover we met and discussed the building, and then we found out what the price was, and we also found out that it was going to be sold to Safeway stores. And at that time we were really involved with the United Farmworkers campaign against Safeway. So we said, if we cannot have it, Safeway sure cannot have it.
The day of the takeover, I took charge of the students, we broke up into different teams, and the person that was the janitor—we'd asked them to see if we could look at the building one more time and we had people in cars parked outside on the street laying low. When the time came for the janitor to open up, he came over and said, "Listen, I've gotta go. Would you guys mind locking up the place and bringing the key back to the school district?" I grabbed the key and I said, "Sure, no problem," and I whistled back to the folks and they started coming out of the cars and past the janitor. The janitor looked really surprised. We had about 40 students that were part of the original takeover and then people started coming in once the word got out. Immediately, the students started cleaning up the place, tearing down the cardboard from the windows and making it livable. It was colder than hell. We had no heat, but we had a lot of spirit.
The organizers had to stay there, plus occupy the mayor's office and the city council chambers to get El Centro de la Raza free and clear.
The core group of activists occupying the building, which included Earl Debman, Omari Tahir-Garrett, Michael Greenwood, and Charlie James, stayed for more than eight years. The Seattle School District, not wanting a confrontation, told them they were trespassing but made no effort to dislodge them. This has been said to be the longest act of civil disobedience in the country.
During those years the group, known as the Citizens Support Committee for the African American Heritage Museum/Cultural Center, used several rooms in the building for displays of books, artifacts, and art work and sponsored community activities including a forum on AIDS and Racism. The individual members of the group sacrificed much to keep their dream of a museum and cultural center alive. The building was cold and it cost them $500 a month to keep the gas-fired generator running. A bucket of water was used for bathing or they went to homes of friends for showers. Neighbors brought in plates of food and a few dollars were collected from black churches.
The trick for Occupy Seattle, of course, is to continue to draw on the power and visibility of physical space without becoming overly burdened by its administrative and logistical limits. Occupy's goal is not to establish a new community center—though god knows somebody should claim the old NOVA school building on Cherry for some goodness.
I don't have the answers. Bocanegra said he doesn't, either. He did say he'd like to see the symbolic visuals that would result if Occupy Seattle took its encampment next to the the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building downtown, while also continuing to stage takeovers at foreclosed homes and to lead actions at strategic sites (banks, ports, corporations) all over the city. (As Paul Constant has Tweeted, perhaps Occupy might take on Amazon, for instance?)
But I thought it was worth remembering that occupying is a force. Occupying has changed your city already. It hasn't revolutionized it, sure. But it has shaped it.