Freedom School, Part III: Undoing racism in Seattle’s criminal justice system
Khoa, an intern with AFSC's Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, visiting the "Under My Skin" exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience earlier in the summer.Photo: AFSC
This is the third part in an essay on the 22nd Tyree Scott Freedom School held in Seattle.
In Freedom School, the importance of “power analysis” is in the collective action it makes possible. Unlike a traditional classroom activity, analysis is not an end unto itself.
For this particular Freedom School, special emphasis was placed on analyzing and taking action against the prison-industrial complex.
For the past year, Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) has focused on organizing against the allocation of over $200 million dollars to build a new youth jail in Seattle. The group has created teaching tools to explain the racial disparity among incarcerated youth as part of the explosion of a multimillion dollar prison-industrial complex that profits by “caging” men, and increasingly women, of color.
YUIR gave presentations and led activities to spark reflection on how the prison-industrial complex pervades students’ everyday lives by unjustly criminalizing youth of color.
For the final two days of Freedom School, students were divided into three groups tasked with analyzing and proposing tangible policies to address issues important for understanding and organizing against youth incarceration: youth poverty, youth-police interaction, and the prison-industrial complex.
On the final day of Freedom School, each group would present their ideas at Seattle City Hall to a group of city council members and other community leaders. Drafting the proposals would be a way for Freedom School students to get experience with community organizing.
Brainstorming solutions, and the idea that “undoing racism” within each of these topics is even possible, depended crucially on how we perceived and understood each problem.
It required not only using “power analysis” to connect the dots between how, for example, capitalist values, neoliberal policymaking, and the media (to name a few) use racism to make the prison-industrial complex appear viable, but also to imagine that the criminal justice system can change through youth organizing.
“Power analysis” teaches that oppressive systems are legitimated and perpetuated not only through institutions but, just as importantly, through “culture,” or media, entertainment, and other arts, which can feed into a worldview that makes the status quo appear as the only option.
Will things ever change?
During lunch one day, Dustin called Minh, a communications intern for AFSC, and me over to talk. A Freedom School participant, Ray,* was feeling hopeless about the Seattle Police Department’s routine bullying of young black men like himself and his friends in over-patrolled non-white neighborhoods.
Earlier in the day, YUIR had led a workshop called “Know Your Rights with the Police” to provide information on how to deal with belligerent officers.
Ray had asked a question about what to do if police began getting violent.
“Treat the police like a dog you don’t know,” responded Veronica, a YUIR leader. “Don’t make any sudden movements and back away slowly.”
Minh advised calling out to others to record the situation on smartphones as evidence.
At lunch, Ray was feeling discouraged and overwhelmed. How do you do nothing when a police officer is bullying you or arresting your friends for no reason? These questions gain urgency in consideration of a 2011 report by the Department of Justice, which found that the Seattle Police Department routinely exercises excessive and unnecessary force.
During another discussion, Kaitlin,* a white participant, apologized for being pessimistic but honestly admitted that taking action against racism felt “overwhelming.” She spoke of the disappointment she felt at the failure of the Occupy movement to create tangible change. Can these problems ever be solved? Can racism ever really be “undone”?
One afternoon, we took a field trip to Seattle Municipal Court to speak with Lisa Daugaard, a public defense attorney and Supervising Attorney at the Racial Disparity Project, which organizes against racism in the Seattle criminal justice system.
After Daugaard introduced her work, Ray asked her if she ever thought there would be a time when the criminal justice system would treat everyone “even steven.”
Daugaard answered the question thoughtfully. In order to send someone to prison for decades on minor charges, she explained, “you cannot see them as a human being.” So much of how criminal activity is treated depends on how we “see” the problem. Who appears to be a “criminal” and what constitutes a “crime” depends on how police, businesses, and neighborhood members imagine criminality.
In her experience successfully reforming the way the city approaches drug charges, Daugaard said she saw changes she had never imagined were possible in her lifetime.
Approaching problems from the same tired perspectives, she said, was a “failure of the imagination.” Creating new approaches and new policies required creative thinking and an ongoing commitment to organizing despite the appearance that things might never change. Feelings of hopelessness and experiences of injustice must be seized as starting points to organize against racist power structures.
Another afternoon, Yula Scott, Tyree Scott’s daughter and a guest speaker at Freedom School, reiterated the need for ongoing work when remembering that for her father “there was no separate piece.”
He wouldn’t stop working for change until everyone had a fair chance to work and thrive.
*Not their real names