On March 15, 2017, dozens of protesters rallied in the rain outside the Umoja PEACE Center, located at 24th Avenue and East Spring Street, as it was boarded up by contractors holding an eviction notice to Omari Tahir-Garrett. After facing years of resistance, the owner of the land, the Bangassers, got the authority to demolished the old space. The Umoja PEACE Center headquarter is considered as a symbol of pre-gentrification Central District and protesters are afraid that this demolition is happening in a neighborhood that has been rapidly going from majority black to majority white neighborhood in recent decades.
The Central District, with its central location with easy access to Interstate 90, Interstate 5, and Downtown which is the central business district of Seattle, has gone through massive urban redevelopments in the area.
Central District has been one of the most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods in Seattle. In the 1900s, Central District was predominantly occupied by Jewish residents who built temples and synagogues. A few decades later, Japanese Americans built their community at the Central District and still retain their presence through their churches, parks and a Japanese nursing home.
As part of the great migration that happened between 1916 to 1970, many African Americans moved out from rural south and settled in other parts of the state and find a new home in the Central District. During the civil rights movements in the early 1960s, Central District has been considered as the center for Seattle’s protests for blacks to gain equal rights under the law in the United States. Many civil rights protesters including the Black Panther Party staged their protests against racial discrimination to the streets of Central District.
By the 1970s, it was once the center of the African American residents in Seattle and a major hub of black businesses. At one point, African Americans made up nearly 80% of the neighborhood’s population. Despite the demographic shift throughout the decades, many Central District locals still think of the neighborhood as a predominantly African American (despite having a huge White population of 60% compared to Black’s 21%) and fight hard against its gentrification. As urban development in the area continues and rental property become more expensive – with many condemned houses replace with townhouses and condominiums and predominantly black neighborhood replaced with whites, the African American community still try to keep the black history in the neighborhood which is home to the Northwest African American Museum.
Nonprofit organizations like Block Dot, 21 Progress, and Africatown are working hard to keep and strengthen the strong black presence in the neighborhood. One in the forefronts of this movement is Umoja PEACE Center and its known leader Omari Tahir-Garrett, a longtime Seattle activist and father of Africatown leader K. Wyking Garrett.
Omari Tahir-Garrett has lived all his life in Seattle and coached little league baseball for 40 years, and throughout the years, he had seen youth being killed to gang fights and had seen how poverty and violence affect the youth in his neighborhood. Exposed with the struggles the Black community continuously faced, he dedicated his life to civil rights activism, pan-Africanism, and Black empowerment.
Tahir-Garrett, who ran for a seat on the Seattle City Council in 2015, is known as an outspoken and controversial activist who served 21 months in prison for hitting a Seattle mayor. Tahir-Garett is always considered as the forefront for the movement that is fighting to keep the Umoja PEACE Center a part of the neighborhood.
Founded in 2006 by a group of Seattle’s Central District community members who joined forces in response to increasing social and economic issues that affect African American youth, the center remains one of the few symbols of the city’s historically Black district and Tahir-Garrett has occupied the headquarters for over eight years.
Umoja PEACE Center is a community based cultural center focusing on the youth. Its mission is to empower and inspire young people through its guiding force P.E.A.C.E “Positive Education, Art, Culture, and Enterprise”. Umoja PEACE Center, as an organization, fulfills the need in Seattle to build job skills, confidence and cultural pride in young people of African descent. The group aims to provide programs to reduce anti-social behavior, juvenile delinquency, crime, and violence.
Umoja PEACE Center is guided by the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa which represent the values for Africans and people of African descent to live by. Developed by Kwanzaa founder Dr. Maulana Karenga, the principles are based on the ideals of the first-fruit harvests: Umoja (Unity-join together as a race, community, and family), Nia (Purpose – work together to further the African culture and build a community), Kugichagalia (Self Determination – takes responsibility for own future), Kuumba (Creativity – creates a more successful and beautiful community), Ujaama (Cooperative Economics – profit from its own business), Ujimaa (Cooperative Work & Responsibility – build community together and solve problems as a group), and Imani (Faith- honoring the traditions, leaders, and African ancestors by celebrating past triumphs over adversity).
It focuses on topics such as leadership development, digital media production, civic learning, performing/visual/vocal arts, stewardship of natural and urban environment, social entrepreneurship spirit and action for youth and young adults. Their goal is to provide Black youths in the community the opportunity to reach their full potential that otherwise been outside their reach.
Focusing on technology, arts, entrepreneurship, and culture, the center led many workshops and tours to educate people about black history in Seattle. Some core programs include classes and workshops, conferences, festivals, and community gatherings; various community projects and use of Umoja Peace Center facility for various audio-video projects. Such an initiative is called the Game Changes Program that started at Washington Middle School. Black men from the community mentor black male students in Washington Middle School.
Every year Umoja PEACE Center organizes monthly meetings and events (many of them sponsored by Phoenix Financial Services) that bring people together to discuss issues impacting the black community. One of these is the Young Geniuses Academy or YGA that provides elementary and middle school students with culturally fun, relevant, and educational experiences in Science Technology Engineering Art & Math. Young Geniuses Code Lab introduces youth to computer software development by working on fun projects including video games, devices, websites, and mobile apps. It instills pride by highlighting the contributions of African American people in the fields of arts and sciences and explores practical applications in our daily living.
Umoja PEACE Center also spearheads the annual Umoja Festival also known as Umoja Fest. Umoja Fest is the largest annual summer festival in Seattle that celebrates the best of the African American culture and African Diaspora community.
For over six decades, the Umoja Festival and Parade has been a celebrated Seattle tradition – an artistic and cultural extravaganza that uniquely touches the spirit of the community. Historically, the Umoja Fest is a celebration most recognized in the black community that brings people of all ethnic backgrounds together for days of culture, education, social festivities, and networking. The word Umoja, a Swahili word which means unity, is the main theme of the festival.
Another initiative run by the Umoja PEACE Center is The Miss Umoja Fest Africatown Queen Scholarship Program that provides a scholarship to support the educational goals of outstanding African American young women 18 to 23 years old. The program is dedicated to building self-esteem and confidence and providing a positive role model for girls and young women. The Queen is selected based on her leadership skills, community service, poise, and public speaking skills.
No wonder that the displacement of Tahir-Garett and the demolition of the center has caused an uproar to his supporters as the demolition came less than a week before the eviction of Black Dot, a coworking space and small business incubator that Tahir-Garett’s son co-founded in MidTown Center in the Central District, faced an eviction as well. The evictions come at a time when housing prices in the Central District are rising rapidly, displacing many longtime residents and driving a demographic shift in the area from mostly black to largely white.
For the past two weeks before the demolition of the headquarter, protests erupted on several occasions and there are several calls to stop demolishing the center. Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant even wrote to Mayor Murray to use his political position to start a dialogue with the community and understand their concerns. In the morning of March 15 though, K. Wyking Garrett found that the locks in his Block Dot office, had been replaced. The media representative for the organization then called on reporters to document what had happened. Wyking Garrett also sent out an e-mail blast calling on media to document a “police raid” and standoff currently happening that time at the Umoja PEACE Center. However, in spite of everything, it didn’t stop the demolition. Tahir-Garrett has said the eviction is racially motivated.
Tahir-Garrett, although surprised by the displacement of the center, has stated that business will continue running as per usual. The Umoja PEACE Center temporarily moved a few blocks to the Midtown Shopping Center.