A protest is ongoing outside the UmojaFest Peace Center at 24th and Spring, as resident Omari Tahir-Garrett faces eviction. The King County Sheriff’s Office is being assisted by Seattle Police, as the hauling away of large amounts of trash off the property started early Wednesday morning.
At the same time, Tahir-Garrett’s son, K Wyking Garrett, confirmed the same owners of the Midtown Center changed the locks to the Black Dot, an African-American business incubator up the street.
Garrett, who is also CEO of the Africatown Community Land Trust, was joined by nonprofit Forterra earlier this year to make a $23.5 million bid for the 106,000-square-foot property after larger development plans fell through.
Tahir-Garrett had used the UmojaFest property to host an encampment of former Nickelsville residents. The Bangasser family that owns the property signed contracts with the campers on Sept. 19 that required them to leave and not return.
“They pretty much paid them to leave, and along with that they told them that whatever they had to leave,” said Daniel Ojalvo, with the group Standing Against Foreclosure & Eviction (SAFE in Seattle).
Tahir-Garrett was recently jailed for a week for contempt of court. He has a federal appeal filed to remain on the property, for which a decision does not appear to have been made. A Superior court judge had upheld the eviction on Feb. 23.
Cliff Cawthon, SAFE lead organizer, said Tahir-Garrett was still in jail when a sheriff’s deputy came to the property to post an eviction notice in early March.
“We asked him very kindly where Omari was,” Cawthon said. “He said he couldn’t tell us.”
SAFE joined Stop the Sweeps Seattle last weekend for a community cleanup of the UmojaFest Peace Center property, hauling away more than 12,000 pounds of refuse.
“We’ve been cleaning it up,” Ojalvo said. “We’ve been cleaning it up despite what the landlord has done.”
He said SAFE and other community organizations supporting Tahir-Garrett had been waiting to see what came of the appeal in federal court, but then were notified Wednesday morning that the eviction process was taking place on the property.
“It’s so unnecessary. That’s just big power,” said Tom Bangasser, whose siblings voted him out two years ago as controlling member of Midtown Limited Partnership. He has advocated for selling the property to Africatown, to preserve one of the last developable parcels at 23rd and Union for development by and for the African-American community in the Central District. “That’s bully law. It ain’t over, that’s for sure.”
Protesters rallied outside UmojaFest Wednesday morning, calling on Midtown Center general partner Hugh Bangasser to stop the eviction, and for Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole to report to the property and explain why the department is assisting with what they consider an illegal eviction process.
“I think all of the people here understand that gentrification is a serious issue,” Cawthon said. “… I know we’re sure as hell going to stay here, and we’re not going down without a fight.”
Garrett said during a meeting at Black Dot that there was an attempt to evict members from its space in Midtown Center and change the locks on Friday. The understanding had been that the business incubator could stay there until the property was sold and ready for redevelopment, he said. The locks were changed Wednesday while he was inside, Garrett said.
In an email response to questions regarding Black Dot’s use of space at Midtown Center, Hugh Bangasser states, “The essential facts are that MidTown does not have and has never had any lease with Black Dot. Prior to the events of last Friday, the former leasee had already terminated its lease for this space.”
The Capitol Hill Times has made another request with Hugh Bangasser regarding the Tahir-Garrett's eviction on Wednesday.
The last attempt at a Midtown Center redevelopment, by Lennar Multifamily Communities and retail-focused partner Regency Centers, fizzled out when the developers reportedly could not get an extension on their contract with the Bangasser family. At that time, Africatown had been lined up to develop 20 percent of the project with affordable housing and community space representative of the Central District’s historic, but thinning black community.
The evictions Wednesday create serious doubt about the potential for Africatown and Forterra’s to be able to buy the property for community-led development.
“This is not a matter of dollars and cents,” Cawthon said. “This is racism.”
James Khan, a community organizer with Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office, was present during the eviction and cleanup Wednesday.
“This is taking place in the context of massive displacement of the black community here in the Central District,” he said, “and the city should be doing all it can to enforce just the opposite of what’s going on today.”
Khan said the March 2 appeal has not been decided yet, and King County Sheriff John Urquhart is an elected official who can choose what to prioritize within his department.
“If I were him, something with an appeal wouldn’t be my priority,” he said. “The question is … why is Sheriff Urquhart going forward with this now, given that there’s an appeal in the court, given that this is a community that needs support, rather than displacement?”
Sawant later issued this letter to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Urquhart.