Invoking the name of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager shot and kill by a neighborhood watchman in 2012, can be a powerful symbol of racial profiling and the challenges of being a young, black male in America. But on Wednesday, it was used by the remaining holdouts in the Horace Mann school building takeover in their crass attempt to gain public sympathy for an ill-conceived, and illegal, seizure of a public building.
Seattle police did their jobs. They pushed past chained doors and threats of a rooftop sniper and explosives-laden booby traps to arrest four people. The building is back in district hands and renovations on the school — delays of which had cost the district around $1,000 a day — can start.
AfricaTown Center for Education and Innovation, an umbrella organization for community groups that may or may not have been connected to those arrested yesterday, should have learned a lesson from all of this. The organization allowed its name and agenda to be co-opted by people with no interest or qualifications in building a school. As Superintendent José Banda told the Seattle Times: “It’s hard to distinguish at this point who’s part of that group or not. The hangers-on are not necessarily part of the academic focus of that group.”
How did AfricaTown allow Omari Tahir-Garrett to speak for them? He was convicted of second-degree assault in 2002 after hitting a former Seattle mayor in the face with a megaphone, breaking several bones in the man’s face. Background checks, required in all educational settings, would seemingly have led to Tahir-Garrett’s exclusion rather than inclusion.
Time for some public relations. The public needs to better understand who are the groups behind AfricaTown and what are the educational opportunities they propose to help African-American children? It’s called outreach and it must be widespread. African-Americans are not a monolith living in a 12-block radius of the Central District. Former state Rep. Dawn Mason recently sent me a caustic email for daring to question AfricaTown. She said African-Americans are unilaterally behind the idea. I do not buy into the notion that a few people can speak for the thousands with a vested interest in Seattle Public Schools. There is also a larger audience of black families who can indirectly benefit from any successes Seattle has with African-American students. The task is to sell the program, and sell it broadly.
African-American parents are no different from other parents. We want quality educational opportunities steeped in transparency and public accountability. We want programs that we can rigorously vet and count on to last. AfricaTown may have the solution. It remains to be seen.