El Centro de la Raza

El Centro de la Raza has come a long way since Roberto Maestas and others occupied Beacon Hill School in October 1972.

In October 1972, after federal funds were cut from an English and adult education program at South Seattle College, teacher Roberto Maestas and roughly 80 others spurred by Latinx activism took to a vacant school in Beacon Hill with blankets and food. For three months they peacefully occupied a frigid building, intent on transforming it into a community center where learning could continue and other programs could take root.

The occupation worked. The city ultimately agreed to let El Centro de la Raza—“the Center for People of All Races”—lease the space for $1 a year (the organization later bought the site). Today the center, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, continues to help provide individuals and families with food security, permanent housing, stable jobs, education, legal services, health services, English literacy skills, and much more.

This June it looked like the East Precinct in Capitol Hill might experience an even more radical transformation than Beacon Hill School. Some protesters seeking police reform in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death sought to turn Seattle Police’s outpost into a community space. But on Wednesday, SPD swept through the area near the building, dispersing and arresting occupants of the Capitol Hill Organized (or Occupied) Protest and, in the process, squashing hopes of an imminent building takeover.

In retrospect that idea may seem far-fetched given that officers have now returned to patrolling their usual turf. But organizers could point to plenty of local precedent for a successful occupation, starting with El Centro de la Raza. Estela Ortega, now the center’s executive director, moved to Seattle two weeks into the Beacon Hill occupation. She'd been working in community politics in Houston but had been in touch with Maestas; she knew the English as a Second Language (ESL) program Maestas backed was vital and needed support.

Ortega, Maestas, and others drew inspiration from other community-led civil protests like the Native American occupation of Alcatraz that began in 1969. The Latinx activists in Seattle connected with other communities of color with similar needs, building a coalition. “[They] felt that they needed to stay together because it had become more than just an ESL program,” Ortega says. “The program was also helping people with all these other basic needs of housing, jobs, [childcare], etc.”

El Centro de la Raza’s beginnings called to mind the United Indians of All Tribes’ occupation of the Fort Lawton army post in Magnolia two years prior. Then known as the United Indian People’s Council, the occupiers pointed to 1865 treaties that said the U.S. would return surplus military land to its original owners, according to Duane Colt Denfeld of HistoryLink.org. They proclaimed: “We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Fort Lawton in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.”

On March 8, 1970, dozens of demonstrators entered the fort via Puget Sound beaches or by scaling fences. Police arrested 72 of them, but the council continued its protests at the main gate for months. Led by Bernie Whitebear, protesters ultimately won a lease for the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center, which opened in 1977 and still stands today as a vital cultural space for Native Americans on 20 acres of land in Discovery Park. 

The Northwest African American Museum took a bit longer to establish. After almost 30 years of work by advocates to bring it to life, the NAAM now serves as a source of cultural history for people of African descent in the Pacific Northwest. African American community activists Earl Debnam, Michael Greenwood, Charlie James, and Omari Tahir Garrett occupied the shuttered Colman School, which was slated for demolition as part of I-90’s construction, a year after a task force was created to establish an African American Museum in Seattle in 1984. 

After an eight-year occupation, disputes between city leaders and activists related to the site’s functions and funds kept NAAM from opening until 2008, according to Trevor Griffey, the co-founder of UW’s Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project.

Griffey points to NAAM as a prime example of the persistent struggle for community control and social change throughout history—the occupations that led to El Centro de la Raza and Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center are, too. “Direct action was part of all of these different struggles,” says Griffey, “and was also part of a campaign for visibility.”

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