“He’s been shot, you have to go to him. Tell him mom is on the way!” is all I heard as I answered a phone call from my twin sister on March 29, 2013. As I tried to comprehend what was being said, I dropped everything to get to my youngest nephew. I assured my sister that I was on my way and that I would tell my nephew KB she was on her way and that ultimately everything would be all right. I was less than five minutes away from where he had been shot and when I arrived the medics were tending to him. I ran up as close as I could and explained to the police officer that I was his aunt, but they would not allow me to cross the yellow line so I just yelled to him that mom was on her way and that auntie was here. I tried to talk with his girlfriend whose house he was shot in front of, but I was not allowed to talk with her. I watched the medics place him on a gurney and as he rolled past me, I continued to yell that I was here and mom was on her way. I did not move until the ambulance door shut. I called my sister and told her to meet me at the hospital, that he was no longer at the scene. “I can’t bury my baby!” is all she said. I told her to just meet me at the hospital and that ultimately everything would be all right. My nephew, K’Breyan “KB” Clark, died that night at the age of 19. The person who shot him has yet to be caught and brought to justice. KB was not the only youth of color killed that day or in the days since.
Seattle, situated in Martin Luther King County, is known for the iconic images of Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle, and as the home of Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks as well as the 2013 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. It is usually not one of those cities that conjure up ideas of racial disproportionality or youth violence. However, upon closer examination, these problems do exist within the city and the County, so much so that in July of 2015 the county executive put together a steering committee to investigate racial disproportionality in the juvenile justice system. My nephew found himself in the juvenile justice system prior to his death and, as a result of that experience, I was interested in the demographic and issues the steering committee was investigating on both a professional and personal level.
In Martin Luther King County in 2014, youth of color made up 44 percent of the general youth population ages 10 to 17. However, in the seven months since the steering committee began meeting (September 2015-March 2016) three youth of color died violently; 75 percent of the juvenile arrests were of youth of color, and out of the 2,053 referrals to the prosecuting attorney’s office, 66 percent were youth of color.
The steering committee was charged with three very specific yet lofty goals within the juvenile justice system.
- Establish short and long-term actions to help end disproportionality in the county’s juvenile justice system;
- identify root causes of disproportionality and specific solutions needed to address them in individual communities, and
- engage communities by sharing information, then collect and incorporate feedback.
The committee, which first met in September of 2015, was comprised of community leaders, youth, community members, and people from education, faith, justice, mental health, youth and parent organizations who were all dedicated and passionate about looking at the juvenile system in different ways. I recall that before we began one meeting a committee member held up a photo of a youth who had been killed just days before. This particular committee member held the photo tight in his hand and reminded us that it was because of tragedies like this one that we were gathering.
Because of the competing priorities in the room, for the first few months there was no clear structure or buy in from the committee as to how to best begin making recommendations. Each person represented a facet of the youth community, so we struggled with how best to tackle each goal that was clearly defined from the beginning.
We spent time working in small groups geared towards our professional expertise; while a good idea, it did not allow us to hear from or interact with people outside our professions. There was a suggestion to create workgroups around topic areas rather than profession, and we had some fruitful dialogue but it still did not get us closer to our goal of making a recommendation. Finally, a structure and process was created that would focus our time in four distinct areas, which would then allow us to make specific recommendations. Each phase would last three months with the goal of making recommendations at the end of each quarter but with the understanding that recommendations could be made prior to the deadline when necessary.
The committee was expected to meet on a monthly basis for 18 months and make recommendations to the King County Council. However, after meeting for just seven months, the committee already forwarded our first two recommendations. The first recommendation was a Theft-3 Pilot Project (a person is guilty of Theft-3 if the theft is less than $750). In 2015, youth of color made up 83 percent of Theft-3 cases filed. The goal of this project is to have a site at the local shopping mall where juveniles caught shoplifting are taken instead of contacting the police and involving the youth in juvenile justice system. The onsite facility would be staffed by different community organizations that focus on a restorative justice model and provide youth with mentoring and accountability. The second recommendation was to have youth who are auto-declined and charged as adults housed at the Juvenile Detention facility to await trial as opposed to being housed at the King County Adult Jail. As of March 2016, there were 19 youth being detained at the adult facility and over half of them were African American. The recommendation was not to move those currently housed; however, going forward youth would be housed together.
It wasn’t an entire solution, but it was at least a start.
I was humbled to have been asked to serve on such a steering committee and as the only sociocultural anthropologist invited, I was also extremely curious. I feel hopeful that the steering committee is making progress and moving in the right direction. I recognize these changes come too late for my nephew but if they can help someone else’s nephew I am thankful.
Heather Clark, PhD, was born, raised and still lives in the Central Area of Seattle, WA. She currently teaches at Rainier Scholars and Seattle Girls School.