Seattle Central: A History of Social Protest

Political activism on campus, then and now

By Angie Tamayo

Originally published in the December 2014 issue. 

Seattle Central, since its birth in 1965, and even before when it was Broadway High School, has been the home of radical and progressive movements, groups, students and professors, many of whom were and still are political dissidents.

A recent example was the student and faculty involvement in the Occupy Movement in Seattle. From October 29th until December until December 9th 2011, people set up  a camp in the south plaza of the College to speak up against social and economic injustice. “We are the 99%” was the slogan used by ‘Occupiers’ to tell the government and the rest of society that people were tired of big corporations controlling the economic, political and social system for their own benefit.

Occupy Seattle has not been the only demonstration of political activism at the college. The Seattle Central community has often been actively involved in local, national, and international political issues.

Back in the in the middle of the sixties when the Edison Technical School became the first community college in Seattle, it was also a crucial moment for the Civil Rights Movement. In order to fight for federal protection and basic civil rights for blacks, as well as against racial segregation and discrimination, many civil right activists participated in sit-ins, non-violent protest, boycotts, civil disobedience acts and/or revolutionary militia. The Black Panther Party, created in 1966, established the Ten-Point Program to fight for economic, political and social equality for black people.

Some students who were part of the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Oriental Student Union at the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies were also members of the Seattle-chapter Black Panther Party. In 1969, the BSU led sit-ins and demonstrations on the campus to ask the college Board of Trustees for better treatment of the black student community as well as more black representation.

They wrote a list of 13 demands: hiring more black faculty, development of black studies and other rights concerned mainly to the black community.

This politically turbulent  beginning of the college was followed by other radical organizing, such as  demonstrations to support the anti-war movement and the Draft Resistance movement to show student disagreement with the Vietnam War, protests against the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle in 1999 and campus walkouts in 2004 to show opposition with the Iraq War.

In 2001 TIME Magazine recognized Seattle Central as one of the best community colleges of the year; one of the most important reasons to get this recognition was the diversity of the community; in 2001, 52% of the students belonged to minority groups, 26% were 35 or older, 25% were immigrants and 65% were first in their families to go to college. Some attribute the college’s political history to its campus diversity.

“Part of the politics has always [been] coming out from ethnic groups that feel marginalized, that have been marginalized, that are disadvantaged,” said Peter Knutson, anthropology professor at Seattle Central. “Nothing happens unless people organize.”

In a conversation with Carl Livingston, professor of political science at Seattle Central, he mentioned that as an urban community college located right in the core of Seattle and next to the historical Central District, it excelled for being a more inclusive and less conservative institution.

“We are more than left to center on the political scale, a little bit more radical, a little bit more socialist, a little bit more environmentalist, a little bit more civil rights leading, a little bit more feminist, a little bit more LGBTQ leading,” said Livingston. “Why? I would say because we are an urban community college in a large city.”

Much of the responsibility for this history of political involvement also lies with the professors, particularly, those who belong to the Humanity/Social Sciences department. “A lot of the educational techniques we use here come from people like Paulo Freire,” said Knutson.

Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher who advocated for the necessity of a critical pedagogy. He said that education was an instrument for liberation, for that reason we had to understand the dialectic relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor to achieve “conscientization.”

“I am hoping to create a kind of direct involvement so that people feel that history is not something that happens to someone else. So in my own classes I try to encourage people to do social services,” said Tracy Lai, a history professor. She often encourages her students to get involved with local organizations like El Centro de la Raza, so that they can see other realities.

However, many faculty professors think that the political activism here has dramatically declined compared with past years. There is a wide range of possible reasons for the lack of political involvement among students, such as the process of gentrification in Seattle, the high cost of tuition, student loan debt, and dropout rates–particularly among minority students.  According to The Project on Students Debt, 58% of in-state graduated students in Washington end up with an average debt of $24,418. In addition to that, Seattle has become the fifth city most expensive in the U.S.; the Census Bureau Data  says that from 2010 to 2013 the rent in the city went up by 11%—$113 in other words. Even though the income of many people in the city has increased during the last years, for black people it has decreased by 35%; the Central District that used to be the home of many African Americans, but now it is mainly populated by white people.

The good news is that there are still professors committed to getting their students involved in activism. Professor Lai says that the college should help students to “see themselves as able to engage with issues and to be involved in society and not to feel that they have to accept kind of this passive position. If we can do that with the college that is fine.”

As students we have a big responsibility towards the society, not only to contribute to the economical development, but essentially, to enhance the social welfare of  our communities. Let’s remember Freire and use education to achieve collective freedom.

Pull Quote: “28 November 1999: SCCC students participated in the protests against the World Trade Organization conference carried out in Seattle. The college was the initial point where people and organizations gathered to march. The protest was focused on workers’ rights, environmental and social issues.


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