Protest ends after foes of youth jail block downtown streets for hours

Demonstrators protesting a new King County youth jail blocked streets in downtown Seattle for several hours Friday, March 2, 2018. (Photo: KOMO News/Air 4) 

SEATTLE - A group of about up to 50 protesters blocked streets and created huge traffic backups in downtown Seattle on Friday morning and into the afternoon to demonstrate their opposition to a new King County youth jail and courts.

The protest broke up after 2 p.m. -- roughly six hours after it began. Police then began to open streets.

The activists began gathering at around 8 a.m. at the intersection of 4th Avenue and James Street and effectively blocked traffic in all directions. After blocking the intersection about three hours, the protesters began marching north on 4th Avenue, eventually stopping again at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Stewart Street, where they remained.

Protesters said about 1:30 p.m. that they will not leave until they talk to someone from the King County Executive's Office. But staffers with the Executive's Office told KOMO Newsradio that they tried to speak with the protesters and were shouted down.

Observers said the protesters appeared to be following King County Executive Dow Constantine around throughout the day as he moved from his office near 4th and James to an appearance by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray at the Westin Hotel, near 5th and Stewart. It was unknown whether the protesters would march back to 4th and James after Constantine returns to his office.

As of 1 p.m., the protesters remained at 5th and Stewart. Police had not stopped the protest or made any arrests.

Some of the protesters locked arms inside "sleeping dragons" - lengths of pipe covering handcuffs. Others held signs with slogans like "No new youth jail" and "Stop caging kids."

The protesters, with the No New Youth Jail Campaign, are demanding that Constantine put an immediate stop to the construction of the new $210 million youth justice complex.

In a prepared statement, the activists say they want to pressure King County into adopting a goal of "zero detention for youth."

They also claim the money being spent on the new youth jail and courts takes away funding for other vital county services.

“We believe it's time to start over and to tear down detention centers for youth entirely,” said co-organizer Julianna Alson at the protest. “It is built on a system of racism that affects black and brown youth and black and brown communities.”

Alson said that too many troubled youth are getting incarcerated, instead of getting the help they truly need.

“Jails harm young people and we don't need another 210 million dollar jail,” said co-organizer Alex Brott.

Construction is well underway at the 12th and Alder site. It'll include 112 beds and 10 courtrooms.

Dow Constantine talked to KOMO News earlier in the day. He said the project is moving forward, that several design changes have been made to the building.

"I had it redesigned so the detention portion can be continually reduced," said Constantine.

He also said there is a strong need for the new detention facility/court complex.

"We are on the path that puts us ahead of every jurisdiction in the country in reducing the number of young people who are in detention. We’ve cut the detention rate by over 70 percent in the last 20 years. And we are now building a new Children Families Justice Center that reduces by more than half the number of detention beds," said Constantine.

He says the goal of getting to zero detention takes work.

“We have to eliminate the need for any judge or cop to bring us a child and ask us to hold them, and that is the community-wide challenge,” said Constantine.

The blockade caused traffic to back up onto Interstate 5 and Interstate 90.

Several King County Metro bus routes were affected by the street closure. Riders were urged to use Sound Transit light rail instead, if possible.

A police sergeant told KOMO News radio that the protest caught the department by surprise. A protester told KOMO-TV News that the group does not have a permit.

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