By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Outside his house, there is wavy grass on the sidewalk. A pile of chairs rides atop the driveway. Behind them, hidden from the street, are signs, stacked together that say: “Larry Gossett for King County Council.”
He was the last Black elected official in Seattle. The man who replaced him is an immigrant.
And even the area in which he lives, the Central District, has changed so much that soon, even Gossett and his family may be the only Blacks left.
“The house across the way sold for $1.5 million,” he said, looking out from his living room. The new residents of the area work for Amazon or Microsoft and are from out of state.
His most visible legacy is his son who walks up from downstairs where he is staying while visiting during Thanksgiving. A dentist and a follower of Malcolm X, the son is healthy, confident, and protective of his father.
“So what are you going to write about my father?” he asked.
Gossett’s legacy spans 50 years since he helped found the Black Student Union at the University of Washington (UW), spread the formation of Black student unions at local high schools, shaped the Black Panther Party in Seattle, and began the process of forming ethnic coalitions that would reshape Seattle.
He also helped enact criminal justice reform and pushed for affordable housing.
In 1968, Gossett was a student at the UW when two girls at Franklin High School were suspended because their hair was not “lady like” according to the principal. That meant, according to Gossett, it did not look like white people’s hair.
The protest, a sit-in led by Gossett and others, resulted in their arrests. They were in jail when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And the outpouring of support when they came up before the judge was unprecedented in Seattle.
“Fifteen-hundred Black people came to an arraignment,” said Gossett.
This was at the beginning of the Black Power movement, when some Blacks thought that through revolutionary violence, they could defend themselves from over 300 years of oppression, violence, and subjugation.
Gossett, along with others, the year earlier had traveled down to California to learn from the Black Panther Party.
Though he did not choose the path that other leaders such as Aaron Dixon, the captain of the Black Panther Party in Seattle, chose, he was a mentor to those that did, said his wife Rhonda. She hired 42 writers of color at the student newspaper at the UW when she was an associate editor, she said.
Instead of battling with the police and the FBI with guns, Gossett fought through boycotts, protests, sit-ins and eventually persuaded the UW to make massive changes to the number of marginalized students admitted and to its curriculum. The university began to teach Black studies and other related subjects.
“Within a year [of seizing the UW administration building], the number of African American students at UW tripled, from 150 to 465, Native American students increased from 25 to 100, and Chicano students from 10 to 90. In addition, the University established a program in Black Studies, and doubled the number of African American faculty. Chicano Studies, Asian American Studies, and American Indian Studies programs would follow,” according to the University of Washington Civil Rights and Labor History Project.
Gossett went on to work for the university, to work within the system for change.
He later was part of the Rainbow Coalition when Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, a movement which garnered 40 percent of the Democratic vote in Washington when the population was only 3 percent Black, said Gossett.
After joining with leaders from other ethnic communities, he and other activists were able to make inroads against the ruling establishment by organizing and protesting. After Metro was going to abandon a lot in the International District (ID), they successfully advocated having it turned into low-income housing, said Gossett. They staged a protest to make sure the Kingdome would not encroach upon the lives of those living in the ID. And he was instrumental in the creation of El Centro de la Raza, a nonprofit serving the Latino community.
When Norm Rice ran for mayor, he turned to the Rainbow Coalition to help him get elected, then appointed its members to key positions, said Gossett.
Impressed by the potential for social change brought about by coalition building, Gossett ran for King County Council. He was elected in 1994. Since then, he has pushed for reform of the criminal justice system.
According to “The New Jim Crow,” a book written by Michelle Alexander, the criminal justice system and the so-called war on drugs has created an “undercaste” in American society of Blacks. The word “felon” is a new word for a Black man, she wrote.
The undercaste, people who have been convicted of crimes in a system that continues and worsens the abuses of the Jim Crow laws, are not allowed access to the mainstream society either in jobs, opportunities, or social mobility, she wrote.
But Dixon said in a phone interview that in fact most people, not just Blacks, are worse off now than they had been in the 1960s. He cited homelessness, poverty, and the opioid crisis, among other factors.
Gossett’s legacy has been to fight for all marginalized people, said Dixon.
As councilmember, Gossett helped institute the drug court in King County, so that offenders could receive treatment and work instead of going to prison. He helped pass laws that did away with a new form of debtor’s prison. Before those changes, up to 11 percent of incarcerated people in King County were there because they could not pay their legal fees.
“Poverty was being criminalized,” Gossett said, “We had reinstituted debt prison in the U.S.”
Gossett’s legacy in criminal justice reform reached even more broadly.
Through work release programs, electronic home detention programs, and other reforms, he helped reduce the numbers of those incarcerated by 24 percent for adults and 77 percent for youth.
According to Gossett, there were 2,880 adults incarcerated in King County in 1999, and 220 youth. This year, the numbers are down to 1,850 adults and 35 youth.
In the campaign, Gossett received criticism for his support for a new youth detention center. But, he said, conditions housing detained youth were deplorable including the lack of a usable gym and poor sanitation.
Critics say the number of youths incarcerated are still disproportionately Black, a point that Gossett does not dispute. In fact, the percentage of Black youth incarcerated has increased, although the number has drastically fallen. And Gossett says the goal is to have no youth incarcerated by 2021.
Gossett said he may be the only member of the King County Council that personally visits Black and other marginalized people in jail. He reads the cases against them, and shows up in court to advocate for them.
“Some of the judges, I’ve visited them so many times, that they’ve invited me to their retirement parties,” he said.
Dixon said this is indicative of Gossett’s approach.
“I think his legacy is that he’s been consistent for the last 50 years in striving for justice and equality, particularly for Black people, but all people in general,” he said.
“He has been one of the main persons, if not the only person, who Black people could go to when they had issues particularly in the county that they needed help with,” said Dixon.
“His legacy is endurance, and fighting for the rights of people… he never deviated from what he started 50 years ago.”
Now that Gossett is leaving the King County Council, he is writing his memoirs. He is exploring teaching at several universities in the area. And he has already been invited to be a consultant. This December is his last month in office.
He said he will continue to work for other parts of his legacy, which include affordable housing. He pushed for 44,000 new units, but the work is unfinished.
One more symbolic accomplishment was his move to change what the “King” in King stood for. Originally, it designated the name of a senator from Alabama. Now, the county is the only area in the world that refers to the name of Martin Luther King Jr., said Gossett.
Like King, Gossett was transformed by his time in jail. He was arrested eight times between 1968 and 1972, each time put in King County jail.
His office is on the site of the jail in which he was incarcerated for the first time in 1968.
“I remember looking out of the cell and I could see the water,” he said. “This is the same view.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.