I MET THE MAN accused of attacking Mayor Paul Schell last weekend in the spring of 1998. I had wandered into a trailer behind the abandoned Colman School in the Central District looking for an activist who said he worked for the city's African-American Museum. There was no museum, only a makeshift office inside the tiny trailer. But the handful of people who filtered through it dwelt in a parallel universe. At its center was Omari Tahir-Garrett, arrested last week under his birth name, James Garrett.
He was holed up in the trailer to stage a coup against a project to turn the derelict school into an African-American museum. With guerrilla politicking at City Hall and community meetings, Tahir-Garrett had essentially run out project staff. Now the lease was up. But Tahir-Garrett insisted he wasn't leaving, even if he had to face down the police. "It's going to be a very exciting next couple of months," he said gleefully.
The man could be charming. In his early 50s, he wore glasses, a blue turtleneck, and a brown leather jacket. He was a local boy who had attended Garfield High School. Later, he said, he spent time in the Marines, lived in Japan, and taught for a spell at Franklin High. While it wasn't clear how he made a living, he evinced an urbane knowledge of big-city corruption and handed me a book on Seattle's inglorious past.
Meanwhile, he spun a credible story about corruption in the museum project, then being run by a city-supported nonprofit. He railed against a "downtown clique" that had taken over the project and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fruitlessly. He lamented that what had started as a grassroots movement—in the mid-'80s Tahir-Garrett and others occupied Colman demanding a museum—had been co-opted.
The paper trail, however, didn't back up his tale. I didn't know that he had once been to jail for pointing a gun at a police officer, but I began to wonder about his state of mind when he showed up at a community meeting a few days later with just-filed incorporation papers for a new museum nonprofit headed by himself and his son—as if all it took was a trick of paperwork to turn the project over to him.
Nonetheless, the controversy he generated was enough to derail the whole project—at least until the Urban League stepped in this year with a new plan.
This week, after his arrest for the Schell attack, Tahir-Garrett denied being the perpetrator, despite an array of witnesses. As a judge attempted to set bail for him on Monday, he started shouting, prompting the judge to delay the hearing a day. Tahir-Garrett isn't going anywhere quietly.