Black Power revolutionary, political prisoner, elected official: Larry Gossett, the King County Council representative for central and southeast Seattle including Capitol Hill, has been a man of many faces. But to his council colleague Kathy Lambert, a Republican who represents folks east of Lake Sammamish, political descriptors are trumped by personal ones.
“He is a man of integrity, dedication, kindness,” she told CHS. “He is a man that brings the perspective of his race and the needs of his community very clearly before us. He is a wonderful human being.” Lambert described how Gossett had looked out for her after she was injured in a traffic accident a few years ago. “I was so impressed with the lengths that he would go to to help me, [to ensure that] I was safe, because I couldn’t walk. You know, he was just — kind,” she said.
These days, Gossett is in the business of making buses run on time and sewer lines pump smoothly. “Anytime anybody in [Capitol Hill or the Central District] flushes their toilets, it impacts county policy,” he said.
The emphasis on nuts-and-bolts infrastructure contrasts against Gossett’s radical roots. The councilor first made a name for himself as a Black Power activist in the late 1960s, after becoming radicalized during a stint as a volunteer in Harlem. When administrators at Franklin High School suspended two black students (either for fighting, according to the Seattle Times, or for having Afro haircuts, according to HistoryLink.org), Gossett and others occupied the principal’s office in protest. As a result, he soon found himself in the county lockup — the same building in which, a quarter century later, he would become a member of the King County Council — where he and other activists started organizing black and white prisoners.
“It seemed that jail directors should have been glad of that, but it scared them to death,” Gossett told HistoryLink. “They were going to county commissioners saying: ‘You got to get these Negroes out of jail!’”
The same radical spirit which animated Black Power in the 1960 and ’70s can be seen in the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement, Gossett said.
“In King County, I thought it was… inspirational,” he said, “that hundreds of young, white and many, many Asian youth… allied with black youth to articulate their rage over police conduct.” It’s not yet clear, though, whether the current movement will have same staying power as its predecessor, he said.
While Gossett has traded his dashiki and sunglasses for a suit and tie, his work is still informed by a marriage of pragmatic strategy with progressive politics.
He was a “prime sponsor” of the brand-new reduced fare on public transit for low-income riders, in response to “a lot of pressure from various community groups to make sure that we try to do something to help poor people,” he said. And in 2013, he helped to pass legislation protecting non-dangerous undocumented immigrants from police detention and deportation. Previously, local police would keep arrestees jailed after their local infractions were resolved, if federal immigration cops asked them to. Now, local cops will only do that for arrestees “who have been convicted of a violent or serious crime.”
“Some of [the people who were being deported] had been living in Seattle or King County for thirty, forty years and got a traffic accident,” Gossett said.
He’s also proud of his role in reducing the number of people incarcerated in county jails. That number has nearly halved since 2000, largely thanks to county social services programs that serve as alternatives to jail, Gossett said.
“Every program that we currently have [gives] people a chance to pick…an alternative to incarceration, rather than being warehoused in our King County jail,” he said. (Gossett’s approach to criminal justice reform is not without its critics, though.)
But Gossett’s policy legacy may be eclipsed by his personal legacy, according to UW professor Alexes Harris. She met Gossett when he was doing community organizing in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, and went on to serve as a volunteer coordinator in his first bid for county council and as an intern in his council office. Harris described Gossett as something of a moral compass to the interns he’s worked with over the years. “He has shaped how we view the world,” she said. “He put little seeds of social justice… in so many young people, and it’s really helped shape our careers and allowed us to flourish.”
CHS asked Gossett for his take on why competition in county council races is so sparse compared to Seattle’s. He reckoned that there’s a sort of mental breakdown in people’s conception of government, in which county and city politics getting mixed up together. “And [people] read more information from papers and periodicals like yours about issues… in the city and far fewer in the county,” he said. (Fair point, councilor: we’re not “Capitol Hill King County,” after all.)
“One of the most baffling things about being a county council member,” Gossett said, “is that one-fifth of the time — still, today; it happened last week… [people introducing me will say], ‘Without further ado, I present to you city council member Larry Gossett.'”