By Bill Kossen
Seattle Times staff reporter
At Garfield High School in the early 1960s, he was known as Cordell Garrett, quarterback of the football team and vice president of the Bulldog Club, a service organization.
“I had a positive impression of him,” said Frank Hanawalt of Federal Way, who was principal at Garfield at the time.
But James Cordell Garrett, 55, who was arrested yesterday in connection with an assault on Mayor Paul Schell, later became known more as an angry activist and began calling himself Omari Tahir, saying in 1987 that he would not acknowledge “a slave name.”
Two years earlier, Garrett and a handful of other activists had broken into the closed Colman Elementary School, on a hill overlooking Rainier Valley near Interstate 90, demanding that the city turn it into an African-American heritage museum. They occupied the building on and off for eight years, but their dream unraveled last year amid infighting and reports of fistfights.
The city is now backing a plan by the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle to turn the decaying, 92-year-old brick building into an African-American museum, cultural center and space for affordable housing and offices.
City Councilwoman Jan Drago said Garrett recently showed up at a council hearing and asked that $400,000 which had been set aside for a Colman project not be used for the Urban League plan, but for his.
“He was in control, fairly soft-spoken and pretty respectful,” Drago said.
That wasn’t the case Jan. 14, 1988, when he was being sentenced for assault and reckless endangerment in connection with a demonstration at the University of Washington the year before.
That day he got two days in jail for contempt of court for calling King County Superior Court Judge James McCutcheon “a stupid, white European settler.”
That comment came during a sentencing hearing in which Garrett had complained to the judge about being tried by a white judge and an all-white jury.
The judge then told Garrett that the court was not there to hear a political speech, prompting Garrett’s remark. Garrett later was sentenced to 90 days in jail for grabbing a gun from a UW police sergeant during a demonstration and pointing the gun at the officer’s head.
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