King County Council candidate responds to criticism over 2010 arrest for school bus threats

Ubax Gardheere is running in District 9.

It was an incident that would have ended many political aspirations.

The morning of Jan. 12, 2010, current King County Council candidate Ubax Gardheere boarded a Highline School District bus carrying middle school kids — and raised a scene.

She yelled at the students about the U.S. and Somalia, according to a King County Sheriff’s deputy report, and said they should stay calm because she could have a bomb or gun on her. She called them cowards — at least one student said she called them “white cowards” — when they tried to escape.

Gardheere had no such weapons. She didn’t even have her wallet that morning, she told the Courier-Herald recently. Sleep-deprived, struggling with postpartum depression and processing a traumatic trip overseas, Gardheere broke down that morning and did what she thought would put her in jail, where she thought she’d be safe. She held the bus up for about 13 minutes before a deputy arrested her.

Local media reported on the incident at the time. But in deciding this year to run for Position 9 on the Metropolitan King County Council, which includes the Enumclaw Plateau, Gardheere considered it would come up again.

“Before I decided running, I knew something like this would happen,” Gardheere said. “It’s something that’s out there, that happened in a public way.”

She was right. On June 10, an article published in online Canadian news magazine The Post Millennial detailed the incident. Fox News published its own article the following day as the story caught national attention.

Critics raised more than a few concerns: Is someone who terrified and threatened kids with talk of a bomb or gun fit for public office? Did her statements belie racist bias or resentment for the U.S.? And what does she think of her actions now?

Gardheere is currently the equitable development division director at the City of Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD). (The OPCD declined to comment on their perspective or knowledge of her 2010 incident and said they do not comment on personnel files.)

Gardheere said she’s processed what happened that day in therapy. She pleaded guilty and served time in jail over it.

Her words that day don’t represent her beliefs, Gardheere said — they were the ramblings of someone in crisis trying to say whatever they could to be taken to a jail.

In an interview with the Courier-Herald, Gardheere said she’s only human and can’t promise she won’t ever have a breakdown again. But she said she’s developed tools to stop things from boiling over like they did in 2010. And the revival of the controversy has only energized her campaign for office, she said.

“I have gone through so much healing and surrounded myself with people who have … gone through that and come out on the other side, too,” Gardheere said. “I’m not going to say like any other politician, ‘I’m going to make sure this never happens again.’ Because I don’t know. It’s a health crisis. Are you going to tell folks that you’re never, ever, going to have a heart attack?”

A terrifying ordeal

Police reports from the Jan. 12, 2010, incident paint a disturbing and chaotic scene. Surveillance footage of the incident shared by Seattle talk radio host and journalist Ari Hoffman, author of the June 10 article, corroborates much of the law enforcement account.

According to a probable cause document by the King County Sheriff’s Office, Gardheere around 7:30 a.m. boarded a school bus, bound for Chinook Middle School, after it had stopped to allow students to board.

Gardheere told the driver to call his dispatcher and report a “national security incident” and said she wouldn’t leave the bus until police came, according to the footage. She raised her voice and began talking about the U.S. – Somalia relationship to the children on board, some of whom yelled back at her to leave. The detective wrote that “more than one student reported her saying that Americans were bad people.”

Prosecutors wrote in a bail request at the time that Gardheere told fleeing students “they would be responsible if something happened to their classmates.”

In audio recordings from the bus, Gardheere told the children: “You need to calm yourselves down ‘cause I could have a bomb. Look how loose my clothes are,” and that she could also have a gun. She told the children to call their parents, the detective said.

Some students at the back of the bus opened an emergency exit and jumped out of the bus. Gardheere then ordered the students to shut the door and called them “cowards,” the detective wrote, with at least one student reporting they were called “white cowards.”

The entire incident lasted around 13 minutes. Around 7:41 a.m., a deputy arrived and took her off the bus. Her last words in the recording — spoken to the students as she walks off the bus — aren’t completely audible, but appear to be “Sorry. I apologize.”

Gardheere initially faced felony charges, but ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor harassment.

When she boarded the bus, Gardheere said, she was in the middle of a mental breakdown, having gone a week without getting any decent sleep prior to that morning, and she said she can’t recall much of what she said or did during the incident.

Gardheere knows her thought process at the time “(did) not make sense,” and said she was not proud of herself after returning to her senses.

“I left the house that morning — my mind blank, or whatever it was — after not sleeping for a long time,” Gardheere said. “And just walked to the bus stop … in my mind trying to figure out a place where I could be safe, which is crazy.”

That place, she figured at the time, was in a jail. It was an irrational and self-destructive plan, but it worked. Gardheere spent two or three days after the incident in jail, she said.

Gardheere told the Seattle Weekly in 2010 that she’d been hospitalized for mental illness, including postpartum depression, after giving birth to her oldest son three years prior.

Her mental state worsened after a traumatizing incident during a visit to Dubai in 2008, and while trying to report the incident, she said she was beaten up by police.

“I’m thinking in my head, ‘what can I say or do that will get you taken to jail instead of a mental institute?’” Gardheere told Seattle Weekly in 2010.

Something that Monday finally snapped, she said, and she experienced a break from her own rational decision-making.

“Breakdown, crisis, whatever it was — normally how I describe it to folks is: It’s like I’m watching myself, watching this person saying stuff,” Gardheere told the Courier-Herald.

Renewed scrutiny

Gardheere has faced criticism in part over how she’s characterized the incident. She told the Seattle Weekly and the Courier-Herald that she’d sought jail out in the first place.

But Gardheere said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald in June 2021 that she’d been “criminalized” for her breakdown and went on to criticize more generally the “failed strategies” used in policing and incarceration in the United States.

“When people have mental health breakdowns … they should not go to jail,” Gardheere said. “There should be other places where people are taken to and helped. That’s what I meant by that. I think our criminal justice system disproportionately impacts people that look like me, and my kids. I’m not saying this to excuse what, knowingly or unknowingly, I did that day. But I pleaded guilty. I took responsibility for it. I did community service, paid the fines.”

On the day the Fox News story ran, Gardheere woke up to a swarm of activity on her social media accounts. She had plans in Tacoma with her family that morning, so she removed Twitter from her phone, checked in with a campaign consultant and went on with her day.

Her campaign team was concerned for Gardheere’s safety, but Gardheere initially felt the vitriol was simply a “distraction” from her campaign fueled by right-wing media.

Her attitude changed when one of those callers got through to her daughter, who was playing with Gardheere’s phone, and started screaming at the girl. Gardheere met with her team afterward to set out a safety plan and took her children to stay with her mom for a weekend.

“Send that terrorist n——r back to her f——-g country in a plastic bag,” one caller said in a voicemail she shared with the Courier-Herald.

Gardheere said at one point, she was “pissed off” by how she, a Black Muslim woman, was painted as radical and un-American.

“I’ve been here for 25 years,” Gardheere said. “I went to high school here. … You don’t get to paint me as un-American. I’m as American as anyone in this country, anybody in this race, anybody in this city, this district.”

But how does that square with her comments about “white cowards” and ranting about the U.S.? Gardheere said her statements that day don’t reveal any internal bias or hatred.

“I said a lot of stuff,” Gardheere said. “(I might tell) my husband ‘You’re an idiot.’ Does that mean that I believe he was an idiot? … You’re having a breakdown, and you don’t know where it came from. I do not have any bias toward any race, religion, group of people.”

And she doesn’t hate America, Gardheere said.

“America is one of the only places that has been my home,” she said. “I’ve lived here 25 years. I got an amazing education. My children were born here … and honestly, I believe I’m more American than I am Somali. When I go there … they will tell me ‘You’re talking like an American.’”

Gardheere added that her family, friends, and the people she goes camping with are “white, Asian, every color.”

More than a decade later, Gardheere, unsurprisingly, doesn’t like revisiting that January 2010 day. But she said it’s been necessary for her to heal, process her own trauma and better understand the mental health crises that others go through.

“I have to go there with my therapist,” Gardheere said. “I had to go there with my lawyer. … We’re all a work in progress. You have to be better than the person you were yesterday.”

Voters may still be concerned about whether, given her actions that day, Gardheere is a good fit for office. Along with working through the internal pain that caused her breakdown, Gardheere said she’s also built personal strength and a system to prevent another crisis.

“For me, it’s recognizing those signs,” Gardheere said. “The first phone call I make when I don’t sleep for 48 hours is my doctor … and (I’m) surrounding myself with amazing, supportive folks. … I became a single mom in August 2011. Ten years, I’ve not only been raising three kids by myself, but I’ve been really impacting systems in a huge way.”

Her mom is one of those supportive folks — someone she can count on to take care of the kids for a day or two if Gardheere, stressed by work and pandemic isolation, needs time for herself. And she said she takes solace in meditation, her faith and therapy, which she said will be a continuous process.

Race for the 9th District

Rather than discourage her, the 2010 incident and Gardheere’s journey in bolstering her mental health contributed to her decision to run for King County Council, she said.

Gardheere has seen close friends die by suicide after suffering isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. “As a country, and as a state, and as a county, we are collectively struggling” from a lack of housing, economic mobility and other struggles that are front-and-center in the council race, she said, and that puts pressure on each person’s mental health.

Gardheere faces three other candidates in the race for the District 9 seat on the King County Metropolitan Council, which covers parts of Bellevue, Kent, Renton, and all of Newcastle, Maple Valley, Covington, Black Diamond and Enumclaw, as well as a large amount of unincorporated southeast King County. Gardheere is confident in her campaign and talks about “when I win,” not “if I win.”

But she faces an uphill battle in the race — and advancing past the primary will surely put more of a spotlight on her.

District 9 is one of the most conservative districts in the county, and four-term Republican incumbent Reagan Dunn has won each of his elections by 15 or more percentage points. Gardheere has also raised the least campaign contributions of the candidates, according to state Public Disclosure Commission filings.

Dunn said that, serious as Gardheere’s actions were that day, she deserves compassion.

“The children on the bus were terrified, but it was also a long time ago, and I think we need to have compassion for people that suffer from any kind of behavioral health challenge,” Dunn said. “That is why I think it’s important that it be taken in the context of something that happened 11 years ago. We should be looking at what’s happened in the intervening years. I think she still has the opportunity to use her voice to advocate for those who suffer from postpartum depression.”

Dunn said he sees a connection between Gardheere’s breakdown and his own well-publicized 2014 DUI that landed him on the front page of the local section of The Seattle Times. Dunn, who had his last drink in 2017, has sought to use his public battle with alcoholism to educate and share resources with others, like in a conference on addiction disorders he organized last April.

“I’ve seen people make mistakes in their life … and for me, a recovering alcoholic, with years of sobriety, I have developed an enormous compassion for those who have behavioral health challenges,” Dunn said. “I just don’t believe that you can judge somebody based on something that happened in the past and something that they’re working on. I’m just not going to go down the road of attacking somebody for one of these one-off or two-off situations.”