The lens of crisis shifts so quickly now that it can be hard to keep everything in our heads at once. Last week, the city held a five-and-a-half-hour hearing on the injustice of our city’s policy toward its homeless residents, which includes pushing them from place to place if they do not “accept” a specific shelter bed on a specific day—a one-size-fits-all policy that is especially inept at responding to the conditions of vulnerable people in the middle of a nationwide public health crisis.
Over the weekend and today, and almost certainly tomorrow and the rest of the week as well, the city and nation have focused our attention on another crisis that, like the criminalization of homelessness, has racism and dehumanization at its core: Police violence against black and brown Americans.
The cameras don’t look away, even when political leaders do.
The protests against the murder of George Floyd are multifaceted and raise real questions about whether cities have the right to dictate the “proper” way to protest, as well as legitimate concerns that a movement for justice (“peaceful,” as that term is defined by law enforcement, or not) has been hijacked by outside forces on the right or left. But they also may be an inflection point (it seems far too optimistic to talk of turning points) in the debate over the role of police in Seattle and other cities, and to what extent cities should allow police to act with impunity, and unquestioned, for behavior that any rational person would consider unreasonable: Putting a knee on a young man’s neck, or spraying mace indiscriminately into a mostly peaceful crowd, or covering up badge numbers with rubber tape on the grounds that it is an inviolable “tradition.”
This weekend, the city described young white men showing up in Seattle from elsewhere bent on sowing “chaos” and destruction, using projectiles, Molotov cocktails, and “frozen water bottles” to attack police. By today, those young men had morphed into “thousands of people out there with nothing but ill intent,” as Best put it, and their weapons had evolved into huge backpacks full of the aforementioned projectiles along with rocks, “urine, and feces.”
This afternoon, Mayor Jenny Durkan and her police chief, Carmen Best (and fire chief Harold Scoggins, who always looks and sounds like he knows he isn’t going to be quoted at these things) stood up and intoned the same lines they have been reciting all weekend, repeated with a bit more fervor and flourish. A protest by “peaceful people” of color and allies got hijacked by outside forces, “young white men,” probably right-wing or perhaps left-wing, “bent on destruction and chaos,” with “nothing but ill intent” in their hearts. (The phrase “ill intent” was repeated so often that it started to sound more like a mantra than a talking point.) The nightly curfews, initially imposed with less than 15 minutes’ notice, are meant to “take the lawful people off the street” and are necessary, night after night, to “protect public health and safety.” Looting, rioting, fighting back when police throw tear gas canisters and flash bangs indiscriminately into crowds: “This is not what people trying to express their opinions do,” Best said. “This is what criminals do. So we have to differentiate between the two.”
As the protests have stretched into their second week, the rhetoric from the mayor’s office and the police department has grown more pitched and baroque. This weekend, the city described young white men showing up in Seattle from elsewhere bent on sowing “chaos” and destruction, using projectiles, Molotov cocktails, and “frozen water bottles” to attack police. By today, those young men had morphed into “thousands of people out there with nothing but ill intent,” as Best put it, and their weapons had evolved into huge backpacks full of the aforementioned projectiles along with rocks, “urine, and feces.”
Mourning bands, black bands that many officers placed over their badge numbers, making them harder to identify, had evolved from something people might not be aware of (“Google it,” Durkan said this weekend, helpfully spelling it out: “M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G bands”) to a tradition so hallowed and ingrained that it was actually offensive for the public to suggest that concealing badge numbers during a protest about police accountability might send the wrong message. Durkan, exasperated, insisted, “There was no attempt by anyone to cover badge numbers” and called the very existence of badge numbers on officers’ badges “a fallback and in some ways an unnecessary redundancy” to the first-initial, last name identification on officers’ name tags.
Herbold, who heads up the council’s public safety committee, was hardly the only council member who raised concerns about the behavior of police this week, or who will be demanding answers from the mayor and police chief about why police acted with such apparent indiscretion during protests against police violence. (One reasonable answer might be that they felt empowered to do so.)
Durkan even expressed surprise when a reporter asked about reports (described, videotaped and posted on social media by hundreds of witnesses for anyone to see) that officers had fired tear gas, flash grenades, and pepper spray indiscriminately into crowds that were mostly peaceful, saying that she would follow up with city council member Lisa Herbold, who had spoken earlier in the day about witnessing many such instances herself over the weekend. “I don’t know the facts of the case that she’s indicating… but we’ll reach out to the council member to find out what she’s concerned about,” Durkan said.
Herbold, who heads up the council’s public safety committee, was hardly the only council member who raised concerns about the behavior of police this week, or who will be demanding answers from the mayor and police chief about why police acted with such apparent indiscretion during protests against police violence. (One reasonable answer might be that they felt empowered to do so.) Council president Lorena González became emotional during this morning’s council meeting as she talked about the protests, tearing up not over looting and destruction at chain stores downtown, as Durkan did over the weekend (“It was not a downtown I recognized,” she said) but over Floyd’s murder and the ongoing and systematic state violence against black and brown people. “I’m tired,” her colleague Tammy Morales said, adding that it was time to withdraw the motion to lift consent decree and restore police accountability requirements that were eliminated in the most recent police contract. And Herbold said it was time to “revise city law” so that officers could not use “tradition” as an excuse to obscure their identities.
Before I wrote this tonight, I walked through the city, right around the curfew hour of 6pm. The streets on the south end of downtown had emptied out. I watched employees from the Seattle Parks Department finish boarding up businesses in the Chinatown International District, walked through the many homeless encampments that had reassembled after the city’s Navigation Team, supplemented by large numbers of police from the West Precinct, forced people to leave the places where they had been sleeping. I came to a barricade that police had set up along just one block to protect City Hall and Seattle Police headquarters and turned around.
Later in the evening, there were more reports of police violence, more videos showing in clear and unrelenting detail the actions of officers who did not shout out warnings or attempt to deescalate before firing tear gas and flash grenades into a crowd, and unloading cans of pepper spray into any face in range. The cameras don’t look away, even when leaders do.
Earlier this year, Mayor Durkan said that SPD had “transformed itself” into “a national leader in policing and de-escalation with a commitment to true and lasting reform,” Today, Mayor Durkan told the press, “Everyone in the city should have a lot of pride in [SPD’s] work.” I wonder if she would express the same sentiments if she had witnessed the violence committed by police officers over the past few days firsthand, on the ground instead of on screens inside a heavily protected operations center where no tear gas could penetrate.