Category: Opinion

Nonviolent Protests at Officials’ Houses Are Protected Speech. Political Leaders Want to Shut Them Down.

“Pyrotechnic explosives” recovered by police executing a search warrant after recent protests

Elected officials and the police chief of Seattle, who holds the most powerful unelected position in city government, have come together in opposition to a form of behavior that all agree is inexcusable, reprehensible, and violates “every democratic principle that guides our nation.”

No, I’m not talking about teargassing and shooting rubber bullets into the bodies of protesters, or the fact that the budget for the police department dwarfs that for human and social services. I’m referring to the fact that protesters are showing up at officials’ homes—specifically, the homes of most city council members, the mayor, the county executive, and Police Chief Carmen Best—to demonstrate for police defunding and against police violence, including the violence against protesters that helped spur the current protest movement.

Over the last few weeks, the mayor, council members, and their surrogates have suggested repeatedly that protesting outside these officials’ houses, in and of itself, is a violent act that exists beyond the bounds of “decency” and civility. They have maintained, further, that spray-painting the street in front of people’s homes—an act that has recent local precedent at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, where slogans briefly filled pavement and walls in a neighborhood where hundreds of people live—is an act of violence. (The fact that people in the CHOP area live in apartments, as opposed to the officials who own one or more houses, speaks volumes about which Seattle residents these officials believe have a right to peace and quiet in their homes.)

This weekend, the Seattle Times also condemned the protests, saying that “nighttime marches to council members” are not a legitimate form protest but a form of “bullying” and “intimidating” that is “downright Trumpian.”

To give just one example: A recent email from the Neighborhoods for Safe Streets PAC, which was originally formed in opposition to bike lanes on 35th Ave. NE, suggested that protesters who left “‘defund the police’ literature” at Juarez’s doorstep were “trespassing” and engaging in “illegal intimidation tactics.” (For the record, leaving campaign or other political literature at people’s doors is very common, especially during elections, and is not illegal.)

This weekend, the Seattle Times also condemned the protests, saying that “nighttime marches to council members” are not a legitimate form protest but a form of “bullying” and “intimidating” that is “downright Trumpian.”

And just yesterday, police Chief Carmen Best applauded residents of rural Snohomish, some of them reportedly armed, for blockading roads with pickup trucks and prohibiting protesters from walking down public streets toward “a residence” she owns in the town.

“My neighbors were concerned by such a large group, but they were successful in ensuring the crowd was not able to trespass or engage in other illegal behavior in the area, despite repeated attempts to do so,” Best wrote in a letter demanding that the city council denounce the protests. “These direct actions against elected officials, and especially civil servants like myself, are out of line with and go against every democratic principle that guides our nation.” Best’s letter concluded by accusing protesters of “engaging in violence and intimidation.”

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In fact, the practice of protesting at powerful elected and unelected officials’ homes has a very long tradition in the United States, going back at least to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The principle behind protests of this kind over the decades has been that people feel unable to access their leaders through “ordinary” means, such as requesting meetings and showing up at City Hall, so they take the protest to their houses.

In Seattle, the tradition of protesting outside leaders’ homes has recent precedent in the SHARE/WHEEL protests of 2009, when activists demanding funds for bus tickets camped overnight at city council members’ houses, in 2012 when homeless advocates showed up at then-mayor Mike McGinn’s house, and in 2016 when Black Lives Matter protesters set up shop outside former mayor Ed Murray’s house to protest his support for a new youth jail.

Then as now, some officials—including then-council member Bruce Harrell—came out to talk to the protesters and listen to their concerns, an act that defused the situation considerably, since, again, one motivation for showing up at people’s houses is frustration at not feeling heard.

Today, protests at elected leaders’ homes aren’t just normalized—they’re typical. As much as Seattle likes to see itself as unique in both our political progressiveness and our collective response to injustice, protesters are gathering outside the homes of local officials in cities across the country—from St. Petersburg, FL to New York to San Francisco. To watch these protests is to watch a norm shifting in real time: Standing outside elected officials’ houses and waving signs or painting on the street was a phenomenon that wasn’t all that common—until now, when it very much is. Continue reading “Nonviolent Protests at Officials’ Houses Are Protected Speech. Political Leaders Want to Shut Them Down.”

Durkan Praises Police As Tear Gas Engulfs City

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.”

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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. Continue reading “Durkan Praises Police As Tear Gas Engulfs City”

Seattle’s Public Restroom Crisis: Many “Comfort Stations That Remain Open” Are Closed

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is big into numbers—numbers that show continual improvement, numbers that get bigger (or smaller, if the number is the number of homeless people counted on one night in January), numbers that show that the city acts on the basis of data, not assumptions. The numbers out of the city, under the Durkan administration, bring to mind a graph that only goes up. The mayor has tried to maintain this aura of constant progress even during the COVID epidemic, a time when thousands of homeless people in Seattle are still crammed into congregate shelters (many of them overcrowded) or living in tents in the forest, hoping not to be noticed.

Last week, for example, the mayor’s office claimed that there were 180 public restrooms in the city—a number the mayor’s office later amended to 133, then “more than 128 Seattle Parks comfort stations that remain open for hygiene needs.” Because every previous map produced by the city showed fewer than 100 public restrooms in city parks and community centers combined, I was skeptical about the new numbers and asked for a list. The mayor’s office provided a spreadsheet, and I started checking.

I started by eliminating the redundancies—parks with multiple restrooms, for example, that were previously counted as single restroom sites but that the mayor’s office is now counting two, three, or five times, such as Judkins, Woodland, and Seward Parks.  Removing these “extra” facilities and restoring the city’s previous standard lowers the total number to around 100.

But that doesn’t account for the fact that despite the city’s insistence that all of these restrooms “remain open” to the public, many of them are actually locked or sit, inaccessible, behind construction fencing. Of 27 of the locations on the city’s list (chosen by their geographic proximity rather than any characteristic common to the facilities), eight that I visited personally were closed. Those included restrooms in fairly large urban parks (Cal Anderson); restrooms serving play fields and playgrounds (Brighton Playfield; Madrona Playground); and smaller neighborhood parks (Dr. Blanche Lavizzo). Extrapolating to the rest of the city, it seems likely that far fewer than the 85 or so restrooms the city claimed prior to the COVID epidemic are actually open to the public.

The mayor engaged in a similar sleight of hand with homeless shelters last week, when she claimed that the city and county had opened 1,900 new “temporary housing” spots for “people experiencing homelessness.” I covered this magic trick already—in short, it involves counting existing shelter beds that have been relocated as “new”, counting beds in field hospitals and COVID isolation tents as “temporary housing,” and ignoring any shelter beds that have been lost as some smaller shelters close down—but I want to linger for a moment on why these faulty numbers matter.

It isn’t just that the mayor’s cheerful press releases—the graphs with lines that only go up—paint an inaccurately rosy picture of what’s happening to homeless and unstably housed people during the pandemic. It’s also that the numbers obscure the fact that the city has promised just 95 actual new shelter beds (none of which are “housing”), all of them announced back in early March.  In this way, the displacement of 85 people from the Harborview Hall shelter to make way for a 45-bed COVID recovery site becomes 130 new “temporary housing” units that are counted as part of the 1,900 total.The mayor’s graphs only go up, and her calculator only has a “plus” sign.

The mayor’s office doesn’t just play fast and loose with numbers. They also use words to mislead and obfuscate. Take, for example, the word “options”—as in, “1,900 New Temporary Housing Options,” from the headline of last week’s press release. Field hospitals, emergency isolation tents in suburban parking lots, and shelter beds relocated from downtown Seattle to the King County Airport are not “options.” They are desperate measures appropriate to an increasingly desperate time.

I get the political impulse to “look on the bright side,” create cutesy hashtags and encourage people to meaninglessly bang pots and pans to show their appreciation for the health care workers left vulnerable and unprotected by federal failures to provide protective equipment and tests  But no one would blame the mayor if she provided an honest assessment of the crisis in Seattle, shorn of platitudes and flowery appeals to the Seattle spirit. Some voters might even applaud her for it.