I wanted to write about a lot of other things tonight—the council meeting to discuss potential changes to the proposed employee hours tax, a heated council committee discussion about the downtown bus tunnel, a meeting tonight where Democratic Party members ousted former King County Democrats chair Bailey Stober from yet another position and endorsed his opponent —but instead, I’m writing about this:
What I witnessed in Ballard tonight, at what was supposed to be a panel discussion, with a moderated Q&A, on a proposed business tax to pay for homeless services, was not just a crowd of angry neighbors wanting to be heard by their elected representatives. It was an organized mob that showed up with a single goal: To shut down dialogue, create chaos, and prevent people with opposing views from having a voice. The Two Hours Hate began before the meeting even began, as audience members tried to shout town the Rev. Kathleen Weber—pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, where the event was held—during her introductory remarks. (The gist was that people should try to be respectful, a request the crowd ignored even as she was making it.) It got worse when the panel, which included three members of the city’s Progressive Revenue Task force and four city council members—tried to stick to the announced format, a moderated panel with written questions from the audience. “O-PEN MIC! O-PEN MIC!” the crowd screamed in unison—a wall-to-wall, full-volume chant that bore an eerie similarity to a phrase often shouted by Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign.
(I recorded and posted a snippet of last night’s meeting here—in it, audience members can be heard attempting to shout down council member Mike O’Brien and then loudly mocking progressive revenue task force member Kirsten Harris-Talley when she mentioned that she, like many of them, had been up since 6am getting her kid to school and working her job before coming to the meeting.)
The mob got its way—it’s hard to imagine what they would have done if they hadn’t, or if any member of the panel had decided to leave the stage—and the forum, which was to have included questions and answers from the seven panel members, turned into the one-way shoutfest the audience apparently came for.
“We’re entitled to have a house!” one man screamed from the audience. “Free from drugs!” he added. “FUCK YOU!” another shouted in the panel’s direction. Others chimed in, from around the room: “BULLSHIT!” “BULLSHIT!” And, memorably, “BULLSHIT!” “We didn’t come here to talk about taxes!” someone yelled. “RESIGN NOW!” several others screamed, as a homeless woman tried to speak. “Let’s have a highly publicized event where we round up some of them,” a speaker said, referring to homeless people struggling with mental illness and addiction.
When the crowd wasn’t hurling invectives at the panel or cheering Alex Tsimerman, the omnipresent Nazi salute-throwing public commenter who is routinely kicked out of meetings for spewing obscenities, they were screaming the same short phrases over and over, like toddlers who didn’t want to take a nap. “NOOOOOOOOO!” they yelled. “RESIGN!” they bellowed .”SHUT UP!” they screamed, when the panel asked if they would like information about the tax proposal or the rationale behind it. They didn’t come to learn. They came to howl.
Perhaps that’s why so many of them seemed so ill-acquainted with basic facts. When Katie Wilson, head of the Transit Riders Union and a tax panel member, observed that “the shortage of affordable housing is a major driver of homelessness,” people in the crowd shouted “NOT TRUE!” When a homeless woman stood up to speak, a man behind her yelled, “Stand up and speak, coward!” A man claimed that when he calls 911 to report a crime, the “police” on the other end tell him their hands are tied and they can’t respond. A woman said the city council has prevented police from investigating rapes by homeless people. A speaker who supported the tax pointed out that, contrary to what several speakers before him had claimed, the proposal involved a tax on businesses, not individuals. “LIES!” several people screamed. A speaker said he owned a home in Ballard and supported the tax. “SHILL!” “PLANT!” “PHONY!” the crowd roared.
By the time the forum ended at 8:00, the screaming had died down a bit. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the presence of real hate—a kind of hate I’ve never felt at a public meeting in Seattle before. When I sat down at the start of the meeting, the guy behind me grinned, “Those cops outside had better get in here quick, because there’s gonna be action,” I smiled politely because I thought he was joking. It was only later, when he was screaming into my ears so loudly that I asked him to calm down (and when he snarled, with a look of pure rage, “If you don’t like it , you can leave!”) that it dawned on me that he might be hoping for a riot. At the end of the meeting, I asked a male colleague to walk me out; I was shaking. I walked down the street, past the bottles of piss and the giant junk structure had left on the grass to make a point about how homeless people are “trashing” the city with their presence. Then I got in the car and cried.
After I got home, I checked my Twitter notifications and found that plenty of people were eager to inform me that this was what democracy looks like—a mass of humanity screaming in unison, with the goal of making sure other voices are literally drowned out—and that if I didn’t like it, I just needed to grow up. I disagree. I maintain—in fact, I know—that there are ways to express strongly held opinions without terrorizing or demonizing those who happen to hold opposing views, turning meetings over to the control of whoever screams the loudest, or dehumanizing people who are suffering by suggesting they be “rounded up.”. The fact that we have gotten to this point in Seattle makes my heart hurt. It should make everybody’s heart hurt. I would love to blame what happened tonight on a crowd of carpetbaggers whipped into a frenzy by a mendacious right-wing provocateur like Dori Monson, but the behavior I saw tonight must be laid squarely at Seattle’s feet. And Seattle won’t begin to solve its problems with homelessness, inequality, and all the other issues the city is struggling to address unless we can figure out a way to speak to each other without shouting each other down.
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