It was first with confusion, and then with great disappointment that I was informed by a passenger as to why there were squads of riot police all around us on Capitol Hill. White supremacy? Here? Why am I being told of flyers describing in lurid detail what these guys hope to do to all gays, blacks and otherwise who cross their path?
There's a memo that hasn't gone out, I thought at the time. The memo is, we're in Seattle, in the 21st century, the fastest growing, most educated city in the United States. I misunderstood my passenger at first. Surely she meant a group protesting white supremacists, not skinheads themselves. There couldn't possibly be something that antiquated in a city as progressive, as forward-thinking, as European as ours. We're supposed to be bickering over lattes about rent control and transit infrastructure, not cowering from the hateful spectre of ignorance. Small wonder these guys don't live in the greater Metro area; you can't be that nescient growing up in a dense urban environment living amongst the multitudes. You don't have neo-nazi rallies in Times Square or Sunset Boulevard. It doesn't work like that.
My mind wandered to the recent May Day protests, which took place on these same streets. At the time, the crowd surrounded our bus and we inside got an intimate eyeful of the rabid hordes swimming past. What I remember most vividly were the police. Behind their billy clubs and tear gas pellets I could see their faces.
They were absolutely terrified.
That's a hell of a job, I thought, back in the present, driving past a squadron of cops of all colors. If any one of these guys is killed tonight by skinheads, it will be the same magnitude of tragedy as the racially profiled killings we've sadly become accustomed to. The loss of any person, for the sake of ideology.... When the Dalai Lama visited Seattle in 2008, he said war, as a form of problem solving, was out of date. Hate is similarly antiquated as a way of conceptualizing others. It ignores the bare fact of our commonalities. At the end of the day, we all want about the same for ourselves and our loved ones.
"So what was that protest all about?" asked a middle-aged street man with stringy hair. He and I were helping strap in a wheelchair-bound passenger on my last run; just us three strangers on the bus at this late hour. The chaos had died away.
"It was some white-supremacy thing."
"Yeah, not that many guys though. There was more, a whole bunch more, way more anti-white-supremacy people. Which is good."
"Depends who you talk to," he said.
Oh dear, I thought. "I guess," I said.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm no white supremacist. But I do have blonde hair,"
"-and blue eyes,"
"Oh, that's fine!"
"-and I was raised Irish and German,"
"That's perfectly, that's great!"
"I can't help that." Which is the whole thing in a nutshell. Nor can anyone of any color.
"But sometimes in prison you gotta stick by who has the power. And in prison often it's those guys." You could hear the experience talking in his voice, and also the guilt.
"Exactly," he said.
"Yeah, there was a lot of talk about it, but I guess it turned out to be just a couple dozen of them, compared to like six hundred anti-hate people who showed up."
"Says a good thing about our city."
"Yeah. That's not us. I think we care too much about each other. No space for hate out here."
I had similar conversations throughout the night. Two friends shared they had participated in the rally because they wanted to address this now, and "don't want it to escalate." Others were incredulous that such a thing would be happening in the first place. There was a pleasing unity to these sentiments, a lack of ambiguity which hearkened back to the days of Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation. We were united against a common front. Today's world is generally too complex for such black-and-white delineations, but the villainy of white supremacy borders on the cartoonish. What were we going to do, consider the grey areas on this? There are no grey areas. For once in our lives, a highly undemocratic, totally intolerant attitude towards a group of people actually felt appropriate. Aggression in the name of hate has no place here or anywhere.
Paris has for me infused events like this with a sense of urgency. I was going to post the above the day after the event, only to learn in doing some followup research that there was no white supremacist element in Seattle that night.
I was mulling this over when my good friend Celia materialized as if by magic on my bus, as she often does. We have a tendency to read each other's minds. She was the one who brought it up.
"Hey. Did you hear about the protest on Capitol HIll last night?"
"The white-supremacy thing, yeah, I was driving through there when it was happening."
"Actually I was going to, I wrote this big thing to put on the blog about it, but then I found out, did you know this, I read that there actually were no skinheads on the Hill last night?"
"It was just the anti-hate people. Which is I mean it's good. Obviously. But I wrote my thing thinking that there were skinheads everywhere, so my writeup was way more intense than it needed to be!"
"Oh, you were like,"
"Yeah, oh my gosh the world's ending type of thing. What did you, I wanna know what you thought of it." She's very passionate on subjects like these, and well-informed.
"I thought it was... I thought it was good that the different groups were coming together to, as one voice,"
"A united front," I said. I love that phrase.
"Yeah. Being really strong against the white supremacy. But. It could have been this great opportunity to show that the different groups can work together and make bigger change happen. But then when they started breaking windows, or tagging the Walgreens, I thought it kind got out of hand."
"Started to defeat its own purpose. It's like, why are the anti-hate people breaking things?"
"Yeah! It didn't make no sense!"
"I thought so too. I agree. Because I thought yeah, it's good that there was this strong response against it, that the groups were able to quickly organize and make a strong statement, instead of the whole laid-back laissez-faire Seattle we're not gonna do anything about it thing,"
"That part of it was great, but when they started vandalizing stuff, like you say. I was going to write about how awesome they were, coming together and representing a peaceful but strong voice, but now I can't!" Not when they were vandalizing Walgreens (um, not a white supremacist entity) or tagging KIRO7 vans as "antisemitic" (not accurate, guys).
Which doesn't mean the mobilization wasn't impressive. It was so significant that the opposition didn't even show; which is to say, it achieved its purpose. At the end of the day, the hypothetical memo I mention above apparently did go out. We are in Seattle, and Seattle has room for all sorts of attitudes... except one.
I dearly wish I could end this writeup there, and share it as a success story of sorts. But the truth is we're not living in Brokaw's world anymore. Things are more complicated than that.
The events above took place on the night of the 6th, Sunday. At 3pm of the 5th, sixteen-year old Hamza Warsame, a Running Start student at Seattle Central College, Somali and Muslim, was killed. His body was found at a building on Summit Avenue he'd never been to before, and was last seen an hour before his death by friends, on his way to study. Those who knew him state emphatically that suicide is absurd as an explanation. He was last seen with another student, who happened to be white.
Maybe I need to retract my compliment above of Seattle as a European city. Why did no one besides Hamza's kith call for a response and investigation? Why was there no immediate message to the public regarding this incident made by Seattle Central, nor Seattle Police, nor even a single news outlet? I think we can guess the sort of furor this would cause in the publications and streets of Paris and any other number of cities.
There is such a thing as a "fair-weather protester." They get in line for the easy stuff, the stuff that looks good, is easy to understand. My friend summed up this side of mainstream Seattle activist culture with the line, "[it's as if they're thinking yes,] I'll show up to fuck up a Hammerskins demo, but I might not… put my body on the line in cases of extreme covert racism, workplace discrimination, bigoted crimes, the construction of a new youth jail." Those require more informed and nuanced stances. They require contextual knowledge and an understanding of multiple sides of the issues and their ramifications. You have to sit around reading books and news articles or have long level-headed conversations with people. That's legwork. Not the same thing as running out the door to get those nazis– though both approaches have their merits.
Who showed up for Hamza on Sunday? Who mentioned him, who mourned him while the sound and fury took place, while cameras flashed and Walgreens' were tagged, in the very neighborhood he died, not more than a day after?
No one, that's who.
I include myself here, as I was as uninformed as anyone else.
Statement from Hamza's family.
Justice4Hamza event details.
UPDATE: Multiple rallies have now taken place regarding Hamza, including an enormous one on the night of the 10th, and an SPD investigation is underway. That's more like the Seattle I meet, greet, and fare well to a thousand times over each night. It is a good city to be part of. Forget all my rambling. This entire post could be boiled into one sentence:
The wheels of understanding and good works may turn slowly, but oh, how inexorably!