The Times and P-I are already doing an excellent job reporting on the senseless death of Rainier Beach traffic-circle gardener James Paroline, who died this week after an irate motorist punched him to the pavement for briefly blocking part of a residential intersection with his garden hose and traffic cones. I’m guessing every editorialist in town--Connelly, Westneat, Jamieson, Berger on Crosscut--is already preparing a column on the tragedy. I’m also guessing the doo-rag-wearing assailant will soon be apprehended, and I’ll just speculate that cell phones and text messaging will probably be his undoing. Then will follow the trial, and probably national mention in the NYT with a “road rage” sub-headline.
Will the story stop there? Probably not. I think Paroline will become Seattle’s Kitty Genovese. Who was she? Keep reading…Back in 1964, Genovese was a young woman slain in a Queens, NYC street despite her screams for help. No one came to her assistance, despite many hearing her cries. And as that decade wore on, as national crime rates rose, she became an emblem for law and disorder. The rightward tack the country took after 1968’s political violence, the Nixon-Reagan-Bush reaction against supposedly lawless liberalism, makes her case an early bellwether of the changing national mood.
National crime rates today are comparatively low, and Seattle’s even lower. But Paroline is a martyr of sorts to a new conflict: That between citizens and cars. With traffic pressures, gas prices, and land values all peaking at once, pedestrians and motorists all seem equally frazzled and angry. The question we increasingly face is, Who runs this town? Who has the right of way? Those in private vehicles, or those on foot, bike, or riding public transportation? And which way will Seattle go? As Genovese’s death once signaled a turn for the worse, Paroline’s killing is also pointing in a new direction. Only I’m not sure where.
Seattle and King County are pressing for more transit. We’ve got SoundTransit and light rail and streetcars and more Metro buses on order. Whatever happens with the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Evergreen Point Bridge, we’re likely to see more lanes and streets dedicated to transit, which will only make motorists--or at least some motorists--unhappy. Tim Eyman and others will argue by initiative and talk radio that motorists are being treated, yes, like second-class citizens. (Are automobiles mentioned in the Bible or Constitution? I’ll have to go back and check.)
One of the stunning, telling little details of the traffic-circle altercation is how one motorist called 911 rather than drive the other way--the wrong way? Does it matter?--around the island. He couldn’t turn right, and this was an emergency? And the next load of motorists was even more irate. They couldn’t go around, turn back, avoid the stupid cones and hose? Sure they could have, but motorists always have the right of way unless there’s a red light or a law or a stop sign or a cop in sight. (Or so some believe.)
And that, I think, will become the Paroline debate: Does might (that is, driving a vehicle weighing 3,000 pounds or more) give you that right? Walking downtown, who hasn’t found the crosswalk filled with bumpers, as cars edge ever closer to the green light? Or you look for the curb cut for your stroller, wheelchair, shopping cart, or bike (yes, legal on sidewalks), and find it blocked by a forward-nudging driver. In traffic, how many motorists yield or signal their turns? And how many hide behind tinted windows, so they don’t have to make eye contact with walkers, bikers, or fellow motorists? Then there's the new state law against driving while on a cell phone. And the notorious West Seattle incident in which Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz ran down city council aide Matthew “Tatsuo” Nakata. In a marked crosswalk.
Paroline isn’t a perfect test case. I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to be his neighbor, with him judging my yard and recycling practices. Living alone, it seems, he may have treated the traffic circle the private property it wasn’t. But neither do motorists own the streets. We the people do, whether we drive cars or not. And, in an increasingly congested city, that is a priority that I think now will be reasserted.