This city is known for the "Battle in Seattle," the chaotic WTO riots in 1999, but for the most part we're peaceful folks. So much so that after yesterday's announcement by King County prosecutors that Ian Birk would not face charges for the unprovoked shooting of John T. Williams, the frenzy in the streets yesterday peaked with just "heated yelling by protesters toward police in riot gear." What gives?
Last year, when a San Francisco Bay Area transit cop was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the streets of Oakland were filled with looters and mayhem. Los Angeles (and to a much lesser extent, Seattle) rioted after the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers, and countless championship victories by American sports teams have been followed by anarchy in the streets.
That really does raise the question: if Denver Broncos fans are up for a riot after the Super Bowl, why didn't a racially charged moment like the one yesterday provoke Seattleites? Admittedly, I don't have the answer, but here are a few ideas:
Rioting is not passive-aggressive. It's just plain ol' aggressive, and the average Seattle resident is anything but that. There were many, many angry people in the city yesterday, but a (relatively) peaceful protest was seemingly enough of an outlet for that anger. The most aggression I saw yesterday during the march down Third Avenue was a white kid with dreadlocks giving a cop on a bicycle the finger. That's Seattle for you. (The WTO, it's worth noting, was blamed on out-of-town anarchists who came to Seattle just for the occasion.)
photo by Keegan Hamilton A not-so-rowdy crowd protested the Ian Birk/John T. Williams shooting yesterday downtown.
The city has just a small minority population. The real outrage--and rightfully so--came from the city's Native American and African-American communities. They are the ones who've been getting their rights trampled on in incidents like the Birk/Williams shooting for decades, almost always with no accountability for the violators of those rights. Unfortunately, they account for only 10 percent, roughly, of the city's residents. Fortunately, unlike in many American cities, in Seattle they are not segregated into a single small neighborhood where violence could have easily erupted. Even when Seattleites rioted after the Rodney King verdict, the instigators were described as "angry mobs of mostly white youths."
The build-up was too gradual. It's been six months since Birk gunned down Williams on a Capitol Hill street corner, enough time for the city to ponder what happened and vent their fury to the mayor and police chief at community forums. And, as Curtis noted in his post yesterday, no one was really surprised that Birk escaped prosecution. Most everyone had steadied themselves for no prosecution.
There was no advertising. That may sound absurd, but a friend of mine who lived in Berkeley during the recent riots in Oakland described how thousands of police in riot gear were set up well before people gathered in the streets. More important, television helicopters hovered overhead, beaming live footage of the empty streets and expectant riot cops to TV sets around the Bay Area. Anybody watching at home who was looking for trouble knew exactly where to find it. There were quite a few cops yesterday in Westlake Center and a fair amount of media attention, but nothing like what my friend described in Oakland. In other words, there was no advertising for a riot.
Not enough liquor. The last time things got out of hand in Seattle was Mardi Gras in 2001, proving yet again that if you get enough shitfaced people together in a public place, a fistfight or two (or 50) will break out. That's a big part of why violence typically follows sports championships. Clearly, the people of Seattle should have been chugging riot punch in anticipation of Dan Satterberg's press conference yesterday.