Tribunals: Seattle-style

The fallout from the WTO protests signals an end to polite politics.

For some cops, it's back to coffee and doughnuts, but it won't be back to business as usual for quite some time.

For some cops, it's back to coffee and doughnuts, but it won't be back to business as usual for quite some time.

AND SO, THE TRIBUNALS begin. After every revolution, heads must roll. Norm Stamper has handed up his own on a platter, while the police prepare to investigate themselves; the City Council is preparing a Compton Report that may determine the fate of Paul Schell; the mayor is hiring experts to perform WTO week action-plan autopsies; and Amnesty International is telling PC Seattle to investigate its treatment of POW protesters. Add to this various criminal and civil cases that will make their way through the court systems, aiding investigators (or perhaps spawning cover-ups) with the legal tools of subpoenas, the discovery process, depositions, and sworn testimony.

So one legacy of WTO week will be mounds of paper. But another is the way we deal with the pepper spray that’s been poured into some of our local open wounds.

The Seattle Police Department has been riven with cultural wars between old and new guards, and its ability to investigate itself shattered by the Sonny Davis case and years of citizen complaints that have been shelved, ignored, or botched. The general agreement is that the time for civilian oversight has arrived, but no one yet has confidence in a system that is untested and may not be workable in how it oversees cop culture and navigates police union, City Council, and community pressures. Already the investigation process has to wrestle with the anger among the rank and file, the posturing of the county sheriff, the finger-pointing at other agencies (screw-ups being blamed on “those cops from Tukwila”). And it won’t be helped by the fact that most officers who may have behaved badly were virtually anonymous, their badge numbers effectively covered by black ponchos and bulletproof vests, their faces behind gas masks and visors.

It is hard to imagine these investigations amounting to much, given the SPD’s 20-plus year record of never committing an “unjustifiable” homicide, regardless of the circumstance. Will we really get satisfaction for unjustifiable beatings or gassings by anonymous officers?

The police investigations come at a time when the mayor and council must begin looking for a new chief, something everyone has wanted to avoid (“Better the devil you know . . .”). Stamper’s resignation has assured that selecting the new chief will be a politically charged process, even worse than it was last time when Norm Rice followed his gut and picked a “book ’em and hug ’em guy” who seemed mostly to please those who weren’t paying attention. Those who are paying attention will want their say and will watchdog every step. Consider how voters this November refused to change the city charter to “streamline” the chief’s selection process: The details will matter this time—you can count on it.

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST black eye from WTO week was the roughing up of the city’s only African-American council member, Richard McIver, who was pulled from his car en route to an official WTO function. McIver is lucky: He had five-star witnesses, including a congressman. But this incident dramatizes the big problems between the SPD and the minority community. It is hard to hear McIver’s account and not believe that race was the issue. Will it give more credence to racial problems in this city where we like to pretend that race doesn’t matter? If Seattle can’t protect a card-carrying City Council member from harassment, we can’t protect anyone.

And speaking of wounds, they are gaping on Capitol Hill after the Broadway insanity, where the SPD is regarded by many as an occupying force.

IN NICE SEATTLE, it’s not that anger doesn’t exist—it’s just repressed. Or, we’d like to think, expressed in a civil tone. But civility isn’t working for many of us. Outside the jail during WTO week, the protesters chanted, “This is what democracy looks like,” meaning people taking direct action, bringing civil disobedience to the streets, demanding results, forcing dialogue. For young people, democracy doesn’t look like a voting booth, especially to those on the left who feel unrepresented by the mainstream because the Democratic Party is too busy tending to its cozy relationships with big business.

But it isn’t only young lefties who are angry. The initiative process is the legal rock you can throw through windows. Look at the success of the true anarchist among us, the man from Mukilteo, Tim Eyman. He is bringing the system to its knees with I-695, tapping into the rage of mainstream and conservative voters with the fact that government doesn’t work for them either. We’re now going to have a system that is cash-starved and where the government must come to the people and justify every fee or tax increase—in essence, every expense. As written, I-695 is an unprecedented demand for direct democracy. So a big wound, now more exposed than ever, is the political process itself, and the status quo politicians who represent it. With Y2K, May Day 2000, and major elections upcoming, I predict danger for anyone counting on politics as usual. These are dynamics that Seattle can’t club back into submission.


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