The task force's mission was laid out in a recent Seattle Times article: "[The] group, Schell said, will be asked to answer several questions now on everyone's mind. What was the role of private sponsors, including a beer company and a radio station that target teenagers? Did the media behave responsibly? Why were so many youths drawn to Pioneer Square to engage in gratuitous violence? How should the city treat future special events? And how should the police react?"
Certainly, these are all legitimate concerns, but questions of race are conspicuously absent from the table. The citizenry gets it, of course: Many saw with their own eyes groups of black youths pounding on whites; plus, the Mardi Gras riots came only six months after a series of racially charged beatings in Belltown. After Fat Tuesday, talk of racial tension ricocheted around town, in barrooms and on talk radio, yet our daily papers initially refused to acknowledge it. In fact, The Stranger was the first newspaper in town to take the matter seriously ["Tuesday Night Live" and "Race Riots," March 8, 2001].
The reason city leaders have been able to pass on the race question is simple: The city's leading African American watchdog group, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, has been fighting against an honest discussion about what fueled the brutality in Pioneer Square. Rather than acknowledging black teen violence and perhaps even using it as a rallying point to make demands on behalf of the black community, Urban League President and CEO James Kelly is avoiding race at all costs. Sounding like a Benetton ad, Kelly told The Stranger last week, "Hate has no color. The level of violence in the past month in Des Moines, in Santee, in Pennsylvania, is not urban or rural. The bottom line is that it's violence being perpetrated by young individuals. I don't know what race has to do with that. We have youngsters who get off on violence."
Kelly and other black leaders met with the mayor and Seattle Police Department Chief Gil Kerlikowske on the Friday following the riots to censure those pointing to race as a factor--calling the uproar a "vilification of African Americans." The Seattle Times immediately fell in line, penning a Sunday, March 11 editorial that banished race from the equation. "...[C]rime, not race, drove the riot..." the Times explained. Likewise, Kerlikowske publicly stated that there was no evidence the violence was race-related. (SPD spokeswoman Pam McCammon has since told The Stranger that there is evidence of racial motivation.)
Meanwhile, updated reports show that the majority of police suspects in the Mardi Gras riots are black. Kelly remains unconvinced: "All I'm saying is let's make sure we know what has occurred before we conclude this is a racial issue. What happens if it turns out there were 100 cases of sexual assault? Is that a race issue?" He acknowledges that race may "eventually come up" when the task force tackles Mardi Gras, but he says the conversation "does not need to start there."
But why not start there? Is race such a touchy issue in Seattle that the very organizations who are supposed to look out for the interests of black citizens won't talk about it openly? "Some folks have accused us of sweeping [race] under the rug," says Kelly.
"It's unfair to say that the African American community should be held accountable," he adds defensively. But accountability isn't exactly the issue. The issue is black teen rage, and acknowledging it could lead to an important discussion about those teens.
If Kelly isn't going to talk about it, the city's white leaders certainly aren't going to, either. For example, in an interview with The Stranger, Mayor Schell's spokesman, Dick Lilly, parroted Kelly's logic. "It's premature to see race as a motivation. Violence appears to be a motivation in and of itself. At this point, Mayor Schell wants to meet with the task force members to talk about the agenda. Violence is still the primary thing."
But why did so much of the violence break down along racial lines? We may never know. Had gangs of white boys been caught on videotape beating black kids to a pulp, race would certainly be center stage. And in that instance, it would be incumbent on white leaders to speak out and address the causes of that violence. Black leaders should feel the same responsibility.