Having read Seattle's police reports over the last two years for my column, Police Beat, I can certainly verify that gang or group assaults are not unusual in this city; they frequently occur at bus stops, where teenagers rough up drunken transients and individuals returning home from work. So why has the string of recent downtown beatings become so significant? And why have the assaults picked up in frequency (there were six attacks alone on the night of August 31)? Because at this specific point in Seattle's life, the city has unexpectedly attracted, like a magnet, a thick clump of frustrations, anxieties, and worries that up until now have been repressed. I'm not sure of the total number of the anxieties and vexations exposed by these assaults (there are many), but I can point out the three that have dealt the harshest blows to the city's long and prosperous peace.
The first has to do with how society in general perceives teens: They always fail us. They never do as they are told; they never succeed; and they always let their parents down. In a word, they are ungrateful little bastards. You work hard for them, feed them, clothe them, give them an allowance, but they always turn against you, humiliate you, hurt you. This is the story of the relationship between teens and parents: "Why did you fail me, son/ daughter?" Son/daughter ignores the parent's question and continues to watch MTV or smoke dope. These teen-gang crimes project this domestic drama onto a public screen.
The seven teens in Tacoma who inspired the rash of attacks in Seattle (so says the police department) did not strike down another lazy teen on August 19, but a grown man who was coming home from work. Yes, he was a working man! Working for his mother (who was sick) and younger brother, and these ingrates walked up to him, asked for cigarettes--which he gave them--and kicked and "knee-dropped" him to death for his kindness. Indeed, this crime embodies the very structure of teen treachery: They don't want to work; they want to eat your food (they were having a barbecue before they killed the hard-working Erik Toews); and then they stab you in the back.
In his melodramatic article "Not one of them shed a tear," Jack Hopkins of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer expressed the public's frustration with the Tacoma teens when he wrote on September 2, "Ranging in age from 11 to 19, they walked quietly into court, sat or stood in front of a judge and displayed not even the slightest hint of emotion. No anguish. No fear. No remorse. Many of their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and other relatives have been in court to show support for them. But few of the youths have even looked their way. They have sat quietly, heads up and looking straight ahead. Stoic from the beginning of their court appearances to the end. They have let their relatives do the crying for them." In fact, this sense of teen failure and ungratefulness is one reason why the media, especially in Seattle, have tried to erase the race factor from the crimes. The newspapers have been scolding; disgusted parents wagging their fingers and their tongues at the rebelliousness of youth who never appreciate what their parents, and, in a larger sense, the city has done for them.
But nothing, not even our disappointment with teens, could totally eclipse the racial implications of these crimes, which, for the most part, feature angry black boys attacking vulnerable white men. Seattle newspapers made little or no reference to race, but Tacoma (which is a more diverse community and so better equipped to discuss such matters) was refreshingly open about it. By reading Tacoma's News Tribune--which not only featured long articles on August 30 and September 3 analyzing the role of race in the assaults in Tacoma, but also published numerous letters by whites venting their anger and disgust with police and blacks--you could get an idea of what Seattle was not saying. The general tone of these letters was that the nation and state's preoccupation with "racial profiling" by the police has made local cops hesitant to crack down on crimes committed by blacks. Because the police are now too sensitive, careful, and mindful to perform their jobs effectively, goes the logic, black thugs are thriving on the streets, mocking law enforcement with their brazen crimes. Indeed, on September 1, a letter in the News Tribune by Patrick G. Staehell of Kent said it all: "The Tukwila police did not follow up on my assault for the same reason that Tacoma and Seattle police quiver: fear of being accused of racial profiling."
This line of reasoning is not far from that touted by white Africans when crime skyrocketed in post-apartheid South Africa. They felt that black African thugs were suddenly free to do as they pleased because the teeth had been removed from the white African-controlled police by the black African government. This was hardly a progressive way of looking at the problem. To suggest that a return to apartheid--or, in our case, a cutback in the very small gains made on the racial-profiling issue--will cure our current social problems is to expose the great distance that has to be crossed before anything close to racial harmony is accomplished in Tacoma or Seattle.
The third anxiety produced by these assaults revolves around class. In both Tacoma and Seattle, most of the attacks have taken place in neighborhoods that have a mix of affluent and low-income residences. In these neighborhoods, poor people are being rapidly replaced by architects, dot-commers, and other rich people. But they are not happier places for it. These neighborhoods, and indeed Seattle as a whole, are burdened with unresolved class issues. So when blacks (who are traditionally part of America's underclass) start beating up white men (who are traditionally associated with the upper class) for money, the crime exits the moral formula of evil versus good and enters the political realm of class struggle. Every day in Pioneer Square, Belltown, and in Tacoma's Hilltop and Wright Park areas, the tension between the classes grows and thickens, and these assaults (random as they may seem) stand out as violent manifestations of the larger social tension between the haves and the have-nots.
As I said, these are only a few of the anxieties, frustrations, and vexations that have been exposed by these assaults. And in time, just as we did after the protests surrounding the WTO meeting here last year, we will repress them again and fully reinstate the illusion that everything is stable and safe in our Emerald City.