Over the last four years, big, public events in Seattle almost inevitably descended into chaos: from Westlake Center, where protesters and police took turns running riots during WTO, to Pioneer Square, where police stood by during Mardi Gras festivities while partygoers overturned cars, smashed windows, and ended a life.
This New Year's Eve was Seattle's last chance to create a civic disturbance under Mayor Paul Schell, whose mishandling of various civic disturbances cost him his job. In the 2001 mayoral race, Schell was the first sitting mayor of Seattle to be ousted in the primary since 1936, with Seattle voters fairly or unfairly punishing Schell for their perceptions of civic lawlessness during his watch.
With 2002 bringing an end to Mayor Schell's disaster-prone term (Seattle's new mayor, Greg Nickels, gets sworn in on Monday, January 7), The Stranger decided to head out on New Year's Eve and revisit the city's trouble spots. We were curious about the mood on the streets: Would there be tear gas? Police in riot gear? Smashed windows?
During Schell's term, Westlake Park shed its long-standing reputation as Seattle's civic living room where occasional, mild-mannered protesters mingled with coffee carts and jugglers. Thanks to 1999's unruly WTO protests and 2000's follow-up N30 standoff, Seattle's cozy public square has since been transformed into the city's most hotly contested piece of real estate, a place where police and protesters will continue to square off for years to come.
"In the '70s," recalls Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata, "the Westlake and Pine intersection was always the place for public assembly, and was always peaceful. Now, I cringe every time people say there's going to be a demonstration there."
That quaint slice of brick walk, benches, and storefronts (Starbucks, the Bon, See's Candies) now stands as a metaphor for civil unrest and, inevitably, Schell's ruin. Indeed, when Seattle woke up on December 1, 1999 to stories of tear gas, rubber bullets, and broken windows, the only thing political prognosticators could agree on was the fact that Paul was dead.
We arrived at Westlake Park--the first stop on our Farewell to Schell Tour--around 10 p.m. With the exception of Eastside teens straggling to catch the monorail over to Seattle Center, an occasional horse and buggy clopping by, or grown-ups returning from dinner, there wasn't much action.
Robb Locke, 42, was just starting his all-night shift working security at the holiday carousel when we showed up. He was, in his words, "ecstatic" that Schell got voted out of office. "Schell should have been run out of town on a rail in December '99 for the way he mismanaged WTO," Locke said. Locke voted for Nickels, and told us he wasn't planning to riot this evening.
We found Jeremy Zorb, a 29-year-old dot-commer, in front of the Niketown store that was vandalized live on CNN during the WTO protests. Zorb feels that Schell was a good guy, "but there's a fine line between not doing anything and doing too much," he said. "At WTO, they were tear-gassing people and pepper-spraying people. And at Mardi Gras, which I was in the middle of, nothing."
"I got gassed three times during the WTO," said Bill, a bartender at a hotel near the Convention Center. But Bill, who didn't want us to use his last name, wasn't angry at Schell for WTO. It was the Mardi Gras riots more than a year later that convinced him Schell had to go. "Who goes to bed during Mardi Gras and says, 'Wake me up if anything happens?'"
Bill thinks Schell should've stepped down after Mardi Gras. "You know, I don't wish physical pain on anyone," said Bill, "but there was some justice when Schell got popped by that guy with the megaphone, just like a lot of people got popped during Mardi Gras."
It's conceivable that Schell could have survived the WTO riots and won a second term. But any hope of Schell living down WTO died in February 2001, when the Mardi Gras riots spun out of control in Pioneer Square. After two nights of havoc with drunk, angry teens--intimidating Mardi Gras revelers and police alike--Schell slept through a third night as the situation exploded into black-on-white racial violence.
Ultimately, one young man, Kristopher Kime, was murdered. The events put race relations, police incompetence, and--once again--Schell's curious leadership skills under a harsh public spotlight. At the time, mayoral hopeful Greg Nickels promised to hang Kristopher Kime's death certificate on his office wall if he got elected. In a recent interview with The Stranger ["Meet Your Mayor," Dec 20, by Josh Feit], Nickels backed off from his death-certificate pledge, but said he's going to put a plaque on his wall commemorating Kime.
The site of Kime's death, Pioneer Square (the second stop on our Farewell to Schell Tour), was calm on New Year's Eve. Officer Sean O'Donnell, who has been with the Seattle Police Department for 20 years, was in charge of a Pioneer Square squad for the night. He told us that the biggest excitement of the evening occurred right before we arrived: Several officers took a man into custody for having a paintball gun in a car.
As to whether Schell was unfairly blamed for the Mardi Gras riots, O'Donnell claimed he's the wrong officer to ask. "I was his bodyguard that night," he revealed. (It's not clear what O'Donnell means, given that Schell was home in bed that night. Let's hope it was a king-size bed.)
A few blocks down at the Central, doorman "Bear," who was on hand during the Mardi Gras riots, seemed to agree that the Schell administration screwed up on public safety. He was perplexed as to why cops had been told to stand down on that fatal third night. "All during the week leading up to riots," Bear remembered, "the cops had been present; but on that third night, we didn't see a cop presence until around 1 a.m. What was that about?"
But there were no riots in Pioneer Square this New Year's Eve, despite the presence of suburban whites, urban blacks, and clumps of people too young to get into the clubs--the same mix that led to violence during Mardi Gras. But this time out, everyone seemed well behaved. When asked if he was planning to riot in honor of Schell's departure, reveler James Hall said, "Riots--that's why I brought this camera." But there was nothing to film.
If WTO and Mardi Gras killed Schell's political hopes, the ugly events at 23rd & Union in the Central District certainly buried them. First, there was the Aaron Roberts shooting--white cop kills black motorist. The police have since been cleared, but the swirl of recriminations after the May 31, 2001 shooting in the heart of Seattle's black neighborhood (and the home of Philly's Best Steaks & Hoagies) just re-emphasized the sense that, under Schell, life in Seattle was unraveling.
Schell visited the sight of the shooting during a weekend Central District celebration when Omari Tahir-Garrett, a batty black activist, allegedly leapt out of the crowd and clocked Schell with a megaphone. Schell's wife, his bodyguards, and many others from the crowd witnessed the assault.
The broken bones in Schell's face told his story better than any pundit or newspaper editorial ever could: If the mayor wasn't safe in the city, with his bodyguards and police escorts, who was?
23rd and Union, the third stop on our Farewell Schell Tour, was unusually quiet on New Year's Eve. Collins Gold Exchange, normally open 24 hours, was closed for the holiday. Philly's Best was dark too. At the Exxon gas station on the northwest corner, a few people bought last-minute drinks to ring in 2002.
A woman behind the Exxon counter, talking on the phone, declined to comment on Schell. "I don't have anything to say about that man," she said, resuming her conversation. But a man waiting nearby did. "Goodbye, good riddance," said Mac Douglas Snow, a 46-year-old African American. "The things that happened weren't [Schell's] fault necessarily, but the way he handled them was very out-of-pocket. He was very reactionary."
Across the street, a red Union Gospel Mission van pulled into the dark Philly's parking lot, adjacent to Mt. Calvery Church. Delancy Holmes arrived with a group of men from the New Visions drug-and-alcohol treatment program to attend a three-and-a-half-hour New Year's Eve service at the church. Holmes was at 23rd and Union when Omari-Tahir Garrett allegedly whacked the mayor in the face with a megaphone.
"[Nobody] deserves to get hit in the head with a megaphone," said Holmes, a 33-year-old African American who believes Schell was unfairly blamed for events during his tenure. "But everybody's got different opinions. I think he was a fair mayor." Holmes voted for Schell four years ago, and thinks the mayor did a lot to "open more programs," such as ones that help people regain suspended licenses. But he's looking forward to Nickels. "I think Greg Nickels is going to do good," Holmes predicted.
December 31, 1999, the eve of the new millennium: While every other "world-class city" on the planet was celebrating New Year's Eve, Mayor Paul Schell canceled Seattle's annual New Year's celebration at the Space Needle. Schell's decision, made in the wake of the WTO drama, increased public skepticism about his judgment. Schell's reasoning at the time ("We had a bomb delivered to our doorstep...") seems reasonable in the context of September 11, but at the time, his decision was widely seen as an overreaction. Fearing doing too little, people griped, Schell did too much.
It was crowded all along Fifth Avenue on the last night of 2001. Across from Seattle Center, there was a lot confusion about admittance into the fireworks show. Meanwhile, kids were shooting off bottle rockets in a nearby McDonald's parking lot, and couples were making out on the hoods of limos. A guy in a leather jacket and acid-washed jeans ran down the street shouting, "Run! Run! I'm inciting a riot!"
But despite the crowds, the fourth stop on our Farewell Schell Tour was tame. Jeff Waters, who owns and runs a hot dog stand, said the crowds actually seemed thinner this year. Plus, he said, people seemed "alert."
"People were checking me out when I was setting up my stand," Waters said, "trying to figure out what I was up to."
Officer Depina and his partner were patrolling Seattle Center, as part of the beefed-up security for the New Year's Eve events, which were expected to draw 20 to 30,000 people. "We're here to be a presence," Depina said. "It's usually pretty peaceful and quiet."
Mike Jurus, a deputy chief from the Seattle Fire Department working his fourth straight New Year's Eve, said, "Schell had it tough, and it was a good thing that he canceled two years ago." Still, Jurus added, he's looking forward to a "fresh start" with Nickels.
During the '99 WTO protests, police pushed protesters up on to Capitol Hill, and launched tear-gas and pepper-spray attacks in the city's most densely populated residential neighborhood. And on this New Year's Eve, police and protesters returned to Capitol Hill, providing a fitting end to Schell's term.
The Infernal Noise Brigade, a group of about 200 hippies, punks, and anarchists, began marching downtown from Capitol Hill at about 11:30 p.m. The group was confronted by cops at Boren and Pine, and sent back up the hill. At Pine and Harvard, in front of the Egyptian Theater, some kids started making a bonfire with their signs. Twelve cop cars arrived, the fire was put out, and cops began pepper-spraying kids gathered on the Seattle Central Community College's lawn.
It felt like the end of an era.