That was Mayor Paul Schell's take on Seattle's Second Annual Pioneer Square Mardi Gras Riots. Presumably, Schell believes drunken bozos from Bellevue instigated the violence last weekend, and not the black-clad anarchists from Eugene, Oregon whom Schell blamed when windows were broken downtown during the WTO riots last year. According to a February 26 Seattle Times article, Schell blamed our latest civic disturbance on the doings of "out-of-town 'hooligans,'" and not true-blue Seattleites.
Apparently Schell intends to go on blaming "outside agitators" for the pepper spray, rubber bullets, percussion bombs, tear gas, smashed windows, thrown rocks, and assaults that are rapidly becoming standard Seattle fare. But confrontations between police and rowdy crowds are routine occurrences when large crowds of angry or drunken (or both) people gather in big American cities. Witness the inauguration in D.C., the Million Youth March in Harlem, National Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan, and the L.A. Lakers celebration in Los Angeles. Riots happen in cities the way floods happen in rural areas.
But was it really out-of-towners who sparked the violence this weekend? Does Schell have inside information that links the Mardi Gras riots to kids from Kirkland? Or does he simply believe Seattleites aren't capable of raising such a ruckus? "It was curious," Schell told The Stranger. "It was not the same pattern of behavior that we've seen in the last 20 years. It was a meaner edge. I asked the police for the addresses of the people who were arrested, and they were from suburban cities. They were coming to town to have a good time, and they didn't carry a sense of responsibility about our city."
Strangely, however, while the Seattle Police Department was able to provide Schell with the names and addresses of this weekend's lawbreakers, as of Tuesday the SPD couldn't confirm for this paper exactly who was arrested--locals or out-of-towners. Even if it's confirmed that every last smashed window was done in by a redneck from Redmond, Schell's knee-jerk, off-the-cuff analysis of Seattle's increasingly common pepper-bomb moments is telling.
Schell's "it can't happen here, and if it did, no one from here did it" analysis of social unrest (outside forces are to blame!) resolves an election-year mystery. Namely, it identifies Schell's true constituency. Judging from Schell's take on social disorder, it's clear that the mayor represents those many Seattleites who are in deep denial about the city they live in. Some people don't want to admit that Seattle is now a city where impolite behavior, the urge to challenge authority, and tension between cops and civilians loom behind the passive amiability on display on the first floor of Nordstrom.
Seattle is becoming a big city, with big-city problems, from the occasional riot to the (horrors!) growing numbers of serial jaywalkers. And social unrest is a price we will have to pay for embracing laws that enforce "civility." When you cram civility down people's throats, they're going to react with predictable bursts of incivility. Still, Schell is surprised--as is his political base--by these uncivil backlashes. The same people who oppose increased density, mother-in-law apartments, and teenagers at rock shows will--when confronted with bad behavior--want to blame outsiders first. If life is getting tougher here, it's not our fault. The cars of California transplants clog our streets; Eugene anarchists smash our windows; drunken kids from Bellevue bust up Pioneer Square.
"That was not Seattle," the mayor assured the media in the wake of the WTO riots. "Seattle is a gentle city where we agree to disagree." Schell followed up this WTO analysis by blaming foreign terrorists for his decision to cancel the millennial New Year's Eve celebrations at Seattle Center. Ten months later, Schell tried to pin a Pioneer Square shooting on rap music imported from the East Coast. This type of shorthand chauvinism geared toward lily-white culture is, unfortunately, an attractive opiate to a lot of Seattleites. No matter how often riots, shootings, and rap music imprint themselves on our local culture, Schell will blame outsiders. But does the mayor seriously believe that Seattleites are not capable of getting drunk or angry? Or both?
There are a couple of things that have taken place since Schell was elected in 1997, however, that people should consider. Nearly 8,000 out-of-towners have moved here since 1997 (even without including last year's stats). Seattle's human services budget has increased by 10 percent, to $82 million. The police budget has increased by 14 percent, to nearly $153 million. Heroin deaths have stabilized at the alarming average number of 118 per year. In August of 1999, software displaced aerospace as our largest cash source. And the sexy Stranger sales staff tells us that gay male, fetish, and transsexual ads have all doubled in the past year.
Our city is changing; it has changed. We're a big city. We have big city problems. A mayor has to deal with these problems. We don't need a mayor who lives in and fosters a denial of those problems. We need a mayor who admits they exist, so it becomes possible to tackle them head on.