Vanity Fair writer T.A. Frank in Unherd:
This February, Bruce Harrell, newly installed as mayor of Seattle, made it official that his city has gone into decline. “The truth is the status quo is unacceptable,” he said in his first state of the city address. “It seems like every day I hear stories of longtime small businesses closing their doors for good or leaving our city.” But it’s not just small businesses. In mid-March, Amazon announced that it was abandoning a 312,000-square-foot office space in downtown, citing concerns over crime.
That such woes should afflict one of the richest cities in the country, with a median household income of over $100,000, cannot be blamed on economic decline. Yet much of Seattle’s core looks like a pockmarked ghost town. Businesses on both sides of Third Avenue, a major thoroughfare, are boarded up. Blocks from the Four Seasons hotel and the Fairmont Hotel, tents crowd the sidewalks, and drug users sit under awnings holding pieces of foil over lighter flames. Traffic enforcement is minimal to nonexistent. The year 2020 saw a 68% spike in homicides, the highest number in 26 years, and the year 2021 saw a 40% surge in 911 calls for shots fired and a 100% surge in drive-by shootings. Petty crime plagues every neighbourhood of the city, and downtown businesses have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund their own security.
What happened to Seattle? The answer, of course, depends on your politics. In the news section of the Seattle Times, for instance, a reader is unlikely to see any consideration of a link between policing and public safety. “No single cause for 2021’s surge in gunfire in Seattle,” declared a typical recent headline over an article that points only to possibilities such as the pandemic or an unlucky cycle of “retaliatory violence”. But the majority view in Seattle appears to have shifted toward an acknowledgement that the unrest and destruction that occurred after the killing of George Floyd in 2020 marked a turning point and that the city’s policies toward its police force, whose ranks are now depleted, are relevant to understanding the story…
Portland and Seattle have taken similar, probably coordinated, arcs through the post-2020 “racial reckoning”, with riots kicking off in unison on May 29. In both cities it was taken as a given by politicians and media that George Floyd’s murder proved, literally overnight, the irredeemable racism and corruption of our police forces. Not a single voice in public life dared point out the absurdity of a case of alleged police brutality in Minneapolis (of all places) indicting Portland or Seattle police.
But politicians and the activist community (with includes antifa) made this determination; the people were barely consulted. To the extent they were, in elections that year Portland rejected Sarah Iannarone, antifa candidate for mayor (but narrowly), and threw out the doltish uber-progressive commissioner Chloe Eudaly. But the only recourse available to them was the gormless Ted Wheeler and center-left (for Portland) commissioner Mingus Mapps. Portland’s much smaller city government–four commissioners and a weak mayor–may have made it easier for Portlanders to tap the brakes on police abolition.
Seattle had turned out most of its commissioners in 2019 and acquired one of the nation’s most radical city councils just in time for the reckoning.
After a violent first week of rioting Seattle’s Mayor Durkan moved to limit police tactics.
When the protests grew violent, police officers began to use various non-lethal weapons to control the crowd, including pepper spray and tear gas. This led to complaints, lawsuits, and stinging condemnation in the local press. On 5 June, Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, declared that officers “do not need to be using tear gas at protests as a crowd management tool” and banned the use of it for 30 days. Many officers felt they were being asked to maintain order in violent crowds while surrendering all of their crowd-control tools. “People were throwing bottles and rocks, and we had to split this thing up. God forbid after multiple, multiple, multiple warnings that we’re gonna throw gas, guys, you better disperse, we throw gas,” says J.D. Smith. “So then what? Oh, Seattle PD, look how heavy-handed they are.”
On June 6 Ted Wheeler did the same along with mayors in virtually every city with both leftist control and rioting.
Officials in Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., have proposed bans or limits on the use of tear gas, and Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, has halted the use of choke holds and neck restraints like the one that killed him. California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered police there to stop training officers in choke holds, and Bellevue, Washington, Police Chief Steve Mylett on Friday banned his officers from using controversial neck restraints except when deadly force is needed.
In Denver, U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson on Friday imposed restrictions on the use of chemical and less-lethal weapons by police, saying officers there had failed to police themselves when it came to using them. His order, as he modified it on Saturday, requires the use of such weapons to be approved by a supervisor with the rank of lieutenant or higher – and only in response to violence or property destruction personally witnessed by the supervisor.
Seattle came into the crosshairs of Barack Obama and Eric Holder’s Department of Justice in 2011, which declared “a number of highly publicized incidents” warranted a pattern and practice investigation, which of course yielded a federal consent decree, the lifting of which was imminent as summer approached.
Prior to the summer of 2020 the department had been receiving encouraging communications from the mayor’s office, and city officials were planning to ask the federal government to lift a consent decree that had been imposed on the Seattle police in 2012. In 2016, Barack Obama had even invited the department’s then-chief, Kathleen O’Toole, to the State of the Union, and a federal judge had ruled in 2018 that the city was in “full and effective compliance” with the decree.
Then Derek Chauvin took his fatal knee, and the police department fell out of compliance–as determined by the Mayor--because of its rough handling of the rioters who took over a police precinct and six city blocks for weeks.
Mayor Jenny Durkan announced on 3 June that the city would no longer seek to lift the consent decree. Seattle city council member Teresa Mosqueda vowed to lead an “inquest” into the budget of the Seattle police and said she wanted to cut funding by half, a view echoed by fellow council members Tammy Morales and Kshama Sawant. City Council president Lorena Gonzáles blamed the police response to the protests for turning “our densest neighbourhoods” into a “complete war zone”.
Portland ran afoul of Obama’s racial inquisition around the same time, when Senator Ron Wyden and Congressman Earl Blumenaur lead Oregon politicians in asking the Department of Justice to investigate the Portland Police Bureau after a fatal shooting in 2012. A consent decree was issued in 2014 as a foregone conclusion and politically pliant former chief, now Multnomah County sheriff, Mike Reese was instituting the recommended reforms before he got the letter. The city was long in compliance and the order was due to be lifted in January 2021–then the reckoning came and with it Biden’s election. Not so fast, federal prosecutors said:
On Wednesday, city officials learned that the combination of massive protests, COVID-19 restrictions, and budget cuts effectively pushed the city out of compliance with the DOJ’s legal agreement. In a 73-page report explaining the decision, the DOJ writes that, despite 2020’s unforeseen pressures, Portland and its police are not excused from upholding its obligations in the 2014 agreement.
The DOJ points to four areas in which the city has missed its mark: First, police repeatedly violated PPB’s use of force policy by using disproportionate force against protesters; second, more than half of PPB’s officers skipped mandatory training; third, the city’s Independent Police Review (IPR) was unable to investigate complaints against officers in the required amount of time; and fourth, PPB failed to present its 2019 annual report to the public.
Here, as everywhere, the shock and awe of the riots created sudden powerful momentum for more than merely anti-police legislation, propelling any project invoking black civil rights, as scared or complicit politicians opened the floodgates to release the pressure. But where was this pressure coming from? Not the public.
The pressure–that above the surface–came from a couple of hundred antifa riding an unprecedented campaign of media propaganda with a level of mobilization, discipline and demagogy rivaling any of history’s great war propaganda campaigns. And the Kabuki is so lurid and intense, and we so already disjointed from reality, we feel as if we are engaged in the action, not passively observing; a giant movie production in real time invading every corner of life, never to be finished, searing and disappearing as it cuts through history.
The system has achieved this impressive feat of popular disenfranchisement it seems in large part by its insane level of control over who gets to exist in public life and thus who gets to run for office. With horror I scan the bleak horizon for a single impressive figure to give focus and principle to–to what we call “Trumpism” because we’ve gone so off track the concept of national interest and pride is alien now. There is no one, and I have to wonder if they are out there beyond the horizon at all–or if the years have so worn us down that such leaders aren’t even possible; or, if the people to receive him are any longer possible. Are “we” still possible?