The light was incredible in my neighborhood today.
The light was incredible in my neighborhood today.
I hear a lot of my transplanted white colleagues and acquaintances discussing how my city’s culture is ‘too white.’ This conversation is often coded in other terminology, through ascribing WASPy characteristics to the entirety of the city’s population. Seattle, some claim, is ‘passive aggressive’ or ‘cold’ or ‘politically correct.’ It’s ‘hard to meet people’ and the culture lacks ‘color’ or ‘authenticity.’ After a few months or a few years living in the whitest available neighborhoods, new Seattleites are already inadvertently reproducing and reinforcing the historical methods of segregation in our Town.
As a white native of Seattle, let me just tell it to you plain: If you do not see people of color on your block, at your job, or in your schools, it is decidedly NOT because Seattle’s population is too white. It’s because your block, your job, and your school are actively maintaining racial segregation.
The continued maintenance of segregation allows whites who move into the city’s whitest neighborhoods to see only a naturalized version of ‘separate but equal.’ That is, when segregation policies are successful, they themselves become invisible – as do people of color – to whites who stay within their ‘comfort zone.’ And thus it’s possible for someone a few miles away from the country’s most diverse zip code to bemoan the homogeneity of the city.
The policies of racially restrictive property sales contracts/covenants which were legal (all over the country, as per the Supreme Court) between 1926 and 1948 go a long way toward explaining the historical foundations of Seattle’s ‘white neighborhoods.’ You’ll notice that the most legally restricted neighborhoods REMAIN those in which one might get the impression that the city is very white. These boundaries were drawn by racist law, and are enforced by income inequity, imprisonment and disenfranchisement, the property-tax based education system, the drug war, repressive police strategies – and by white peoples’ continued willful blindness to the very existence of people of color in the city.
Good news! There are things you can do to counteract this phenomenon instead of complying with it. You don’t have to integrate a neighborhood all by yourself by moving there- in fact, please don’t. When you bring your non-local money and white privilege into a community of color, you throw off the balance by driving up property values and reducing the self-sufficiency of neighborhood. When locals are forced to cater to the tastes and habits of white people, they stop being relevant to their base and it becomes more difficult to maintain community strength. As we work towards the destruction of racist institutions, we need to recognize that people of color are doing for themselves, as they should. Their communities could use our support and allegiance, NOT our disruptive property-purchasing power or our paternalistic advice or our feelings of guilt or our self-serving demands for attention and recognition.
So go explore some of Seattle’s amazing neighborhoods, appreciate the struggles of their residents, and go back to your own community to work on transforming the institutions that enforce delusions of white supremacy. Go home to your white block and start asking your neighbors why they allow racial restrictive covenants to stay in their deeds. Go back to your white job and start asking why you aren’t hiring people of color or accepting their leadership. Go into your white schools and ask why your children are getting deficient educations because they are segregated from people of color. Look for ways in which you can reduce your own use of white privilege and your own complicity with racism. Trust – this is more constructive, much more difficult, and immeasurably more important than talking with your white friends about how much you wish you lived in a ‘diverse’ city.
Checking out the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project is a great way to introduce yourself to the complexities and nuances of your new home.
They have a small sample of racial restrictions in deeds around the city:
If you live on Capitol Hill, take a little field trip: Walk just a few blocks south on 12th, or cut over the hill to 23rd and head south from there, or down the hill under the freeway overpass on Jackson. If you live downtown, walk through Pike Place Market early on a weekday, and ask the growers and vendors what neighborhoods they live in. If you live in Ballard, get yourself on a bus headed south and go to the end of the line. If you live in the University District, head up Lake City Way. If you drive, go to Aurora (Highway 99) and go either north or south. When you’re taking the light rail heading north from the airport, get off anywhere before Pioneer Square and wander around a bit. Go to Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley, Columbia City, South Park, the Central District, the International District – for starters. Take walks, buy stuff from local businesses, eat food, be friendly.
Big thanks to Larry Neilson for the use of his photograph of the Liberation mural at Seattle Central’s wood shop.
Taken at the corner of Yesler and James, immediately following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.
via History Link.
An interesting little data visualization project by Eric Fischer over on flickr – he’s attempted to represent neighborhoods according to the density of tourist-experiences recorded in photographs. Red zones indicate the areas where the preponderance of photos were taken by tourists, and blue zones are where ‘locals’ take their photos. Yellow zones are those that are photographed, but by people unclassifiable as ‘local’ or ‘foreign.’
I am most interested in the vast uncharted negative spaces of paleness, the unphotographed realms. When you go off the edge of the map, There Be Dragons, don’t you know.
I’ve never commented publicly on the WTO shutdown in 1999. Late-night nostalgizing with trusted, drunken comrades does not count, and neither do broad assessments of political and tactical implications. I mean to say that I have never spoken in a public forum about my participation in the events, that is, about my personal experiences or analyses thereof. And I’m not starting now.
This year, November 30th will mark the 10 – year anniversary of another Novermber 30th, the one affectionately known as N30, or the Battle in Seattle. People are talking about that distant day, and about what it was like way-back-when-we-were, and about what has changed in the intervening years. Local, and even national, media outlets are offering competing commemorations, 3-part-series, re-interviews, 20/20-hindsight reckonings. Most of them are re-broadcasting the old archived recordings they made at the time. We knew then that the mainstream coverage sucked, and guess what? It hasn’t gotten better with age. They’re still trotting out the same tired tropes: property damage = violence, police “gone wild” (as though the behaviors they exhibited were somehow exceoptional in quality rather than just scale.) And now these reporters have that extra sheen of smugness provided by retrospection: ‘where are all those radicals NOW?’ they sneer, ‘guess you’ve all settled down and accepted How Things Are.’
Earlier this week, I was asked by a radio reporter to provide an interview for her segment of the series ‘WTO: Ten Years Later.’ Her piece, airing tomorrow, means to probe the changes in protesting and policing that have occurred since, and because of, the Battle in Seattle. When I initially spoke with Ms. Reporter on the phone, I got the impression that she was looking for commentary and analysis on police and activist tactics. She seemed (don’t they all?) to be well-informed and reasonable. She told me that she would be interviewing the “leader” of the Ruckus Society, as well as former police chief Norm Stamper, and possibly former mayor Paul Schell. We talked about meeting in a coffee shop or in my office, but she suggested it would be easiest if I came to her studio. (She suggested this without mentioning that she wanted me on mic, in the studio, being recorded. Not that it would have been surprising to learn, just that the omission later came to seem like an evasion.) I went to see her the following morning.
That night, I studied. I wanted to refresh my thinking on the subject, and to respond to the most recent analyses available. I read more than 200 pages of documents: academic papers, a RAND Corporation report, a few book chapters on netwars and the spread of non-hierarchical organizations, and a number of essays on the philosophical problems of defining terrorism and the state of exception. I wanted to be ready. I treated the occasion as I would a conference presentation or a debate.
I should have saved my time. We were barely sitting down for two minutes before it became painfully clear that the interview would be a farce. I came as an analyst, fancying myself an expert. The reporter was looking for human interest. She had no notes, no prepared questions, no provocative assertions to debate. She was pleased to learn that I had been a wee lass of 21 years when I started organizing for the WTO ministerial, and her narrative quickly emerged: young (read: naive) woman (read: naive) gets swept up in the romance of revolt, rides the whirlwind of events surrounding the WTO shutdown, tastes teargas, resolves to Do Good Things ForEVER, and promptly settles down to a work-within-the-system variety of comfortable bourgeois liberalism, thereby continuing her ‘activism’ in a sensible, constructive, adult way. She sometimes shakes her head in a twee and rueful way at her radical youth, but is firmly untroubled by her decision to be a respectable ‘public interest’ attorney.
Gag, right? A sampling of questions:
1. “So, are all your friends grown up and working for major corporations now?”
2. “I understand [from a third party] that you’re attending law school. Do you consider your legal work to be an extension of your activism?”
3. “Would you consider yourself a protester today?”
My (unspoken, outraged) answers:
1: “No, bitch, they’re imprisoned as terrorists, getting their doors kicked in by the FBI, hiding in exile outside of their homelands, living in fear of grand juries, impoverished, crippled, divided, AND STILL FUCKING FIGHTING.”
2. “I’m going to law school for one reason: to increase my power. I’ve never been an ‘activist.’ “
3. “I also never considered myself a protester. You don’t get it, do you? If the WTO shutdown was a PROTEST, you wouldn’t even have mentioned it on your radio station, and you certainly wouldn’t be thinking about it ten years after the fact. Protests are also known as ‘rallies’ for a reason: they are essentially pep rallies. They provide people within a movement with the temporary euphoria of apparent camaraderie, some slight increase of visibility, and a consolidation of symbolism. A protest, in the contemporary arena of spectacle, is a theatrical event that serves to increase momentum and fortify group identification. It does not change the enemy. The WTO shutdown was not a protest, it was a mass action with a particular goal: to SHUT DOWN the ministerial. And it worked. So, no, thanks for asking, I don’t consider myself a protester, now or then.”
Under this barrage of banality, my rage simmering unexpressed, I had the acute awareness that anything I said could be snipped apart and stitched back together in completely distorted form. I stonewalled the reporter, telling her repeatedly that I was not interested in discussing my personal history. It became very clear, during the 30 minutes or so I spent at the radio station, that I had failed to evaluate my own motivations for granting an interview in the first place. As I sat there, I realized that my participation was sheer ego gratification. I had been flattered by the attentions of the reporter, by her insinuation that I was a credible witness, or even an unsung expert. The problem is, I don’t actually have any authority from which to make statements about the WTO, policing, the militarized state, any of it. In her eyes, I have no authority at all. If I had wanted to establish credibility, I would have had to reveal facts and stories that I don’t wish to reveal. It was a stalemate. As the reporter became angrier and angrier at my refusal to divulge any “personal anecdotes” from N30, or to frame my political engagement in the context of a come-to-Jesus redemption story, or to reveal anything at all about my “emotions,” “life lessons,” or “inspiring thoughts,” she got nastier. Eventually, I was shown the door, and it was locked behind me with a resounding click.
Walking away, I was angry with myself for giving in to the temptation. I shouldn’t have answered her call; I shouldn’t have appeared in the studio; I shouldn’t have consented to the manipulation that followed. As I walked further and faster, I became angry with the reporter, as well, for misrepresenting her purpose, for underestimating my clan, for belittling our efforts. But, as always, walking helped to clear my head. And I remembered some basic principles that were very clearly articulated during the heady days of 1999.
We don’t talk to the media. We don’t give interviews; we don’t appear on television. When reporters call, we hang up. When reporters attend our public meetings, we take our business into private session. When reporters attend our private meetings, we eject them. It was simple then, and it’s simple now: reporters are not your friends. Whatever mild sympathies they may feel for your ethical standpoint, they will never put those sympathies above the demands of their medium, their jobs, their purportedly ‘neutral’ position. If you are being interviewed, you are being manipulated.
That’s why we made our own media. That’s why there are Indymedia centers, even today, ten years later, all across the globe. That’s why we broadcast pirate radio, and letterpressed broadsheets, and photocopied our own books, and hijacked newspaper boxes to distribute satirical editions of the local rags. That’s why we communicated through graffiti and shortwave and hand signals and face-to-face whispers.
I understand that there are tactically legitimate moments to engage with, and use, the mainstream media. But let’s not forget: those engagements must be rigorously proscribed and carefully managed. And they must be viewed instrumentally, as means to an end, and embarked upon only when the potential return outweighs the inherent risk. Don’t talk to reporters because you want to Tell Your Story or Be Heard. Save your stories and your authentic voices for your comrades and allies – your enemies don’t deserve them. They’re only listening so they can hurt you later.
From the Old Man over at Blogging Georgetown.
Charles LeWarne, who wrote a fascinating history of utopian communities in my homeland Pugetopolis, is releasing a new book on the Love Israel Family. As a youngster, I worked in the Pike Place Market selling fruits-n-veg a few stalls away from the organic produce stand owned by the Family. And they were very pleasant people. Even outside the cult-member category. There’s an interview with LeWarne on Reading Local Seattle: