Race judgment

Is the criticism of the Mardi Gras press coverage fair?

Can you report on violence by black people in this town without being accused of racism? In the aftermath of the Mardi Gras riots, it seems not. And can violence by African-American individuals occur without giving rise to sweeping statements about race? Again, the upheaval over Mardi Gras appears to say no.

Last week, the city's African-American and religious leaders held a press conference in large part to thrash the media for photographs and video taken on Fat Tuesday showing black youths on the attack. The leaders asserted that, whether consciously or unconsciously, newspapers and TV stations had singled out black assailants to picture from among numerous violent hoodlums of all races. "They gave the impression that it was an African-American race riot," says Oscar Eason, president of Seattle's NAACP. He adds that he and other black leaders got a very different picture when they accepted an invitation by police to view a two-hour videotape of the melee filmed by Northwest Cable News. "There were absolutely more white people" acting violently, he says, than were shown in the footage selected by the major networks.

Police brass haven't contradicted that characterization. They have said that people of all races were arrested, and are now suspected, in connection with Mardi Gras. However, such a racial profile isn't consistent with many eyewitness accounts, including from one black officer and a victim of one of the most severe beatings, who say African Americans played a dominant role in the night's worst violence.

Eason and his colleagues don't seem as concerned with what really happened that night as with public opinion about race. And, strangely, they suggest the media should be too, which is not exactly how journalism is traditionally practiced.

Local Urban League President James Kelly evinces this attitude when discussing riot coverage in the Seattle Post- Intelligencer. At the press conference, the P-I was attacked for blowing up a picture of black aggressors while giving much less play to two pictures of white troublemakers. The enlarged picture captures four blacks pummeling one ponytailed white guy, whereas the smaller pictures depict a pair of whites fighting one-on-one and another pair bashing a car. Didn't the newspaper simply choose the most dramatically violent picture to enlarge?

Kelly says, in essence, it doesn't matter. "It's not an issue of what is more violent or not more violent—the issue is images." Images, he says, "can polarize a town."

Tom Quigley, president-director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, takes a similar tack. The press should exercise caution "in a society affected with a disease called racism. To the extent that the [P-I] photograph, graphic as it was, fed the disease, then it's a problem."

The photo is the problem? Surely, the problem is the violence it depicts. Like it or not, the photo seemed to capture, in racial terms as otherwise, the tenor of the most brutal violence seen by the photographer and others.

"I'll tell you, every fight I saw was instigated by small groups, of between three to eight, of young black males—that's a fact," says Mike Urban, the P-I reporter who took the controversial picture. Reflecting further, he clarifies that he's talking about fights observed after a heightened level of violence hit the crowd late in the evening.

Before that, he says, he witnessed toughs of all races smashing in cars and breaking out in scuffles over the kind of petty beefs that send fists flying when alcohol is added to the mix: "You touched my girlfriend" or "You knocked into me too hard."

He also saw a few particularly nasty incidents involving whites. One was the one-on-one brawl that made it, as a small picture, onto the front page of the paper. Another was a sexual assault by a mixed race group—including whites—that, amazingly, did not make it into the paper as either a photo or part of an article. Urban says the assault—which occurred when a bunch of guys grabbed one of the many women flashing their breasts to the crowd, pulled off her skirt and underwear, and used their hands to violate her—was too graphic to print as an image and must have gotten lost amid all the other violence in the written reportage. (A sexual assault didn't rate as important enough to mention? That's an interesting comment on gender politics, aside from racial ones.)

At some point, though, he says four or five groups of African Americans began wreaking havoc by randomly picking out victims and attacking them en masse.

Two police officers on the ground that night describe the same thing. One, who is black, was distressed by what he perceived as a "racial tinge" to the attacks. Says the officer, who declined to be identified because he's not supposed to speak to the press, "I'm not kidding, every time someone came out of the crowd who was a victim, he would be white. We'd ask, 'What did the assailant look like?' He'd say a black girl or a black guy. I was shocked. There was a hatred there. It's an ugly fact, but it's a fact."

Ron Lev was a victim of one of the most vicious attacks, which duplicates almost exactly the Kristopher Kime killing except that Lev didn't die. A 34-year-old white doctor, he was standing with a group of friends in front of the First Avenue high-rise where he lives. All of a sudden, he says, a group of young African Americans, including one female and three or four males, began pushing around his friend, a 24-year-old woman. Like Kime, he attempted to come to the rescue, only to find himself hit over the head by a bottle and knocked to the ground. The group of boot-wearing teens then proceeded to kick him in the head, breaking a bone on one side of his face and requiring him to have surgery a couple of days later.

A few days after that, he looked remarkably well, considering. Dressed in a white turtleneck and black jacket, he points to the staples beneath his dark hair that are the result of the surgery. "I think they were just attacking white people," he says of his assailants, whom he saw picking fights in front of the First Avenue Tully's much of the night.

Were the attacks racially motivated? That's a thornier question than the factual one involving the race of attackers. Many people who wrote to newspapers or called various talk-radio stations in town jumped to the conclusion that they were. While African-American leaders tried to censor the racial dynamics of the violence, some people wanted to make as much of it as possible.

A number of them called conservative talk radio KVI. Host John Carlson—the former gubernatorial candidate, affirmative action critic, and lightning rod on racial issues—fielded many of those calls. "There was a lot of anger from people who thought that a double standard existed," Carlson says. "If you had had roving bands of white skinheads beating up African Americans, you would have had the police department shut the streets down at all costs."

Provoking callers even more, Carlson says, was the way reporters—as opposed to photojournalists—didn't mention what the cameras made manifest about the race of the Mardi Gras thugs. "The stories and the pictures didn't match."

While journalists shouldn't and didn't censor their pictures, it's unclear whether they should have made a point of identifying race. There is little evidence that anti-white racism was at work beyond the race of people involved. The thugs happened to be black; the victims were mostly white, as you would expect in Seattle, which according to the last census is 75 percent Caucasian. Nevertheless, witnesses did see victims of other races, and racial epithets were not generally heard.

Certainly, the racial element was a legitimate subject for news organizations to look into, and journalists grilled the mayor and the police chief about it at a subsequent press conference. But that night, amid all the chaos, it was hard to know what to make of the melee's racial dynamic. "When you're writing, you have to think about what's the point of identifying race," says Keiko Morris, the reporter who wrote the first story on Fat Tuesday for The Seattle Times.

Given how little we know so far, African-American and religious leaders seem justified in trying to downplay race as an issue, which they have done while generally deploring the violence and organizing a vigil for its victims. Unfortunately, their corresponding attempt to deny what people could see with their own eyes will likely make race more of an issue, not less.


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