ROUNDING UP THE USUAL suspects— "a cross section of Seattle's diverse community," as an official announcement put it—the mayor formed something called the Civil Society>"/>
ROUNDING UP THE USUAL suspects— "a cross section of Seattle's diverse community," as an official announcement put it—the mayor formed something called the Civil Society Initiative last week. Its aim is to track down causes of Fat Tuesday rioting in Pioneer Square. The high-sounding CSI consists of not one but three task forces "to help Seattle understand and learn" from the Pioneer Square mayhem, says Paul Schell. It comes with a mandate to explore social and racial causes of unrest, and to examine the human inclination to over-celebrate. From this latest attempt to get to the bottom of yet another Seattle social upheaval, the mayor says citizens should expect a frank and fact-based report to . . . blah blah blah.
Been there, heard that—all d骠 vu, all the time, for anyone who remembers the World Trade Organization riots, and apparently City Hall doesn't. Before Boeing donned a ten-gallon hat, before the quake, before Mardi Gras, before the constant tumult of a once slow-news town, WTO 1999 was supposed to be Seattle's seminal learning experience. Cause and effect were studied to death by a half-dozen mayoral, police, City Council, and outside committees, costing taxpayers $150,000. Among the ringing conclusions: Seattle Police Department command shouldn't have stood down and let rioters have their way the first day, causing police to spend the following days in overreaction. A $98,000 report by R.M. McCarthy & Associates done for the mayor's office said the city underestimated the threat to public safety and went out of its way to coddle participants. The SPD's own After Action Report concluded the department had no workable contingency plans and winged it instead.
Yet that "strategy" is similar to what Seattle police chose to employ the night and morning hours of Fat Tuesday, February 27 and 28, pulling back to the fringes as the crowd grew larger, leaving drunken revelers to fight and fend for themselves. Despite the differences in purpose, size, and duration, WTO and Fat Tuesday both pose the same key question: When do cops react?
Schell has absolved himself of blame for the hang-back Mardi Gras police tactic, saying that that was the decision of his expert, Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske. It's similar to what he said about WTO: "I'm no security planner." The WTO review done for his office also described then-Chief Norm Stamper as "virtually absent from any role of leadership."
Stamper took the fall and resigned. But Kerlikowske, despite ebbing confidence from his troops, isn't willing to fall on his sword for giving his stand-down order. More than 70 Fat Tuesday attendees were injured, and 20-year-old Kris Kime, slammed in the back of the head allegedly by a 17-year-old assailant, died in the streets, while at the longer-lasting WTO, about 100 demonstrators went to the hospital and no one died.
Kerlikowske's eyes were wet with sincere regret at several of the memorials he attended for Kime. But, strategically, he insists he made the best decision he could under the circumstances and belittles the armchair quarterbacks who disagree. He says mob action would have been worse if incited by advancing officers.
Among those who disagree with Kerlikowske's decision are some of his officers, including undercover cops who roamed the crowd and had a close-up view of how violence was developing early, a clear preview of the dangers to come. They point to an incident in which a teenage gang member was almost shot by officers in the middle of a crowd when he hesitated to lay down a loaded handgun. That happened at 11:20 p.m. It would be two hours before police moved in to clear the then-bloody streets.
The violence level and the chief's tactical decision are the only elements that make this Seattle Mardi Gras different from earlier celebrations here. These issues may even warrant forming a committee to investigate, if only to zero in on the failure to heed WTO lessons and promises. After WTO, police vowed to never again "put their faith in historical precedent—the Seattle tradition of peaceful protest," while Schell ordered mandatory advance reviews of any large future gatherings and promised that if such rioting were ever to happen again, "it won't be on my watch."
Yet with three task forces called together, examination of those issues is not on the mayor's Mardi Gras review agenda. "No subject will be off the table," Schell said at a press conference last week—except the police role.
One task force will study Seattle youth violence in general. The other two groups will study special events, small and large, and their risks to the public. The dueling components will report back in a few months with their results.
"What we saw the night of February 27, and the terrible tragedy of Kris Kime's death," Schell says, "has sent our whole community a loud and clear message. . . ." Or did he mean an echo?