Disruptive hooliganism at Seattle and King County government meetings has no place in public discourse, and officials need to find a way to stop the intimidation so all can be heard.
WHEN the Metropolitan King County Council met and authorized the county executive to sign the design-build contract for a new juvenile justice center, it was carpet F-bombed, called “fascist” probably more times than Adolf himself and drowned out by opponents’ chanting.
Had anyone braved this crowd to speak in favor of authorization, it is doubtful they would have been heard.
Government officials need to find a way to stop this intimidation and ensure that all voices are heard at public meetings.
Antics similar to those at the county meeting have disrupted Seattle City Council meetings called to consider and approve zoning changes for the proposed center at 12th Avenue and Alder Street in Seattle. At those meetings, opponents have shouted down some who tried to speak in favor of the $210 million project, which 55 percent of county voters approved in 2012.
One of those shouted down as “racist” was Susan Craighead, the King County Superior Court presiding judge. Writing later in the February King County Bar Association bulletin, she referred to the opponents’ movement as “a cancer growing on the City of Seattle’s body politic.” She accused its leaders of using “tactics calculated to intimidate anyone with a contrary view.”
The Children and Family Justice Center is not the only issue that has drawn those who seem more interested in drowning out opposing points of view than sharing earnest opinions. This disturbing trend in Seattle politics has also been evident at meetings concerning the minimum wage.
Angelica Chazaro, a visiting professor at the University of Washington law school, spoke at the county hearing that approved the authorization. She says broad-based opposition to the project continues to develop and has fostered a variety of tactics.
“There is an expectation that the opposition will engage in ‘respectable discourse,’ ” she said in an interview. “But if those in power are not listening, what choice do the opponents have?”
The Children and Family Justice Center, to these opponents, are just fancy words for “juvie jail” where a disproportionate number of those held will be children of color. They see the “prison-industrial complex” as something that grew out of slavery, flourished in the Jim Crow era and continues with each new jail cell built.
County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who chaired the Feb. 9 meeting, said in an interview the next day, “I have not been in a situation like that as a council member or as a legislator where people are intentionally trying to shout down our work.”
McDermott said he conferred with county attorneys and sheriff deputies during the meeting and was told that the state’s open-meeting law prevented him from clearing the room and then voting. It prohibits conducting government business without admitting the public.
He was told he could have cleared the room and then readmitted those who were not disruptive. With hundreds of opponents crowded into the hearing room and spilling out into the hallway, it would have been difficult to separate the unruly from the rule-abiding.
But city and county officials need to find a way to ensure that all voices are heard. Clearing the room that afternoon would have risked further mayhem, but it might have led to order and civility.
The county is now conducting invite-only discussions about reducing racial disparities in the current juvenile center. The meetings are with specific communities, including people who have been through the juvenile detention system themselves. The county says the invite-only format is to create an “environment where people feel safe discussing issues openly and honestly without mass public scrutiny.”
A public meeting is planned for the late spring or early summer. That is when the county must find a way to ensure respectable discourse — something the opposition should engage in if they want to be heard.