The story of the protests and riots of 2020 is only just beginning to be written. But already one major theme has emerged from various leaders and among parts of the public.
Which is that the violence is somebody else’s doing.
President Trump first fixed racially charged blame on “thugs,” and then decided that roving but organized left-wing anti-fascists were the ones fomenting the violence nationwide. To get at this, his attorney general vowed to prosecute anyone who crosses state lines to participate in rioting.
Locally our leaders have been less specific while still pointing the finger generally at outside agitators.
“What we can’t have is people coming into this city and literally tearing it up,” said Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, seeming to suggest the looting and property damage of last weekend originated from somewhere else.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan parsed the blame by race. She said that “much of the violence and destruction, both here in Seattle and across the country, has been instigated and perpetuated by white men” who are “co-opting peaceful demonstrations.”
A couple of Republican candidates for governor suggested the riots were even financed from elsewhere. Joshua Freed called them “paid rioters,” while Tim Eyman dubbed them “Soros’ brownshirts,” referring to a conspiracy theory that this is all the work of liberal philanthropist George Soros.
Minnesota officials, incredibly, contended at first that three-fourths of the rioters there were out-of-state interlopers, ranging from white supremacists to anarchists (they later walked this back).
I took a look at the Seattle Police Department’s preliminary roster of arrests made in our downtown rioting last weekend (more arrests are likely to be made). The first thing that jumps out is that whatever else this riot was, it was homegrown.
Only two of this preliminary round of arrestees had out-of-state driver’s licenses. Police listed general addresses for 62 of the people picked up Saturday and Sunday for looting, assault and other crimes. All the rest are from Washington state. Twenty-three have Seattle addresses, while the others are from close-in Puget Sound cities such as Kent, Federal Way, Bremerton or Sea-Tac. Three are from Eastern Washington cities. Eighteen of the arrestees show that no address has been determined yet (so I guess it’s still possible these will prove to be the mastermind outside agitators everybody is looking for).
As for Durkan’s notion that the rioting was carried out by white men, there is a bit of justification for her claim, but the data still is murkier than her official take.
Of 21 arrests for assaulting an officer, for instance, 15 involve white suspects — though six of these suspects are women, leaving nine white men. Four assaults were allegedly done by Black men, and one allegedly by an Asian man.
The people arrested for looting are a cross section of the city, however. Seattle police only list race as an identifying characteristic for 11 of 38 looting suspects. But of those, three are white, three are Black, three are Native American and two are Hispanic.
I don’t know what it means that the looting was apparently done by a rainbow coalition — other than that these riots aren’t going to be that simple to pigeonhole.
The reason I’m laboring over all this is that riots and associated protests are by their very nature complex. The purpose of a protest is the message, and sometimes riots carry messages, too (famously they are “the language of the unheard,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). But not everybody who shows up shares the same goals or is speaking in the same tongue. Of course not – it’s hard to get a condo board to speak with one voice, let alone 10,000 disparate people in the streets.
So it makes it easy to use this“outside agitator” trope as a form of spin, or as propaganda. It can serve to subtly let police off the hook, both for letting a riot spin out of control or for cracking down too hard on the peaceful protesters. Nationally, it can be employed to inflame political divisions (needless to say, that’s what Trump is using it for).
The reality is that provocateurs have been showing up and smashing stuff at different protests around Seattle for decades. As the arrest records show, they live here, so it would have been far more surprising if they hadn’t come. They also were hardly the only people looting and smashing things. Did you see that across the lake, in Bellevue, the looting there has been blamed not on anarchists or political actors but on an old-fashioned street gang?
My plea in all this is: Don’t fall for the imposed narratives. Seattle’s protest was a homegrown movement, and yes, it was our riot, too. The easy theories are designed more to disown or to distract than to enlighten.
In the end, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a story being manipulated in so many directions in which most everybody actually seems to agree on the important, central things: that George Floyd was brutalized and wrongly killed by police, and that we’ve got a ton of work to do to make things right.