It is said that nobody likes a snitch. Which goes a long way toward explaining why feelings are rubbed so raw in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood...
It is said that nobody likes a snitch. Which goes a long way toward explaining why feelings are rubbed so raw in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood these days.
It all started in March, when somebody called the city to report that a homeless guy had built a treehouse on public land near the I-5 bridge.
The city sought to evict the squatter, an eccentric known as The Squirrelman.
First reported in the Seattle P-I, the story blew up into a sensation touching on issues of class, compassion and how modern-day Seattle deals with the down-and-out.
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Today, the homeless man, Dave Csaky, is gone, living in a donated RV on a farm in Skagit County, courtesy of people who heard of his plight. His elaborate treehouse is gone, too.
Not gone: the backbiting over how all this played out.
Last week, in a letter to the street newspaper Real Change, a criminal defense attorney, James Roe, outed The Squirrelman’s outer.
He snitched on the snitch, calling him “an embarrassment to native Seattle citizens everywhere.”
“To turn in a guy to the city who is only trying to get by, scrapping out a living, just so you can kick him out — morally I find that reprehensible,” Roe told me by phone.
It turns out the couple who ratted out the homeless guy run a business down the street selling … caviar.
“This is what Seattle has come to,” Roe said. “In another era, Seattle had room for people like The Squirrelman. What happened to tolerance? There’s no place for it now, among all the nouveau riche.”
Betsy and Dale Sherrow, who have run Seattle Caviar Co. for 18 years, say there’s nothing nouveau about them (they are Seattle natives). Or particularly riche.
“We do cater to higher-end customers, but it’s a small business — we’re not exactly over here eating bonbons and having a maid clean our toenails,” said Betsy Sherrow.
The snitch label doesn’t fit either, she said.
“A snitch does it vindictively, and that was not the case here at all.” (Her husband, Dale, who made the call to the city, was in Alaska last week on business.)
She said they did it solely because the treehouse was an illegal fire hazard and the area has problems with vandalism and vagrancy.
“We aren’t snitches,” she said. “We are responsible citizens who felt that if we stayed silent, we would be promoting something that’s wrong.”
It’s true that one person’s snitch can be another’s whistle-blower. As a member of the media — where our best work can come from the whisperings of rats — I’d be the first to admit these lines are blurry.
Still. I can’t imagine siccing the city on a homeless guy in a treehouse. Particularly one who isn’t making any trouble.
When it comes to officialdom, a strong community has a bit of the omertà in it. The code of silence. Unless a serious crime is being committed, or someone’s in danger, then calling the authorities often makes matters worse.
Take last week’s medical-marijuana raid in the U District. Neighbors tire of pot smell and call cops on sick people, not realizing they are sick. Cops raid the place, rip apart a wall, seize stuff. Then say: Oops, never mind.
Surely this could have been talked out without calling the cops?
Sherrow says, in her case, that critics such as Roe — whom she called “an outrageous jerk” — ought to take into account that The Squirrelman now is better off. He’s got a safe home on a legal lot.
“Maybe indirectly we did him a favor,” she said.
It was the people who rushed to his aid who did him the favor. Yet her comment flashed me back to the night before, when my son had broken our house rule barring flips on the trampoline. I banned him from it for three days as punishment. Later my daughter came up to me, whispering:
“Dad, I know I’m not supposed to tattle. But do you want me to tell you if Oscar does any more flips?”
There it was, the yin and yang of snitching, laid bare by an 8-year-old. I thought of the code of silence. I thought of my son in a neck brace.
It wasn’t a close call. I nodded. I was embarrassed. Nobody likes a snitch. Until you need one yourself.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.