Seattle’s Liberal Reckoning
Seattle is in the grip of a far-left mindset. That became all the more evident, as if evidence were needed, during last year’s city council elections. Many foresaw these as likely to bring to leadership a new breed of business-backed politicians bent on repudiating the council’s progressive-socialist leanings. Finally, it was predicted, a sane brand of political moderation would emerge in Seattle government.
It didn’t happen. In the campaign’s final days, the top issue became the intent of Amazon and its leader Jeff Bezos to “buy” the election with a $1.5 million cash infusion into the coffers of the city’s business coalition. “Within days,” wrote Christopher Rufo of City Journal, “the referendum on a failed city council had been transformed into a referendum on corporate power.” There could be no question as to who would win that contest.
The result, said Rufo, was “the most liberal city council in history,” one that seems to be “out for revenge” against business interests and their moderate supporters. The stated agenda of many city council members now includes rent control, drug-consumption sites, the decriminalization of prostitution, the legalization of homeless encampments, the defunding of significant police programs, free public transit, and big new taxes on the rich, with particular emphasis, not surprisingly, on Amazon and its top executives.
A question that has haunted this city in recent weeks is to what extent this potent liberal sensibility contributed to the ghastly downtown event that occurred January 22. That was when three men, apparently street gang members, got embroiled in a rush-hour gunfight at the crowded intersection of Pine Street and Third Avenue. A 50-year-old female, described by the Seattle Times as a “joyful woman who lived a rich life,” was killed, and seven others were wounded, including one of the shooters. After the melee, police found some 20 shell casings at the scene.
While the local paper’s extensive coverage of the event and its aftermath didn’t explicitly raise the question of liberalism’s culpability, it nevertheless seemed to be on the minds of some Seattleites interviewed by the Times. A main focus for many was why these men were on the street in the first place and why city officials can’t find effective ways to combat such violence. Those who initiated the gun battle had extensive criminal records that reflected a certain persistent laxity in the application of the law. One Times headline read: “Tragic violence, unsurprising story.” The subhead: “Seattle’s long-running effort to address crime and sporadic violence downtown falls short.”
Attention turned inevitably to the three suspects. One of them, Jamel Jackson, 21, had previously been involved in a violent incident at the same downtown intersection, when he allegedly punched and kicked a victim who got embroiled with a female gang member in the middle of a large crowd. He had in his possession a loaded 9-mm handgun. He avoided prosecution for the assault by pleading guilty to illegal firearm possession, for which he was sentenced to four months of home detention. According to the Times, he had been told by at least four superior court judges that he was not to possess firearms, a proscription that he apparently ignored with impunity.
The other suspects, Marquis Tolbert and William Tolliver, both 24, had extensive criminal records when apprehended by police in Nevada on February 1. The Times reported that Tolbert had been arrested by Seattle-area police at least 50 times, while Tolliver had been arrested only around 25 times. Both were taken into custody in 2018 in connection with a drive-by shooting, but the charge against Tolliver was dismissed “in the interest of justice,” according to court documents that didn’t elaborate.
Tolbert got the drive-by shooting charge dismissed, along with two other felony charges, when he pleaded guilty to ripping a $1,500 gold necklace from the neck of a woman in a Seattle suburb. For that crime, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, with credit for time served, and 18 months of “community supervision” after the prison term. Almost immediately he violated the terms of his community supervision, and an arrest warrant was issued for him last August 19. But he was never apprehended and thus was at large on January 22 to involve himself in the bloody Seattle gun battle.
That’s the problem, in the view of Jon Scholes, president of a group called the Downtown Seattle Association. The Times quoted him as saying, “What we’ve all known way too long is that the heart of our city is a haven for criminals.” He advocated a police force expansion, redeployment of officers from special units to patrol duties, and greater efforts to apprehend people with open warrants such as Tolliver and Tolbert. “We need…” said Scholes, “more dedicated resources to deal with the people that we know are cycling through the criminal justice system. They’re thumbing their nose at the system and the community.”
But city officials, true to their liberal sensibility, seem more focused on the availability of guns. The Times quoted Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best as saying that the problem was “people with guns who shouldn’t have had the guns, in an area firing shots.” And Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, while pledging to fight crime on many fronts, also emphasized the gun issue. “If this had been a fistfight eight people would not have ended up at the hospital,” she said. “There are too many guns in our country.” Former mayor Mike McGinn, meanwhile, lamely suggested that the problem of violent crime simply couldn’t be addressed effectively through greater police efforts. “We’ve tried more arrests,” he said. “That doesn’t actually work.” He favored youth programs and “reentry” efforts to wean criminals away from criminal activity.
Seattle is not a high-crime city, at least in terms of violent crime. But it is grappling with a homelessness crisis that is sapping civic stability and fostering a large increase in petty lawbreaking. Meanwhile, city officials such as Durkan and Best seem incapable of addressing this erosion in any serious way.
In his searing documentary of last year, “Seattle is Dying,” KOMO-TV’s Eric Johnson painted a dire picture by citing police officers who say the city’s lax enforcement regimen has tied their hands, quoting citizens saying they’re fed up with growing theft, and showing the frustrations of local business owners whose livelihoods are threatened by what they consider official inertia in the face of these problems.
Writing on KOMO’s website, Johnson said his documentary was “about citizens who don’t feel safe taking their families into downtown Seattle….about parents who won’t take their children into public parks they pay for. It’s about filth and degradation all around us. And theft and crime. It’s about people who don’t feel protected anymore, who don’t feel like their voices are being heard.”
Johnson’s documentary was aired in March of last year, some seven months before the Seattle City Council elections. It touched a nerve among many Seattleites and kicked up gale-force winds of controversy throughout the city and beyond. In the end, though, it didn’t have much impact. It will take a lot more civic chaos, dysfunction, and violence for this city to make the connection between that decay and the kind of leadership it so avidly favors. Seattle may or may not be dying, but it is in a far more ominous state of civic health than most of its citizens realize.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., publishing figure, and author, lives on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle.