End of Seattle Nice?
By Jean Godden
Seattle is a city of myths, none more persistent than Seattle Nice and the Seattle Freeze. The Freeze even has its own Wikipedia entry with Seattle Nice as its flipside. Seattle Nice is the belief that the natives are polite to a fault, but way too passive-aggressive. There's even a classic joke: What do you call four corpses found at a four-way stop? Seattle Nice.
Seattle Nice now may be exploding and not in a good way. Two weeks ago, residents packed a Town Hall meeting at the United Methodist Church in Ballard. On the schedule were two timely topics: homelessness and a proposal to tax large corporations to build more affordable housing.
The tax under consideration, a $500 a year employee tax, has been called "The Amazon Tax," so named by supporters of Councilmember Kshama Sawant who wave professionally printed signs with that legend. Not often mentioned is that the tax would snare nearly 600 other businesses, many with high volume but low profit margins.
Cut to the evening of May 2. The audience was hostile, definitely not Seattle Nice. Councilmembers insisted that they would accept only questions written in advance, rather than relying on an open microphone. That displeased those in attendance. They wanted to ask questions. They vented in angry chants: "Op-en Mic! Op-en Mic!"
It was clear the audience was fed up with the status quo. They were tired of homeless tents lining traffic medians, tired of trash, crap and discarded needles, tired of paying steep property taxes for affordable housing and fed up with a seeming lack of action on the part of the city. The meeting came right after Amazon revealed that, due to the head tax proposal, the company was halting construction on downtown buildings housing 7,000 employees.
The two-hour meeting erupted periodically with audience members punching the air. The speaker who said he owned a home in Ballard and supported the tax was hooted as a "liar" and "a plant." Councilmembers tried to maintain their cool. Councilmember Mike O'Brien, target of much of the crowd's ire, spoke saying it was "all about fairness."
The crowd kept booing. The evening was described as "the night Seattle Nice Died." However, this was only one indication that Seattle Nice is being shoved aside. A few nights later at the opening of the new Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard, Councilmember O'Brien was physically ejected from an afterwards party over his plan to extend the Burke-Gilman Trail through an industrial area.
Then there was the May 7 City Council meeting when angry forces took up the Head Tax, with laborers, socialists and human service workers on one side and other laborers and business representatives on the opposite side.
These incidents had precursors at City Council hearings. In the last couple of years, politicized groups -- individuals carrying professionally printed signs and simplistic messages -- have all but taken over hearings. Council meeting have grown increasingly raucous. Frequent attendees wave signs, obstruct views and shout down anyone who dares to disagree.
While public hearings ought to be lively exchanges, there is little excuse for public forums becoming nothing but competitive shouting matches. There's shame in not being able to reverse a trend toward intolerance. It is particularly worrisome when some opinions go unheard because of intense partisanship.
The trend toward disrespecting the opinions of others increased four years ago, perhaps not coincidentally along with the election of Sawant to the council. Leaders of her rather anti-social Socialist Alternative Party have assumed the role of stage-managing partisans at council hearings. Sawant's bull-horn clutching appearances at "Tax Amazon" rallies have provoked counter protests, with construction workers at times drowning out her tirades.
Since May's explosive demonstrations there have been moves by Mayor Jenny Durkan to take a more moderate approach to the hefty head tax. While not remotely the right direction for a city dependent on commerce, the compromise tax, if it gains approval, might serve as a way to smooth extreme tensions.
Let us hope the mayor's approach will build bridges and promote discussion without the oppressive tyranny of the shouters. Shouting the loudest is not the way to run a city. Seattle Nice, where are you?
Good article. An island of sanity does seem to yet exist in Seattle.
However, this tax situation is a consequence of electing fools, misfits, mentally deranged, and otherwise unstable individuals to the city council. The council created the overburden of homelessness, now they want those who work to suffer additional punishment to correct the problem the city created in the first place.
Margret Thacher had it right when she said something like: "Socialism is great until you run out of other people's money."
A corollary could be: "Do gooderism is great until the consequences start to bite you yourself in the butt." So it is with the voters who these fools put up election after election. The same goes for King county itself.