Ten Years in the City
An interview in our neighborhood newspaper this week talks to former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell about something that occurred at the International Fountain in Seattle Center in the week after September 11th, 2001. Seattle Center is where Seattleites meet for festivals and events that draw disparate people from around the city and the world, and the International Fountain is its center. Thousands gather at the fountain to watch in delight while children play in the water. It’s big and round. It’s safe. It was where people gravitated after the attacks, left flowers and mementos, and stood mostly silent, sometimes singing.
Mayor Schell remembers an event that week that I witnessed, too. Amid rumors of attacks on Muslims and on Sikhs mistaken for Muslims, a group of Sikhs and Muslims, some of the men distinctive in their turbans, arrived at the fountain and placed their memorial flowers among the others, the mayor walking with them, spiraling through the people to the center of the fountain while the crowd parted to let them through and clapped to show our appreciation, to soothe their fears. Similar events must have happened in cities all over the country.
Paul Schell was not a mayor I admire. I disagreed with his vision for upscale development in the city. And he is ultimately responsible for the egregious police misconduct that occurred during the WTO meetings in Seattle. But in spite of our differences, we agree about this. We agree that Seattle welcomes all its citizens, and that there’s no place for fear and prejudice in a healthy city.
In the years that followed, we in Seattle felt like that tolerance we insisted on and took such comfort in was under siege by leaders, laws, pundits, and wars. Everything seemed to be geared toward fear and anger. Our government was lying about who was responsible for the attacks, urging us to fear, kidnapping people, torturing them, imprisoning them without charges or access to council. The tolerance we tried to show each other was mocked publicly as naive. Even the idea of due process, one thing that I thought people of all persuasions agreed on, was tossed aside in favor of anonymous testimony and secret prisons. It seemed we were helpless to stop the madness set in motion by fear and cynical opportunism, the surveillance and security theater, the cheerleading for war and authoritarianism in the press.
When Barack Obama was elected president, no one was happier than city dwellers. The night he won the presidency, people in American cities ran out into the streets and danced for joy. Here was someone like us, someone from the city. Someone unafraid of strangers and foreigners. Someone accustomed to making room for people different than himself. Someone who knew from experience that people from wildly different backgrounds can live peacefully and happily together. Someone who met the sick, homeless, and disabled every day, who thought that encountering different cultures and languages was an ordinary part of the life of America.
President Obama has made many positive changes to America. The torture is officially over, the needs of the poor, the weak, and the newcomer are at least considered in administration deliberations. But the momentum of anti-American policies, the denial of basic rights, the detention without charges, the bullying by “security” officers public and private, hasn’t stopped. An ACLU report on the state of our rights over the past ten years shows us how much we lost in the aftermath of the attacks, and how far we have to go to regain them, in spite of the hopes we had for the change in the White House and Congress. But I hold out hope that some day soon the spirit of city life that was such an inspiration and comfort ten years ago will return to the government of our country.
Image by Auston James, courtesy of Compassionate Action Network.