March 23, 2001
Death, rape and rage at Seattle’s Mardi Gras:
A radical woman’s response
On February 27, the final night of Seattle’s Mardi Gras escalated into a huge brawl which left one dead and scores injured. It took two weeks for reports to hit the media about the high numbers of women who were sexually assaulted that night. This is Radical Women’s statement on these events.
The Police Chief and Mayor are furiously deflecting blame for the Fat Tuesday fiasco. Rather than solutions, we’ll get a few culprits and many platitudes. But that’s not good enough. Seattle needs meaningful action.
To start, we must understand the problems.
Like much of popular culture, Seattle’s Mardi Gras was created solely to make a buck. It was initiated by Pioneer Square bar owners to sell bucket-loads of beer. So instead of a kaleidoscope of parades and street performers as in New Orleans and Rio, our event is little more than an overgrown frat party characterized by mass drunkenness and ogling of women’s breasts.
And when boys will be boys, women often become prey. The scene changes from one of would-be sex goddesses flashing their boobs to a nightmare in which hundreds of drunks chant for women to expose their breasts. A large number of women were groped, had their clothes stripped off, and were sexually violated by groups of up to two dozen men.
Yet no one has filed a complaint. Sexual assault victims have no faith they will be treated with respect. They fear public humiliation and worry about retaliation. They expect their stories to be discounted because they were part of the ruckus. Why should women come forward to the same police force which abandoned them that night?
And where were the police on Fat Tuesday? They were on the perimeters, playing it safe.
This was a departure from previous, calmer nights when the SPD behaved with inappropriate aggression, instigating confrontations with riot-geared street sweeps, rubber bullets and pepper spray.
By Tuesday, the cops had turned the festival into a showdown, making Pioneer Square the place to be for thrill-seekers looking for a rumble. The city added to the errors by canceling an outdoor radio stage which might have focused the crowd’s energy. Instead, there was nothing to do but mill around while alcohol levels rose and the pressure built for something, anything, to happen. When it did, the cops stood back and let it fly.
The violence was ugly, brutal and multi-racial. Women were trading blows as well as taking them. Kris Kime was fatally attacked. People, cars, and shops were smashed up. In a context of unrestrained belligerence, ordinary people can be overwhelmed by a rage they suppress every other day.
And youth are angry at a system that promises much but delivers little. Seattle has to provide a better deal for all young people and must alleviate the grinding racism experienced by youth of color. The fact that some, not all, of the attacks were of the "take that, whitey" kind, shows how much discrimination African Americans endure in Seattle.
They are routinely stopped for the "crimes" of Driving While Black and Shopping While Black. Underage clubs are banned and it’s been years since any Pioneer Square nightclubs catered to African Americans. Tuition is astronomical. Affirmative action is gone. The drug wars imprison people of color at mind-boggling rates. Seattle’s workingclass Black neighborhoods are bought up by white yuppies who inflate housing prices. These are just a few reasons young African Americans in a free-for-all melee might see raucous, drunk, misbehaving, middleclass white kids as especially worth taking a poke at.
"Riot is the language of the unheard," said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Seattle has to listen.
Expressions of grief and guilt aren’t enough. Resolutions to heal are a joke if the status quo is not challenged. Because the problems are solvable.
Here’s what I believe is needed:
1. An elected civilian review board over police with the power to investigate and discipline.
2. A committee of sexual assault advocates, the Women’s Commission, and the Human Rights Commission convened to obtain testimony from Mardi Gras victims. The city, police department, and bar owners should pay damages to injured individuals. Provide public money for sexual assault sufferers who desire counseling.
3. City, state and federal funding to improve the schools, provide tuition assistance, and create well-paid jobs and free recreational activities for youth. Reinstate affirmative action in trades, professions and education. Guarantee affordable housing through rent control and property tax rollbacks. Overturn the ordinance against underage clubs.
4. A city-wide educational campaign that provides serious discussion of sexual assault and racism.
5. If the Mardi Gras celebration continues, train young men and women of all races to act as peace-keepers. The Pioneer Square bars should provide free, outdoor entertainment for the thousands at the festival who can’t get into the taverns because they are too young, too poor, or too many.
None of these solutions are hard. But they require a shifting of priorities. How many lives must be lost and indignities suffered before this city provides every human being with an equal chance for fulfillment, happiness and the right to party?