Please ignore the big local news story of the week.
I don’t think I’ve ever advised anyone to turn away from the news before. But in this one case, the story of the controversy around a derelict trailer parked in West Seattle was so manufactured and filled with fake outrage that, if you followed it in real time, it was almost certain to make you dumber.
It’s now been well-documented what happened: A right-wing fever dream to troll Seattle City Council members by parking trashed RVs in front of their homes got mistakenly brought to life by left-wing activists. They wrongly figured the threatened right-wing protest was actually happening, at Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s house, and so volleyed photos around left-wing circles.
But it wasn’t happening. Turned out a homeless woman was just parking her trailer.
Because nobody checked before freaking out about it (except for Seattle Times reporter Scott Greenstone), a minimob formed, irresponsibly egged on by a KIRO radio talk-show host, which vandalized the woman’s RV and allegedly threatened her with a knife.
It’s like a case study in modern communication dysfunction. There’s nothing new about people jumping to wrong conclusions after assuming the absolute worst about others. But while in another era those misjudgments may have withered alone in addled heads, now they’re shared instantly and widely via social media. And kablooey.
For an episode in which everything was misunderstood as it was happening, it also seems to me that the overarching frame in which the story was interpreted is fundamentally wrong as well.
KIRO talker Dori Monson, who along with failed City Council candidate Ari Hoffman originally came up with the junked-RV-protest idea, said the reaction to the West Seattle RV was surely a sign of a tipping point.
“You see, there is something much greater at play here,” he said. “And that is that people have had it. We finally seem to have reached the boiling point. We are sick and tired of the drugs, the crime, and the absolute mess that our region has become. Now it looks like there will be some serious citizen revolting going on.”
No, it doesn’t. There is scant evidence that Seattle is revolting against anything.
The Seattle Times recap said this: “The politics around homelessness … can feel like a contact sport. Debates about the issue are highly charged, from last year’s repeal of a tax on large businesses to fund homeless services, to the ongoing discussion about the connection between homelessness and mental illness and substance abuse.”
It may feel like a contact sport, but maybe that’s because of all the manufactured outrage on social media and talk radio. Meanwhile the broader mass of Seattleites have, for the most part, quietly supported a range of compassionate, more nuanced approaches.
Too boring for talk radio I know. But it’s the truth.
Just look at the City Council elections playing out right now. Homelessness is the biggest issue, but the “get tough,” “Seattle is dying” type candidates all got annihilated in the primary. Take Hoffman — he clocked in at just 11.5% of the vote, losing to the no-homeless-sweeps Tammy Morales by 38 percentage points. A no-contest like that doesn’t even rate as a sport, let alone a contact one.
In polls, such as one commissioned by our own Project Homeless last fall, Seattle voters repeatedly have said getting at the root causes of homelessness is a higher priority than getting people off the street. In February, pollster Stuart Elway had residents rank six actions the city might take, from more shelter to more mental-health services to paying more to help people stay in apartments. Finishing last among the six: “clearing out encampments.”
I’m not arguing what I personally think is the right or wrong policy approach here. I’m saying the idea that the broad Seattle population is so fed up it now wants to “get tough” on the homeless is a right-wing fantasy.
This is important to keep in mind for more than just this one episode in West Seattle. That’s because there’s a homelessness demagogue on the loose now who has a megaphone a million times stronger than KIRO radio’s.
So far President Trump has attacked mostly California cities, including blaming the homeless there for dumping “tremendous” amounts of needles and other waste into the ocean (officials say this isn’t even technically possible because of the way the storm sewer system works). His administration also is said to be looking at a law-enforcement-led homeless “crackdown” in Los Angeles.
I suspect it’s only a matter of time before Trump’s tweet bazooka gets turned on us.
Will some people freak out, and wrongly malign the innocent — again?
Maybe. We failed this first test. Next time, let’s don’t believe the hype.