Marches and rallies and candlelight vigils are beginning to seem like “Sending thoughts and prayers.” So when I heard there was going to be a march in response to an alt-right rally in Westlake Park, I made a small sign from a piece of scrap cardboard and headed to that center of the city.
I believe in sanctuary cities as much as I do freedom of speech, and I felt that the old maxim “Don’t falsely yell fire in a crowded theater” concisely set civilized limitations on first amendment rights. From what I gathered, the Westlake Rally was designed to spread the fire that was started the day before in Virginia. My intention was to stand in plain sight, holding words that told them their message had no place in Seattle.
When I arrived at the park, an American flag was being raised on a pole, with a blue flag that I was unable to identify floating below it. The area near the stage was cordoned off by barriers and police were everywhere I looked. I tried not to be reassured by that but I was.
The first person I saw as I approached a barrier close to the stage was a tall, white, buff guy wearing a shirt that said Danger. Cis-gendered, straight, white male. How else may I offend you? When I looked at his face, his eyes were without any expression at all.
That was when I pulled my sign out of my bag. Scrawled in my imperfect printing, it said Hell No. NO racism fear ignorance Nazis. America, not Amerikkka. I stood at the barrier and held it high, but first I removed my black cotton jacket because at that point the people behind the barrier were all dressed in black.
Westlake Park is large. A woman some distance from me held a sign that said Could You Not? I could see a knot of people wearing Black Lives Matter at the opposite edge of the park. A tall man holding a leash that was attached to a large pitbull stood closer to me than I would have liked. He tossed a flat and contemptuous gaze in my direction and then turned away. My mouth went a bit dry.
A woman with a camera smiled and asked if she could take a picture of my sign; she was the first of many because for the first hour or so my words, and Could You Not were the only ones in the south side of the park. As more people joined the group beside the stage, I began to feel very alone.
It was probably only half an hour but it felt much longer before a woman came to me and said “I’ll stand beside you.” Soon after we were joined by a white-haired man wearing a black tee-shirt that said Veterans for Peace. A group of young men in black shirts walked past us in marching formation. One of them stopped and said “Thank you for your service.” Then each of them in turn shook his hand.
A middle-aged blonde woman came to the edge of the barrier and asked “Why do you think we hate?” When I drew closer to her, she said “Why don’t you listen to what we have to say?” “I’m listening now,” I replied and she put a printed sheet into my hand. It was poorly written and rambling but the gist of it was she was an ordinary housewife from the South Sound who was galvanized to action at a rally in Olympia where masked “antifa” had drowned out the words of a woman when she was at the microphone. Her only issue was that of free speech, she wrote, and her Mexican and Native American relatives would laugh heartily at the idea that she was a Nazi. I thanked her and returned her statement without comment.
The next time I saw her she was walking the perimeter of the barricades holding a large sign that said Pedophile. Some minutes later she was joined by banners that said F**k Ed Murray, and Rapist. A man swooped about with a full-sized flag that said Trump. They were all silent.
Westlake was filling up. Shoppers passed by, children played in the area that adjoined the barriers, people stopped and asked questions. “What is happening?” “Who is Ed Murray?” A young Latina woman stood beside me for a while and said “Look. That’s guy’s black. That one’s either Latino or Native American, What are they doing in there?”
Knots of men in black and a group of very young people in olive-green paramilitary uniforms passed us, and when I tried to make eye contact with them, their eyes were as guarded as the blocked-off stage. Classic rock blared from loudspeakers, and I will never again feel the same about Start Me Up.
“They’re off schedule,” I remarked at two o’clock. We had been watching for over an hour and the blonde was still working the crowd, the signs and the flag were still in full view, the dead-eyed supporters continued to trickle in, but there was nothing more. Police were leaving the park. A drizzle began and then stopped. There was something ominous about the lack of action. “Where are the marchers?” I asked. “They’re on their way, and there are more of these people coming too,” a man replied, looking up from the screen of his phone.
Within a few minutes, a small crowd joined us, wearing Water is Life and Black Lives Matter tee-shirts, some carrying signs that were far better constructed and lettered than mine. Halt the Alt-Right was paraded around the barriered perimeter, held by a beautiful girl in shorts and Doc Martens.
Then a man took the microphone at center-stage and was drowned out by boos from his first word. “Go. Stop. We Don’t Want You,” echoed from every side of the park. A few sentences from him and other speakers flickered through the outrage. “We are peaceful.” “I was like you once but I recognized what was true.” “Why do you hate?’ The words that were intelligible contrasted crazily against the banners that were still held toward the crowd, F**ck Ed Murray. Pedophile. Rapist.
A man standing near me was repeatedly shouting “Fuck you,” and the woman who first stood beside me had both fists held high in the air, middle fingers extended. I moved away to a spot where a young man was relaying news from his phone. “They’re coming. There’s been tear gas on Second Avenue.”
There seemed to be only one logical ending to what was taking place and I didn’t want to see it. As I walked across Pine Street, I heard several explosions and I’ve never felt more relieved to be in the bland anonymous safety of a shopping mall.
The bus tunnel held parked sheriffs' vehicles in the space between the rails which was the only clue given to any disturbance above ground. As I stood and waited for my bus, I remembered a man and woman who had stood beside me in that eerie silence before the shouting began.
“What’s happening?” the man asked. “We’re not from here, we are French.” I explained as clearly and concisely and as unemotionally as I could but still my voice trembled when I told them, “If you’re here to enjoy yourselves in Seattle, go to the waterfront. Go to the Market and buy flowers. Have fun in this city. Don’t stay here.”
They left but half an hour later I saw them behind me, sitting at a park table. “We were so happy in France when Obama was elected,” the man said, “and now we are happy because the states are standing up against Donald Trump.”
On my way to Westlake I had looked at the faces who sat near me on the bus, and later at the people who were passing by the barriers on their way to go shopping. Brown faces, black faces, faces under hijabs, all reminded me of the true beauty of Seattle and the need to make it a sanctuary of peace and sanity for all of us.
Later I was deeply troubled by images of signs that said Kill the Nazis and Die Nazi Scum. I was upset that we didn’t allow the gist of a speech to hit the air before we began to boo, and hours later remembering the outstretched middle fingers of the placid-looking woman who had stood beside me still turned my stomach. But I felt satisfied that hate hadn’t been allowed to drift through the air I breathed and that so many Seattle people had chosen to stand against evil that is trying to cloak itself in normalcy.
Yes. That is action that is important. Yes. I will do it again.