Monday morning, June 1, I awoke early feeling drained. This time of year in Seattle it’s hard to sleep in anyway, since it starts getting light before five o’clock. In addition to which there’s now the daily fact that – especially on the West Coast – you go to bed on tenterhooks, keenly aware that a fresh load of shit will have already hit the fan by the time you take your first sip of morning coffee. And then you have to spend an hour or two triaging the deluge of bad news from back east. And then you must either try to get started on a semblance of a normal work day, or say the hell with it.
In addition to all of the above, this Monday was an especially hard morning because I was worried about my father, who had surgery last Friday in Colorado Springs. The surgery went well, but there were some complications (not medical but logistical) afterwards that caused a flurry of worry for me and my brother, who lives in DC. So Sunday we had a series of phone calls, trading notes and making contingency plans on the fly. For much of Sunday I was even seriously considering dropping everything and driving solo the nineteen-plus hours from Seattle to Colorado Springs, hopefully after having gotten a coronavirus test. (But how do you get one of those? I still don’t know. My medical insurer will authorize one only if you’re exhibiting symptoms or about to have surgery.)
In the end things turned out fine, for now, for my dad, but that was my Sunday. Meanwhile, as the whole world knows, there was unrest on the streets of American cities coast to coast, including Seattle, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
After Sunday came Monday. The weekend had been bewildering and exhausting for both me and Jenny, even though the only way we experienced all that was going on was by reading about it and watching it on television. Lying on the couch early Monday morning I drank coffee and read some more and worried about my father. After speaking to him and feeling reassured – thus also freed from any imminent need to drive to Colorado Springs – I decided to set aside all work for the day and do gardening instead. Our lilac shrubs needed to be deadheaded, and I wanted to set (under the arch over the path along the east side of the house) a large natural paving stone that I had bought (at Pavingstone Supply Inc., a place I recommend, on 11th Avenue NW in lower Ballard, across from the Fred Meyer parking lot) during my day of errands on Friday.
So I happily did those things for a while in the early afternoon, working up a sweat and listening on my iPod to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album (“Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets”). But Jenny had let me know that Governor Inslee was going to speak at three o’clock, and as always I wanted to hear what he had to say. At about quarter to three Jenny called to me through the window of the side bedroom – the room she’s been using to teach her classes on Zoom – and I went in.
We were both briefly unsure whether the governor’s speech was going to happen, because KING5 was playing a pre-recorded episode of the Ellen show. But then Ellen went away and Jay came on the screen.
The right to demonstrate to protest injustice, he said, “is not just enshrined in our Constitution, to some degree in a way it’s a responsibility. Because we know we want change if we’re gonna have justice. And these folks, the thousands of people who were peaceably demonstrating, were asking for both.” Violence and destruction, on the other hand, are “not constitutionally protected,” and “We will not allow that to obscure the justice of the underlying protest.”
He praised the many citizens who showed up early Sunday morning in downtown Seattle to help clean up graffiti and damage from the weekend unrest. “I saw ten-year-old girls sweeping up glass,” he said. “I saw people scrubbing off walls. These people came unbidden. It was a visceral reaction of respect for their community and desire to heal, so we can get back to the job of demanding justice. That was really inspiring to me, and I hope it’s heartening to many people.”
“I was encouraged to see the Floyd family, one of his relatives, say, ‘Keep protesting, but stop looting,’” he said. “… Frankly, that’s the kind of leadership we need, and it came from a family who is now, obviously, in grief.”
He also praised the state National Guard. “It was a very rapid response, and we’re appreciative of that. … The members of the Guard are not some occupying force. They literally are our neighbors, who put aside their families to come serve. … I should stress that the Guard are unarmed peacekeepers.”
“I think our country needs leadership right now, and that leadership comes in all sizes and packages,” he said. He recalled the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, how his father had told him the news. He quoted the words of Robert Kennedy, compelled to break the news that night to a predominantly black audience:
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.
“I don’t think I could say it any better,” said Inslee. Then he excused himself and seemed to lose his place or his train of thought, and he sat there for quite a few seconds looking down and to the side at his three-ring binder. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “My dad cried that night, and so did I. I miss him.”
Taking questions, he spoke about the inequities in the coronavirus infection rate. “That oughta be a signal call for us to look for opportunities to reduce inequity in our society,” he said. “… Our efforts to reduce that infection rate is certainly a just thing to do as well as a healthy thing to do.”
He was asked about the conference call held that morning, the one where Trump railed about a need to “dominate” and claimed most state governors were “weak.”
“Leadership looks like Robert Kennedy and his comments,” Inslee replied. “And I have to say that the comments by the president have not been in that vein. … I think the most helpful thing the president can do at this point is to enjoy silence.”
Asked whether he had said anything to Trump on the call, he said: “I did not respond to him. I did not think it would be productive. I think he knows where we’re coming from. And I think my sentiments are shared by the vast majority of governors, who were astounded by that ranting of the president today.”
To another question, he replied: “The social services, we are very concerned about this. We have a six-and-a-half-billion-dollar or more hole in our budget. … And I’m gonna look forward to the legislature having the courage to deal with that.”
Near the end, he returned to the original subject and connected it again to the pandemic. “If it’s small comfort, there was no loss of life [in Seattle] the last couple nights. That’s a good thing. That’s the one thing we can’t replace. … Covid’s not going away while we’re dealing with our other challenges. … If you wear a mask, you are protecting the protester next to you. … I kinda broke down a few minutes ago, ’cause I remembered the night violence took Martin Luther King. And I think all life oughta be preserved. That’s why I’m speaking out.”
It was deflating when it was announced, as we sat there after Governor Inslee wrapped up, that Trump would be speaking to the nation next. It had not occurred to me that that might happen; my plan had been to return to the lilacs after hearing what Jay had to say.
Jenny and I looked at each other and both wondered aloud whether we had the stomach or any need to put ourselves through it. Partly out of inertia – we were already sitting on the couch, the TV was already on – we ended up sitting there, like deer in the headlights, as Trump made his menacing threats. Afterwards we felt tainted and violated, as if our little home, our refuge, had been encroached on by malign forces. Ever since March I’ve taken heart from Jay Inslee’s assertion that “None of us here are being distracted by the background noise that might come out of the White House.” And I still do. But now Trump was insistently and successfully claiming our attention, explicitly declaring peaceful American demonstrators against police violence to be terrorists and enemies, and threatening to make his power felt in all too tangible ways.
The three days since then feel like three weeks. Too much has happened – and been too well documented by others who, unlike me, have been on the streets – for anything I might write about it to be worth reading.
In any case, I find myself resorting to Kremlinology. Is the Secretary of Defense at odds with the president? No, maybe, yes, no. As early as Monday morning – after the conference call but before Trump’s speech – I found myself querying an acquaintance who is a combat veteran of Iraq: “What do you think would happen if he were to insist to the actual brass of the actual U.S. military that they cooperate [in crushing demonstrations]?” He replied:
It’s an interesting hypothetical, for sure. There’s a couple of things to think about. One, the lawfulness and constitutionality of such an order as the military is not a police force – not saying it couldn’t be done though. I’m not well versed in constitutional law. However, the military is sworn to “protect against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” One could certainly make the argument for the domestic side. Otherwise, aside from debating semantics, and if Trump did give such an order, I think there would be commanders who would willfully disobey such orders, because of morality concerns and lawfulness of the order. We were always told that we have to obey any lawful order by our superiors, and should disobey any that isn’t. Easier said than done, however. Any choice a commander makes would certainly destroy the cohesiveness of any unit.
On Monday, Peter Maass, senior editor at The Intercept, tweeted: “Just took a mental health break from what’s unfolding in America by watching a video of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s final speech, in which he was interrupted, for the first time ever, by hostile chants from a crowd he thought supported him. This spelled his end.”
On Tuesday, CNN White House correspondent Jeremy Diamond tweeted: “Per pooler @jonkarl, the President was greeted with many middle fingers & raised fists as his motorcade made its way to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine.”
On Wednesday I had a long phone conversation with another veteran friend, a retired Marine officer. She alluded to the likelihood, if active duty military were to be used to suppress domestic dissent, of “multiple Kent States.”
Also on Wednesday, my attention and worry began coalescing around my brother and sister-in-law, who live in southeast DC, a dozen or so blocks east of the Capitol, in an 1880s-vintage row house, very urban, and near a Metro station. My brother and I have been talking a lot lately, occasioned by our father’s surgery. Living where he does, Aaron has taken in recent years to protecting himself from politics by following minutiae to do with the Packers and Brewers and the Washington Nationals, and by listening to sports talk radio in the car. It’s a very deliberate strategy on his part, since he’s not at all a jock type. It worked pretty well until last fall, when Trump soiled the World Series with his presence and then Kurt Suzuki shared a podium with him and said stupid things while wearing a MAGA hat.
But Aaron is not oblivious, much as he would like to be. I’m two years younger, and in any case he’s a grown man and how he runs his life is none of my business. But because I love him I found myself taking the liberty of urging him to keep potable water, non-perishable food, a working flashlight, and spare batteries in the house, and gas in the car. At one point he said something about repairing to a hotel in Alexandria in case of a worst-case scenario. “That’s a good idea,” I said, “unless you can’t get past the Army roadblocks.”
On Wednesday afternoon, my brother shared with me an unsolicited note he had received from a local friend who is from Nigeria: “Please stay away from any kind of protesters, peaceful or otherwise. I heard that our president has brought the military into it. It’s oddly familiar, and bad things could happen.”
This morning, Thursday, I tweeted at my old British buddies Martin Brown (an academic historian of Central Europe) and Nick Ryan (a journo like me): “Hey @ryanscribe remember when you and I got stuck in Parliament Square, on May Day 2000, and finally got let out by the riot cops after pointing out that we were journalists? Those were the days.” My lasting memory of that day is of how demonstrators dug up grass and used a strip of it to fashion a green Mohawk (or Mohican as Brits call it) on the statue of Winston Churchill. Photos of that appeared above the fold in all the national papers the next day, and much outrage was expressed throughout Middle England.
Nick replied to me: “I was thinking about that the other evening re. recent events. Just before then I’d done a gig with @ICRC in Albania/Kosovo border, when I’d had a blue diplomatic passport and big Red Cross badge, which seemed to guarantee access and safety. No more.”