This past Wednesday, June 24, Jenny endured a 45-minute Zoom meeting with the president of the University of Washington, Ana Mari Cauce, along with the relevant vice provost, Rovy Branon. The meeting’s ostensible purpose was to take a last-ditch stab at saving, in some form, the Intensive English Program in which Jenny was an instructor for the past 16 years.
The state-level American Federation of Teachers had somehow managed to secure the meeting, but none of the higher officers of Jenny’s little union were able or willing to reschedule their own prior commitments in order to attend it (one of them even cheerfully admitted that she was going to be on a boat that day). So the chore fell to Jenny, as the union’s acting treasurer and at-large member (she never quite understood what that role was supposed to entail; in practice it amounted to being de facto shop steward), but mainly because she’s a conscientious person who tends to say yes when asked to do things.
The meeting went about as she had expected it would. The presidents of AFT Washington and the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO also took part. Points were made about how Continuum College – the UW’s extension entity, which absorbed the IEP several years ago – overcharged for overhead costs, making it look as if the IEP was losing money; failed or refused to market its classes adequately; refused to share its own budget numbers honestly; and had become ridiculously top-heavy with overpaid administrators. And suggestions were made along the lines of moving or reconstituting the program under other auspices or departments. As the meeting was ending, Jenny took the opportunity to advise the president and vice provost: “Please think about whether the main activity of Continuum College should be education or administration.”
But it was all for naught, or for show, and in any case it was too little too late. It was as long ago as January, just after the start of the winter academic quarter, that Assistant Vice Provost Sandra Janusch announced, by email late on a Friday afternoon, the intention to “sunset” the IEP at the end of the summer quarter, in August. The union attempted to negotiate to try to save the program, but during spring break, in mid-March, the administration announced to students that it was going to close, making it a fait accompli. The pandemic had already hit home around the end of winter quarter, in early March, when UW became the first American university to shift to online-only instruction. All of the above gave the higher-ups cover to go ahead and lay off all IEP instructors at the end of spring quarter, in early June. Jenny currently has a one-third-time gig for the summer designing the online version of one of the courses, another example of her saying yes when asked, ironic given that she’s been laid off.
The part-time thing is slightly helpful to our little household, but only slightly. And one effect of the layoff is that we failed to qualify for a refinancing of our mortgage, which would have reduced our minimum monthly payment by about $300. The lady who was trying to make the refinance happen asked me more than once if Jenny’s changed work situation was “because of Covid,” almost as if it would be worse for our prospects if it were. I don’t get that, but in any case the real answer is no, because it’s very clear that, long predating the pandemic, Continuum College, and the university itself, really just wanted to do away with the IEP because its instructors were unionized. In the meeting, Cauce and Branon both said condescending things about how they really like unions; Cauce fondly recalled how in her youth she had been a union member when she worked in a grocery store. But the end result of months, nay years, of drama and heartache leads Jenny to wonder what the point was of becoming unionized in the first place. And it leads me to reflect that the only unions in America that seem to have any clout anymore are the ones that represent athletes and cops.
In a press conference Jenny and I watched live two long weeks ago, on June 11, responding to a question about whether she and Chief of Police Carmen Best had considered resigning following criticism of their handling of the CHAZ or CHOP – the protester-run “autonomous zone” on Capitol Hill – Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the answer was “no and no.” Then she added: “We thought about a Thelma and Louise moment, but that’s not happening either. We are here. We’ve got work to do and we’re going to get it done.”
That comment seemed rather humorless even at the time, and now, especially after reading a June 24 Seattle Times article about the history of the tense relationship between the two women – Best was not Durkan’s first choice for her job – Durkan’s rather wooden stab at a jesting aside seems even more unfunny. The same article described Durkan accurately as a “business-friendly centrist” and dissected the mutual buck-passing about who did or did not authorize or order the abandonment of the East Precinct on June 9. It quoted a June 11 video, meant for internal departmental distribution but leaked, in which Best told her “SPD family”:
You should know leaving the precinct was not my decision. You fought for days to protect it. I asked you to stand on that line, day in and day out, to be pelted with projectiles, to be screamed at, threatened and in some cases hurt, then to have a change of course nearly two weeks in, it seems like an insult to you and our community. Ultimately the city had other plans for the building and relented to severe public pressure. I’m angry about how all this came about.
Until the current crisis, I had never taken much notice of either Durkan or Best. In what we used to call normal times, especially in middle-class Seattle with its amoeba-like, indecisive, not to say passive-aggressive political culture, personalities don’t tend to thrust themselves forward – and the ones that do, like the self-declared socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant, tend to be resented. Durkan became mayor in 2017 after a sex scandal forced her predecessor Ed Murray to resign rather than run for reelection. My Jenny reminded me the other day that Durkan was not our preferred candidate, but when she was elected, we shrugged and got on with our life. Best came up through the police ranks here in Seattle, which is part of why she wasn’t initially on the shortlist two years ago; the city has tried to address past police scandals by bringing in new chiefs of police from outside.
At any rate, I’m sorry to say neither of them is showing the mettle that it would take to rise to this moment. One would like to think that having women in such roles, at such a time, would be a good thing. But that in itself doesn’t cut it; the character and capacities of individuals also matter.
The overall gist of local coverage of the CHAZ or CHOP in recent days has been that those young people are well-meaning, and police brutality certainly is not good, but now it’s time for the youngsters to sit down and let the grown-ups take charge again. “Keep protesting, but end CHOP,” was the headline of the Seattle Times’s June 24 editorial, which to me sounds rather like the editor-mentor who, early in my career, assured me that if I was a good boy it was “only a matter of time” until “someday” I would be published in the Atlantic Monthly.
Durkan met with protesters yesterday, after SDOT crews were forced, after “at least one protester lay down in the street in front of a piece of equipment,” to abandon an attempt to remove the concrete barriers that define the autonomous zone’s boundaries. But nothing the establishment has said or done so far really addresses the challenge implicit in what a woman who identified herself only as Keely told the Seattle Times on June 23: “I’m still Black, and my life still matters.”
I’m currently reading a long essay by Simon Sellars, author of Applied Ballardianism, about the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” work of the poet and essayist Peter Lamborn Wilson, a.k.a. Hakim Bey. “Bey divines resistance as embodied in everyday instances or moments that refuse to engage directly with the Spectacle,” Sellars explains. A T.A.Z. is “an uprising which does not engage directly with the State” or “a tactic of disappearance,” which sounds a lot like me just wanting to be left alone to read books in my own home, though I’m pretty sure it also has meanings to do with society and collective action.
Sellars paraphrases Bey’s definition of the Spectacle as “the late-capitalist era of interlocking communications technology, mass media, and corporate control” and quotes Bey, writing in 1991:
Absolutely nothing but a futile martyrdom could possibly result now from a head-on collision with the terminal State, the megacorporate information State, the empire of Spectacle and Simulation. Its guns are all pointed at us, while our meagre weaponry finds nothing to aim at but a hysteresis, a rigid vacuity, a Spook capable of smothering every spark in an ectoplasm of information, a society of capitulation ruled by the image of the Cop and the absorbent eye of the TV screen.
Today’s news is that American Airlines will be booking its flights to capacity starting July 1. They assure us that passengers will still be required to wear masks, as well as asked to declare pre-flight that they’ve been “free of coronavirus symptoms for the past 14 days.” Customers will remain able to modify bookings without paying fees through September 30.
In mid-March, right at the start of all this stuff that’s been going on, I was all set to spend a week on campus at Texas Christian University and then a week on the East Coast, speaking at the Princeton Public Library and Lehigh University. My income from that trip would have totaled about $5,000, and TCU would have covered my travel from Seattle to Dallas-Fort Worth and on to Philadelphia. But I also had agreed to take part in a conference on the unending crisis in Kashmir, which I wrote about in my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, in Dallas on March 28. The organizers of the meeting were going to put me up in a hotel for two nights and reimburse my flight from PHL to DFW on the 27thand home to SEA on the 29th.
Needless to say, my entire two-week itinerary dematerialized during the first half of March. I had purchased my PHL-DFW-SEA ticket on February 25, too early to qualify for a pandemic-occasioned straight refund. So I have $571.80 credit with American Airlines, which the second of two very nice and helpful customer service people assured me I can use any time before the end of 2020. But now I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to use it, or if I’ll even want to. Right now, I just wish I had that $571.80 back.
 Simon Sellars, “Hakim Bey: Repopulating the Temporary Autonomous Zone,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Volume 4, Number 2 (2010), pp. 83-108, http://bit.ly/y2sMrU.