“You Uppity F*cking Bitch”: The Response to the Viral Public Comment Video Was Predictable and Avoidable

A couple of weeks ago, a video of the city council’s public hearing period went viral, spurred on by local conservative media and amplified by national right-wing talk show and podcast hosts. The video showed a man, Richard Schwartz, asking council member Debora Juarez, who was chairing the meeting, to stop the two-minute timer so that he could address her directly about the fact that the council didn’t seem to be listening to him with the kind of rapt attention he felt he deserved. Schwartz, who has met one-on-one with council members and complains to them frequently about cyclists going “too fast” in the Westlake bike lane, was breaking the public-comment rule that requires commenters to speak to items on the agenda; I’ve watched the council for a long time and seen them cut off many people’s mics over many years for violating this rule, but they didn’t do so in this case. (If you want to know more about Schwartz’s pet issue, KUOW did a  piece about him two days after his viral public comment). Instead, Juarez told him the clock was running and said he had her attention. Once the two-minute video clip started to spread via Facebook and Reddit, of course, none of that context mattered. The only thing many people saw was a kindly old man begging for attention from a bunch of rude government officials, mostly women, who ignored his sincere pleas for “just two minutes” of their attention.

That part was predictable: Right-wing bloviators love to crow about government (particularly liberal governments) not listening to the little guy. But so was what happened next: A torrent of abusive phone calls and emails from around the country, directly primarily at Juarez but also at every woman of color on the council, including one who was not even at the meeting. This was predictable because it’s basically what happened the last time the women on the council did something controversial. Last time, the council’s five female members voted against vacating a public alley for would-be stadium developer Chris Hansen. This time, they failed to pay sufficiently rapt attention to an older white man who was demanding that they hang on his every off-topic word.

I went through more than 1,000 emails that poured into council offices over the five-day period when the video was at its viral peak. Strung together and put into 12-point type, they made a 216-page Word document more than 130,000 words long. Some of the abusive emails went to subsets of the council, or to every council member (including the two, Bruce Harrell and Teresa Mosqueda) who weren’t there. Many others were targeted specifically at the female council members. In fact, more emails were addressed explicitly to Mosqueda—who, again was not even at the meeting—than to Mike O’Brien, who was.

In reading the emails, a few themes emerge. The first is sexist name-calling, most of it targeted at Juarez, who is referred to as “that cunt”; “a vile piece of trash”; “an entitled bitch”; an “uppity bitch” whose “ugly ass really should pay more attention to the citizens immediately in front if [sic] you, instead of looking up recipes for tortillas”; “A grotty, lazy, rude good for nothing stereotype”; a “disrespectful bitch”; a “vile old clam”; an “ugly fucking cow”; a “fat disgusting cow”; “the literal scum of the earth” whose “dusty old bones will most likely fill up all 6 feet of space [in her coffin] just by itself”; a “bitch” who should “suck my fucking dick,” and a variety of other slurs. Writers also targeted council member Kshama Sawant with sexist and racist slurs, including “a truly revolting individual and a cancer that plagues the Jewel of the Pacific Northwest”; a “racist hypocrite against the usa [sic] worthless politician”; a “piece of shit” “fucking Muslim” who should “go back to your ducking [sic] country”; and, of course, a bitch. Callers to Gonzalez’s office left messages saying she “should honestly get the fuck out of this country because you don’t belong here”; that she should “go fuck yourself, you fucking piece of shit”; and calling her “a vile and disgusting load of shit, you fucking bitch.”

Other themes: The council is being racist and sexist against Schwartz because he’s a white man (“Are you a bunch of misandrist [sic] (look that word up dummies) or just a bunch of chauvinist [sic] that are sticking up for the women but, really attacking men?.”); “I am appalled at your callous and arrogant demeanor toward the white male CITIZEN”); “Kiss America’s Ass & My White Male Veteran Ass. Now sit your Fat Ass Down.” They’re “arrogant” (a word that shows up 38 times in the emails), “entitled” (22) “elitists” (20) because they’re “Democrats” (or “Demo-craps” or “DEMON-CRAT[s]!!!!!” or “DemocRATs”). And they deserve to be “hit,” “slapped,” have someone “beat the fuck out of them” because of the way they acted. These comments, while sometimes directed at the entire council, were most often directed at Juarez, and often tended to be gendered, suggesting that while the entire council may be “DEMON-CRATS,” only the women on the council needed to be told (as Juarez was) that they are “Smug, elitist, dismissive, bored, annoyed, ignorant and ugly both inside and out.”

 

People often wonder why more women don’t go into politics, and there are many reasons—sexist double standards that require women to “prove ourselves” capable of roles men are assumed to be able to do by default; sexist societal expectations that make women primary parents, caregivers, housecleaners, and errand runners even in “progressive” cities like Seattle; gendered ageism that says that women are too young to be effective right up until the moment that they’re too old to be relevant. But the fact that women in public office are far more likely face threats, harassment, and gender-based verbal abuse is another reason, one we shouldn’t just ignore. In the weeks since the initial burst of hate speech that a staffer described as “the hurricane,” the media has moved on and the cameras (many of them trained directly on Juarez, demanding “answers to the questions” people commenting on the video were raising) have gone away. But we shouldn’t just ignore these attacks, or say the female council members “knew what they were signing up for”—or, as some members of the Seattle media did, fan the flames in order to juice our own ratings or clicks. Putting up with sexist, racist harassment and gender-based threats shouldn’t be a job requirement at any workplace, particularly one where women have to work three times as hard to be taken half as seriously.

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Fake News, Anecdata, and Things that Feel True

I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon at the Hilton Airport Conference Center (steps from the light rail station!), attending the Washington State Wire’s first-ever Re–Wire conference, where I was on a panel with WSW founder Jim Boldt, TVW president Renee Radcliffe Sinclair, and Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen. The topic: Polarization, fake news, and the future of media. The topic was way too big for four people to handle in 45 minutes, obviously, so I spent my 10 minutes or so (gently) pushing back against the notion that newspapers are going to save us (they aren’t) and the idea that local news consumers can’t tell the difference between “real” news and “fake” news. Boldt, in particular, seemed sold on this notion, claiming that nearly 9 in 10 news stories we read are generated by artificial intelligence. I find that number highly implausible, simply because local coverage is obviously generated by human beings; you can follow their bylines and see them in the flesh if you go to a community meeting or hang out at city hall. It could be that what he  meant is that nearly 9 out of 10 things that are posted online, or 9 out of 10 things that are posted on Facebook are AI-generated, but that’s a different problem than “why there isn’t much reliable local news.”

At the local level, I argued, the problem isn’t so much that there’s “fake news” (Nextdoor and your neighborhood Facebook group excepted), but that the interpretations of the news that does get reported are increasingly polarized. (Maybe this happens more in Seattle, where an army of newly minted socialists swarms my Twitter feed every time I sound too skeptical about a policy they support, than it does in, say, Tacoma or Kent). A neutral headline like “Rents increase for fourth quarter” will be spun as “excessive regulations force landlords to avoid poverty by increasing rents” by those on one end of the spectrum and as “greedy landlords bleed tenants dry” by those on the other. The problem arises, I said, when media who are deeply invested in one perspective being true dispense with fact-checking and rely on anecdata and alternative facts (or seem to eschew fact-checking altogether) to support their preordained conclusions.* For example, former mayoral candidate Cary Moon insisted, in the Stranger, that “hot money” flowing “out of China” was one of the main reasons housing prices have been going up in Seattle, and the paper, whose endorsement undoubtedly helped push Moon through the primary, did not dispute those claims.

Ultimately, Moon was never able to present evidence supporting her assertion that “hot money” was to blame for high housing prices, and brushed off evidence that refuted it with statements like, “We need to look at the data” and “Something’s going on.” But her supporters had already taken her initial sweeping claim—that foreign capital is a major reason housing prices are high in Seattle—and run with it. Foreign buyers snatching up property and leaving it vacant, creating an artificial market shortage? Feels true. And it’s certainly easier to blame “wealthy foreign investors” than have a complex and heated debate about Seattle’s restrictive zoning codes.

Recently, I’ve encountered the same resistance to numbers and reliance on anecdata in the debate over Airbnb regulations. (This week, the council passed new rules restricting most short-term rental operators, except those already operating in the downtown core, to two units total.) Opponents of services like Airbnb argue that they obviously increase housing prices by taking units off the market. And it feels true, especially when you happen to live near an Airbnb that used to be a long-term rental.  (As, it so happens, I do.) But when you confront them with facts, they often respond with anecdotes or observations, which are data points but are not the same thing as data.

Fact: There are, according to the website Inside Airbnb, a total of 426 units that meet the definition typically used by advocates who argue that short-term rentals are removing apartments from the long-term rental market. These units are whole units (that is, not rooms in someone’s house) that are frequently booked (too often to allow a long-term renter to live there), highly available (meaning they are listed as available to rent most or all of the time) and owned by people with more than one listing (meaning that they aren’t someone’s primary residence.) Even assuming that every single one of those Airbnb hosts would switch to being a full-time landlord (unlikely, given that, according to occupancy numbers, most hosts rent their units out only part-time), 426 units simply isn’t enough to influence rents one way or another in a city with hundreds of thousands of apartments and thousands more people moving here every month.

And yet anecdotes seem to win the day. “I know two people who have Airbnbs that they could be renting out as full-time units.” “We live in an era of landlords sitting on vacant properties.” “I watched two neighboring buildings get converted to full-time Airbnbs [in San Francisco] It’s a thing.” I mean—no one said it wasn’t “a thing.” There’s an important argument we should be having right now about revisiting ex-mayor Ed Murray’s decision to preserve restrictive single-family zoning across the city, but that’s such a difficult, fraught conversation. Easier to blame foreigners and rich people making a killing off their Airbnb empires. It feels true.

This is not to condemn people for basing their policy views on anecdotes from people they know, or their gut feelings. Everybody does that sometimes, especially when they lack full information. Instead, it’s a lament that there aren’t enough local media sources with the time or inclination to challenge assumptions that feel true—rent control will lower rents citywide because my rent won’t go up anymore; offering homeless people a bed in a crowded shelter will work because a shelter is obviously better than a tent—by presenting facts that are true.

* I should say here that I have my own biases—I’m pro-housing,  favor moving people over moving cars, and oppose punitive approaches to crimes of poverty and addiction—but I’ve changed my mind on issues plenty of times when the facts have pointed in a different direction than I thought they did. But this is usually in favor of a more nuanced position (it turns out some kinds of involuntary treatment do work) rather than a polar opposite extreme view (addicted people should be dragged off the streets and thrown into hospitals against their will.)

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Morning Crank: Indicators, Not Incidents

1. As the Trump Administration prepares to cut billions from the federal transportation budget, starving transit and road-safety projects across the city, Mayor Ed Murray announced at a press conference in Southeast Seattle yesterday that Seattle is taking a different path, funding new sidewalks and pedestrian-safety improvements through the $930 million Move Seattle levy that passed in 2015. Over the next two years, Murray said, the city will accelerate Phase 2 of the Rainier corridor safety project (restriping Rainier Ave. S. to calm traffic and provide space for bikes and a left-turn lane, for $2.25 million) and build 50 new blocks of sidewalks (at a cost of $22 million), with a goal of completing 250 new blocks of sidewalk by 2024. The city will also add more “pedestrian-friendly signals,” Murray said.

Then, looking like he’d reached his capacity for transpo-jargon, Murray turned the press conference over to Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, who fielded reporters’ (okay, my) wonky questions about stop bars, leading pedestrian intervals, and protected left turn phases. (For the record, those are: The lines on the street telling drivers where to stop; signals that let pedestrians start walking into an intersection before the light turns green for drivers; and signalized left turns, where drivers turn left on a green arrow while pedestrians wait.)

Those are all pretty standard (though necessary and important) pedestrian safety improvements. More interesting was the new safety “tool kit” Kubly said the city would use to inform its safety investments in the future, a tool kit he said might be “the first of its kind in the entire country.” According to Kubly, instead of looking at “incidents”—data about accidents that have already happened—the city will focus on “indicators”—signs that an intersection is inherently dangerous, even in the absence of accident data. For example, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns”—a regular green light without a left-turn arrow—”and what we’ve found is that with those permissive left turns, we’re seeing crashes, particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian.

Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians. But that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero”—zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030—has stagnated. Right after the mayor’s press conference, a truck and a car collided dramatically on Rainier and South Alaska Street— right at the northern edge of the Rainier Avenue S improvement area.

2. Back in 2004, after then-mayor Greg Nickels made a gross attempt to buy the support of newly elected city council members Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen by hosting a chichi fundraiser to pay down their campaign debts, my Stranger colleagues and I started a new political action committee and learned that, like filing ethics reports and counting envelopes full of cash, coming up with a clever campaign acronym was harder than we imagined.

Fast forward 13 years and say hello to “Homeless Evidence, Transparency, and Accountability in Seattle,” or HEATS. It’s one of two new campaigns to stop the new levy, I-126, which will help move some of the 10,000 or so homeless people in Seattle into apartments, treatment, and supportive housing. The person behind it is a blogger who wrote a 1,600-word post mocking a homeless woman for having a criminal record, filed a frivolous ethics complaint against a council member for providing public information to a reporter, and took surreptitious photos of me and posted them with comments mocking my appearance. So far, HEATS has raised $0.

3. Speaking of the Stranger, Crank has learned that the paper has hired a news editor, after posting job ads and interviewing candidates for more than a year. Steven Hsieh, who has  worked as a staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter and has written for The Nation, will join the paper officially in the next few weeks.