Bellingham, Washington is not a big city. We don’t often make the news, and when we do, it’s the talk of the town for days.
Last night, we made the news.
And I, against medical advice given to me just earlier today, am sitting down to write a few thoughts about it.
So these are the events of the evening, as far as I can tell. A block party was in progress north of the Western Washington University campus, close to downtown. The police showed up to disperse the party, and the revelers refused to leave. At some point people in the crowd started throwing bottles and cans at police vehicles. Two stop signs were pulled out of the ground and used to bludgeon police cars. The police responded by bringing in their APC, the BearCat, and attempting disperse the crowd using less-lethal munitions… bean bag projectiles, tear gas, and pepper balls. Streets were barricaded and arrests were made, and some civic-minded citizens came out and helped clean up some spectacular quantities of broken glass and gas canisters. Somewhere in the middle, I rolled over and fell asleep to the muted pop of a stun grenade.
Here’s a video, if you want to take a look.
I can’t imagine a party so great that its end would incite me to face clouds of tear gas. I’ve been tear gassed; it is an exceedingly unpleasant experience. It is probably in my top five most painful things, and if not it’s definitely in the top ten.
Reactions around town have been heavy with shock and dismay. It’s not a thing that we think of as normal in this town, even though we have a significant and hard-partying student population that we affectionately blame for ruining our favorite bars.
Like many instances of unrest, the flash point for this riot is probably not exactly the cause. I don’t know what was going through the minds of the folks involved, and I don’t know what their backgrounds are. Based on photo and video, the majority appears to be young, white, and fairly well-off. So my first instinct is exasperation. With all of the horror and cruelty and injustice in the world, even just in this country, these privileged white kids are hucking bottles because their party got cancelled. I can get behind civil disobedience… some of the greatest change that has happened in the world has been the result of refusing to obey authority.
I don’t feel like it would be beyond reason to suggest that America is home to a growing cultural distrust of authority. I think this is due to many factors… the failure of our government to function, the growing prosperity gap, the blatantly racist nature of our criminal justice system, the monetization of democracy, and the increasing militarization of our policing institutions are just a few of my favorites. While I don’t believe any of this led in any direct way to the riot in Bellingham last night, I do think that as long as authority no longer appears to serve the people, but appears to oppose them, instances of hyperbolic demonstrations of disobedience and violence like this will continue to increase.
Does this excuse the actions of the participants? Absolutely not. It’s not okay to put the well-being and property of other people in danger, and to turn neighborhoods into war zones over something as stupid as a party. I do not condone actions that justify and encourage the outfitting of municipal police organizations with paramilitary equipment. If your party gets busted up, you move on to the next party. There’re always options in the college neighborhoods.
What it does mean is that I feel that it’s important to understand how events like this fit in to a culture that is as likely to view a neighbor as an enemy as it is to view them as a friend, in a culture struggling with increasing uncertainty about its future, and in a culture in which the language of compassion has been stripped from every political dialogue, from the federal level down to the city level. Without a fascist dictatorship, the thing that holds society together is the understanding that it is a team effort… that if we care for the community, that the community will in turn care for us.
What motivation is there to participate in and maintain a society when that society evidences that caring for individuals is not among its priorities?