Rainier and Henderson, the bottom of the Valley, deep in the living night. We’re in the nerve center for gun crimes and drug distribution– the former up 150 percent in Rainier Beach within the past year. While the recent SPU shooting drew national attention, activity in Rainier Valley tends to go unreported. Locals know the numbers– about 50 shootings, 25 of them documented, 12 murders, and nine assaults since mid-April: it’s summertime in the ‘hood. Only out here do I hear folks dread the onset of summer.
We in Seattle are fortunate in that we can get worked up over such small numbers. My hometown of Los Angeles is happy to have gone from 299 murders to just 251 in only a year, with per capita crime the lowest it’s been in five decades. While one incident is too many, and the loss of a single life undeniably tragic, I might suggest it is not harmful to maintain perspective. Isolated incidents are not always indicative of trends. While we’re reading articles with titles like Another Day, Another South-End Shooting, let us try to recall that news reporting is selective.
Far from making us “more aware,” a notion which would be comical were it not so patently wrongheaded, wallowing in crime news in fact builds a view of our surroundings which is not just skewed, but incorrect. Only from a mindset of staggering privilege and reactionary, ignorant fear could we do ourselves the injustice of failing to see the modern miracle which happens in Seattle’s greater metropolitan area every day: each night, nearly all three million souls make it home, completely unscathed.
I remember living in LA and watching car accidents happen in front of me while waiting for the bus home. This was a regular occurence. The idea that most of these other cars– in fact, practically all of them– would not get into accidents tonight seemed so unlikely. How was it even possible? Would LA’s twelve million people really follow those colored lights and stripes on the road well enough that ninety-nine percent and change would actually make it home without their cars touching any other cars? It seemed impossible. Impossible! But it happened, every night, and the saddest thing was that nobody noticed. They were part of a truly unbelievable, physics-defying miracle, and no one cared.
Now is also a good time to point out that crime in our great city, however we’re looking at it, is either declining sharply, flat, or slowly declining. Seattle continues its steady decrease in overall crime since 2000, and has 32 percent less crime now than then. Homicides are down by 12 percent and assaults by ten in the last year; the numbers are more dramatic if we go back further. It’s worth relinking Dominic Holden’s detailed writeup from a year ago, Crime is Not Actually Spiking Downtown, and situating it in the larger context of our tendency to think crime is up when it’s just the reporting that’s proliferated: violent crime in the US has been declining steadily since the 1990s, and the LA Times article sums up reactions to that fact succinctly: Gun Crime Has Plunged, But Americans Think it’s Up.*
All of which is to say, let us try to keep our outlook in proportion. Float above the madness and consider the aerial view. If you read the above-linked Rainier Beach crime article, please also read More to Rainier Beach Than Crime, Violence and Rainier Beach: A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth. Take in the beauty and stories of your Seattleite neighbors, those vibrant faces of all colors, hopes, and commonalities. Recognize the similarities in your dreams. There is no Other.
Back to Rainier and Henderson, where I pulled up to the stop at about 10:50pm. Open the doors with a smile. A few thugs get on, tall and hulking, heavy in jackets and swagger. These are the hard types, connected, the men the teenagers wish they were. I greet each one with eye contact and some variation of “hey, how’s it goin’?”
They appreciate my friendly gaze, equal-handed respect and complete lack of fear. The second shakes my hand after I oblige his imploration for a transfer. The third steps on with a “hey man, I’m tryna go ta work.” He shows me a couple faded white plastic cards, incomprehensible to me.
It’s eleven o’clock at night in Rainier Beach. Going to work? Really? It seemed like a ridiculous excuse, if that’s what it was. Was he trying to “scam the system?”
Nope. I let him ride in any event, and soon saw him halfway down the bus, still standing, removing his coat and other outerwear and suiting up, as it were. He was putting on thick undershirts and some sort of waterproof coverall. Afterwards he put the jacket back on.
“Gettin’ all dressed up for the nighttime!” I said.
“Yup, gettin’ ready for work.”
“Rockin’ the night shift!”
“Yeah, I do the pressure wash, at Safeco. S’pposed ta be there at ten, but don’t usually start washing til eleven, so I’ll still be early. We wash all the seats.”
“That sounds cool. Getting to be out there in the stadium, nobody else around.”
“Yeah, iss good.”
“Been doin’ it a long time?”
“Good to have a job like that, something interesting, different,”
“Yeah. It’s fun.”
There is no other, indeed. I’m so glad I gave him the benefit of the doubt. There are people I know who wouldn’t have.
I attended a play some years ago in the Central District’s Washington Hall. A ladyfriend was performing, and the show revolved around the subtle mistreatment and unintended subjugation of women in college environments. The playwright was on hand for a Q&A session afterwards.
Somebody behind me, a middle-aged man, prompted him by saying, “we’re all sitting here, in a playhouse in the Central District, and we’re probably all left-leaning liberal people, who already agree with the excellent points made by your play. I don’t think any of us here believe in sidelining women… I guess what I’m trying to say is, this play expands our understanding, but we already agree with its main points. What can we do to change the minds of people who don’t? How do you get this to change the minds of an audience in the backwoods of Arkansas…?”
The playwright looked at the floor for a while.
His legs were crossed in front of him, and his hands were clasped around his knees. He picked at the cloth of his pants and finally said, “I’m really glad you asked that. Because I think about that question all the time. What you’re basically asking is, ‘how do you change the world?’ And my answer is, you don’t. You change the person next to you. And you do that by being yourself. You don’t even try to change them. You talk to them, you… whatever. Just be yourself. That’s how you change the world. Be something they can see and think about, and maybe they’ll change their way of thinking a little bit. It happens not on a mass scale, but on a human scale.”
*Even if crime is low, it’s still worth lowering; how do you lower crime? Community Policing is the new watchword. “A community that watches after each other,” [LA Police Chief Charlie] Beck explains. More from the LA article linked above: “Beck credited community policing for the 17.6 percent drop last year in gang-related crime in Los Angeles. He said the LAPD doesn’t only rely on policing and enforcement, but works with interventionists to control rumors and prevent retaliations. ‘Sometimes over policing makes gang identity stronger,’ he said. ‘You have to watch how you police it. We have just the right prescription in Los Angeles right now.'”
Read more at www.nathanvass.com.
Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.