“Seafair weekend is almost here. Fuck Seafair. Fuck the blue angels and the hydro planes. Torch Light can be lit, but fuck it anyways. Fuck it all.”- local Seattlite ranting to barista at a Starbucks inside a Safeway
For those who are new to town or just don’t know, Seafair is Seattle’s summer celebration of itself. The purpose of Seafair is to generate loyalty and affinity with the city, to be amazed by the urban glory that is the emerald city. It is the city selling itself to the citizenry and the colonial project.
Modern History of Seafair
Seafair started in 1950, five years after WW2. It was the same year Boeing unveiled the F-86 Sabre Jet (an essential war-machine for the U.S. during the early part of the cold war) and had proven recovery from the post war bust. The local economy was booming. The city had not only survived the immediate post war economic decline- it came out stronger. Seafair was the Proof.
The first Seafair was initially planned to coincide with the Centennial Celebrations of 1951-1952, but the event planner hired was too excited. The colonizer loves to celebrate itself. Seafair has changed over the years, but it’s focus on celebrating the colonial project remains. From the pirate landing at Alki, to the hydro plane races, the air show, and the corporate sponsored torch light parade (the general fan favorite event of the whole spectacle), we can see colonial tools at work: Mockery of the first settlers landing and the following theft of land, the bread and circus on water, the exhibition of war machines, and the ceremonious flaunting of looted wealth.
So yeah Fuck Seafair.
The Boom Before Tech: Gold, Growth, and the Gentrification of the Wild Wild Northwest
Seafair and the business elites that have been putting it on for the last 60 plus years are continuing the legacy of the “Golden Potlatch.” The “Golden Potlatch” comes out of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. This world fair was originally planned to honor the 10 year anniversary of the arrival of the boat Portland in 1897 with its cargo of a “ton of gold.” This steamboat and its mythical gold would kick off a gold rush that would catapult Seattle into the national spot light. Capital was flooding into Seattle at an ungodly rate. Today we are drowning in a similar deluge of capital flowing in from the tech boom.
The Tech boom in Seattle started in 1979 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved Microsoft from New Mexico to the eastside suburbs of Seattle. It took a little more than a decade and a half for Microsoft to become the most profitable corporation in the world. This brought Seattle out of a recession of 14 percent unemployment rate and vacancy rate of 16 percent. The Tech boom continues today, fueling the hyper-gentrification of Seattle and ridiculous increase in homelessness. Up until the Tech Boom, the boom of the Klondike Gold rush was the biggest boom for Seattle.
The boom of the gold rush and the increased migration pushed Seattle and the surrounding areas to expand at a rapid pace. Most neighborhoods in today’s Seattle proper started at the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century. Terra-forming was done on massive scales. Rivers were depleted, hills were flattened, the water front was built, Harbor Island was created, and Seward Island was turned into a peninsula. With the boom supplied by the gold rush, the division of classes in Seattle became more and more apparent and unmistakable.
Before the gold rush, Seattle was a wild frontier town. It had the original skid row and one of the most notorious Red Light Districts. Even in the center of the business district, you would find brothels, bars, and dance halls. Soon after the gold rush started bringing wealth from the Yukon, Seattle began to grow a bourgeoisie morality. Citizens and government began to view vice as bad, but also understood it is necessary economic function to extract the high volume of excess capital flooding in.
The popular idea amongst the committed citizenry of Seattle was to isolate vice into one area. Eventually most businesses of vice (gambling dens, brothels, saloons etc.) were pushed outta pioneer square and downtown Seattle. Soon even the nationally infamous skid row and red light district became gentrified. Throughout this era of gentrification, there were multiple calls (all spearheaded by the different police chiefs of spd) to push the gentrification further and further south.
The climaxe of this era was embodied with Seattle police chief “Wappy” Wappenstien. Before starting his second non-consecutive term, Chief Wappy called the heads of the most well-known brothels and gambling dens together and demanded $10 a women for the price of operating these establishments. Wappy is also recorded as investing in a company that would attempt to design and build a Red Light District on Beacon Hill.
However by 1911, Wappy and then mayor Hiram Gill would be run out of office. Wappy would be indicted by a grand jury along with Col. Alden J. Blethen and two others. Col. Blethen was the publisher of the Seattle Times and a big fan of Wappy. The Col. helped Wappy build his career, and in return Wappy Provided the Col. with personal SPD bodyguards. However a preacher, on a mission to eliminate vice from Seattle, exposed Wappy and his connection with mayor Hi Gill. This lead to a semi-popular crusade against Wappy and Hi Gill. When Hi Gill refused to step down, a recall campaign was started- one he would lose to a reformer by February 1911. Most votes against Hi Gill in the recall, were from women who had just received the right to vote in Washington. It was in this context that the first “Golden Potlatch” occurred.
“Golden Potlatch”: White boys playing Indians
In late July, not the six months after Gill’s recall election, a re-enactment of the landing of the Portland took place. Aboard the boat was “King D’oro”, avatar of golden wealth. The person chosen to embody “King D’oro” was Edgar Webster- an insurance agent for Alaska and the Yukon region and part owner of the Alaska Bank in Fairbanks. On his estate he’d play host to many elite social functions during the First “Golden Potlatch”. Other exclusive events and high society festivities established the tradition of hydroplanes and the air show. The First “Golden Potlatch” also served as a military display of force- a fleet from the US navy and a British navel “sloop-of-war” were present for the festivities.
The second “Golden Potlatch” held in the summer of 1912 was marketed with native imagery, capitalizing heavily on Seattle’s colonially “borrowed” Indian heritage. If you didn’t already know, “Potlatch” is a stolen word originating from what settler anthropologists and historians call Chinook Jargon -the pidgin trade language of the region spanning from Oregon all the way north to the Yukon. This is the very same region from which the flow of capital generated by the gold rush circulated initially.
The settler historians and anthropologists tell us a “Potlatch” is a “gift-giving feast”. (In a colonial gesture, these same settler historians and anthropologists, attempt to define it as the primary political economy of the indigenous people in this region.) Beyond the name, another examples of the misappropriations of the Chinook Jargon by the settlers include the boosters taking of the name “Tillikums”-Chinook Jargon for “friends”. Many of these so-called “Tilikums” hosted and lead civic events and sponsored and rode on themed floats in the “Golden Potlatch” parade. The elite of Seattle, in a similar colonial gesture, replaced “King D’oro” with “Hyas Tyee Kopa Konoway” (which I’ve interpreted as “Great Leader of Everyone”, though my knowledge of the Chinook Jargon is very remedial).
The First “Hyas Tyee Kopa Konoway” of the “Golden Potlatch” was George Allen- an insurance executive who managed the Pacific Northwest region of the National Surety Company of New York. George Allen belonged to a group called “Tilikums Eltteas”. They made their debut by unveiling of a refurbished and painted “Chief of All Women” totem pole in the fall of 1911- the same year that mayor Hi Gil was voted out of office by women.
The “Chief of All Women” was stolen from the Kinninook folks near Fort Tongass in 1899- two years into the Gold Rush. Prior to the formation of the so called tilikums, a group of prominent citizens of Seattle sponsored by the Seattle P.I. as the “Good Will Committee” were touring the ports of southeast Alaska. The tour driven aboard a steamer called City Of Seattle. When the tour boat arrived at Fort Tongass, the “Good Will Committee” invaded a village while the residents were off fishing, and cut down the totem pole, sawed it into two, and loaded the totem pole aboard the City of Seattle. A federal grand jury in Alaska indicted 8 men from Seattle’s ruling class for theft of government property. Senators and Representatives from the region would leverage the positions in the federal government. Seattles capitalist class wined and dined a the newly appointed US district court Judge for Alaska. One of the Judges first acts was to dismiss the case. Initially the Tlingit Tribe demanded $20,000 dollars but only ended up receiving $500 dollars, paid by the Seattle P.I. This is the colonial legacy that would be refined in to the “Tilikums Eltteas.”
In the 1912 “Golden Potlatch”, the “Tilikums Eltteas” had a float called “Chief Skool War Canoe” – upon which were some of the most powerful and influential men of the City of Seattle’s colonial project: bankers, attorneys, the Postmaster, staff form the Times and PI, executives and general managers of The Northern Exploration and Development Company, Alaska Midland Railroad, the Northern Securities Company and the International Steamship Company.
While the white men played Indian and mocked the traditional culture of the land, they were building a fraternal social hierarchy turning Seattle from a frontier town into an urban international node of capital. The “Golden Potlatch” served as a publicity campaign to assert Seattle as the greatest metropolis in the Pacific Northwest. However in its third run, the “Golden Potlatch” failed.
Rebellion & Repression the ‘Murican Way
It was mid-July 1913 in Seattle, and the third year of the annual “Golden Potlatch Festival” was underway. A women was standing soap-boxing in occidental square, the heart of a gentrifying pioneer square, when she got into it with person(s) in military uniform who was there for the festivities as part of the military exhibition. This confrontation ended with a group of uniformed soldiers getting jumped by the folks milling about nearby at the intersection of Occidental St. and Washington St. The results were explosive.
The capitalist press, who reported that the soapboxing woman was a Wobblie, blamed the mayor and framed the ass-whoopin the soldiers suffered as being the result of the mayor’s leftist leaning and a failure to reign in the unruly, radical segments of the city. The radical press blamed the military men, claiming they were drunk and started the fight. The labour council paper reported, with the receipts, that the Woman soapboxing was not a Wobblie and was “in fact speaking on women suffrage.”
The next day a mixture of service men and concerned citizenry rioted and looted. Egged on by the capitalist daily’s of the time, the crowd targeted the radicals. The different socialist party offices were attacked, radical posters were ripped and defaced, literature was confiscated and trashed, and the IWW headquarters was broken into and destroyed.
Following the soldier led riot, the mayor, fearing further unrest and a complete loss of order, put Seattle under martial law. The mayor assumed direct control of the police, street speakers were banned, and there was a failed attempt to shut down the Seattle Times.
Final Thoughts- Breaking the Mythology of the Colonialism
The final “Golden Potlach” ended in martial law over 104 years ago. Seafair just passed. There is a colonial legacy between these two events that span over a century from each other. It is important to understand the stories of colonialism. Knowing them guides us in exposing the machination and apparatuses of colonialism and the colonial project. Knowing them helps us find clarity in our actions and thoughts.
As Seattle falls further into its own contradictions and a popular collective cognitive dissonance, Anarchist and autonomous individuals need to be able to see and move within the confusion. We have skills and know how. We have stories from the streets, the squats, the printing press, the bookstore, the coffee shop. In Seattle we have stories of riots, MayDay and even the Legendary General Strike.
We, anarchists and autonomists, also have a shared (to a degree) world view. We all, within us, have an antagonism towards the world we face. In this antagonism we can expose the colonial stories buried under their own mythology. For example they call Columbus a discoverer of America. This is colonial mythology. Our shared antagonism allows us to see through this bullshit.
This is my attempt to break the mythology behind Seafair and expose it for what I see it as: A colonial legacy built on gentrification and the repression of the rebellious class, a military exhibition of spectacular force, and a flaunting of stolen wealth. Hopefully sharing this with you did something.
In solidarity with the Duwamish and Suqaumish, whose land my family has lived on for six generations. I hope this simple writing contributes to the overthrow and destruction of the colonial project.
In solidarity with Black August and the discipline of the martyrs and revolutionaries that came before me and those still trapped in the cages.
In solidarity to rebels and anarchist everywhere.
In solidarity with those building autonomy against empire.
Towards further conversations at the Commune.
Towards figuring out the secret of the Pine Cone.
And lastly Fuck the Police. 1312