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Sunday, March 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Was race spark that ignited so much rage?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Punches were thrown in Pioneer Square - and buttons were pushed throughout the city.

The explosive trigger: race.

On Feb. 27, a crowd of 4,000 converged - some spilling out of bars, some bringing their own drinks to party in the street - to celebrate the end of Mardi Gras. As Fat Tuesday wore on, drinking and displays of nudity erupted into bursts of savagery.

By the time the streets were cleared, one man was fatally injured, 71 people were injured, and property damage was estimated at $80,000.

Citizens were outraged - at the bars who sponsored the event, at the police who stood by while beatings went unchecked, at the youths who got caught up in brutal mob behavior.

And that's roughly where agreement ends about what happened in Pioneer Square that night - and why.

While police, city officials and community leaders try to discover the spark that ignited so much rage, many of those who watched the events from afar - on television or through newspaper accounts - quickly made up their minds.

Fat Tuesday, they concluded, was black-on-white violence.

"I saw young black males hitting innocent bystanders," said Andrew Lehtinen, 24, a welder from Seattle. He was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras this year. He followed news of the Seattle street brawls on CNN and newspaper Web sites.

"I didn't see any whites beating up blacks - or women, for that matter," he said.

Lehtinen is white.

"I saw the stuff on TV and it was alarming - this sort of gratuitous violence," said Henry McGee, Jr., 69, a Seattle University law professor.

"There were clearly blacks assaulting whites. I didn't see any pictures of blacks assaulting blacks," McGee continued. "It's hard to say whether their motivations had to do with race. I think the least one can say is that unless the blacks were acting in self-defense -- and that doesn't come off in the tapes - my guess is there may well have been a racial dimension to it.

"In any case, it will be perceived as racial."

McGee is black.

On radio talk shows, in chat rooms and in calls, e-mails and letters to newspapers, the public outcry about Mardi Gras has been tinged with race, and with accusations that the police and media have ducked a volatile truth.

"The instigators of these violent acts were black gang-bangers out to hurt white people," spouted an e-mail from a man calling himself Wild Bill. "Surely had a gang of white guys beaten up on a bunch of blacks and killed one ... the coverage would have been focused on race."

Police and city officials have insisted they can't identify a racial motive to the Fat Tuesday brawls. Nor have police arrested suspects in the beating death of Kristopher Kime, 20, of Auburn, who was beaten to death as he tried to help a woman who had been knocked to the pavement. Kime was white.

But police have said there was a roving group of young black men and women who attacked many white partygoers in the crowd. And witnesses said the man who hit Kime from behind was black.

Public rumblings have accused the police and media of political correctness - the former when it failed to wade into the crowd, the latter when it failed to wade into the race issue - for fear of offending the black community.

"Whenever someone white attacks someone black, it's immediately a racial issue," said Lael Prock, 60, of Mercer Island.

Look how quickly the black community, he said, claimed racial bias behind last April's police shooting of David John Walker, a mentally ill African American, after he shoplifted from a Queen Anne grocery.

But the certainty of those judgments is hard to attach to Fat Tuesday events.

More whites than blacks have been arrested in connection with crimes that night. Blacks and whites were booked in equal numbers on the most serious charges. Police last week also said 74 other suspects cover a broad racial spectrum.

So if the brawl had a racial element, it transcended black and white.

Even a victim of the Fat Tuesday beatings declined to blame race. Luke Kane, 23, of Burien, said he was beaten by a black man after a group of blacks yelled, "There's a white boy with a camera!"

"How can you say either way, without catching them and asking them?" Kane said.

But Kane's voice seems a lonely one in a roar of racial animosity. That roar grew loud enough last week that leaders in the African-American and religious communities called a press conference to try to quell the tension.

The Fat Tuesday disturbances were the result of mob madness - no more, no less, they said. Some black youths, they acknowledged, were part of that mob; everyone involved in the violence must be held accountable.

They cited police videotape from that night that showed uncivilized clusters of several races.

The perception that race was to blame came largely from media portrayal of events, the community leaders said: TV footage run over and over of blacks jumping on white victims; large photographs in The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer showing blacks as the aggressors.

But even as they denied that race lay at the heart of the violence, some minority leaders used descriptions that could invite other stereotypes to explain the night's anger.

The Rev. Sam McKinney, an African American and retired pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, said the rioting burbled up from boredom and a spiritual vacuum on the part of young people who he said mill around malls and live in million-dollar houses.

Not all who vented about Fat Tuesday, and the Police Department's hands-off handling of the event, linked the violence to race.

"It's evident over the last year or two that people cannot handle taking responsibilities for their own actions," Ric Rosa, 57, of Seattle, wrote to The Times, citing the WTO riots in late 1999 as the beginning of a disturbing trend. "If our citizens cannot stay between the lines, then color them gone."

But in a subsequent interview, Rosa said he wasn't surprised when race dominated public perception.

"Everything we saw (in the media) seemed to have more of an illustration that the youth creating the problems were black," he said. "I did not see a lot of other representation."

Rosa, who works in advertising, is white. His sense of media coverage echoes what many say they saw on TV and in the newspapers.

"There are a lot of filters we see things through in our society," said the Rev. Anthony B. Robinson, senior minister at Plymouth Congregational Church. "We're kind of programmed to see young black men as the problem."

Robinson, who is white, joined his colleagues from local black churches at last week's news conference, where the public perceptions of Fat Tuesday events became as big a concern as the events themselves.

But even Robinson said his first impression watching the news from Pioneer Square was of racial conflict. One photo, especially, showing a white man being pummeled by several blacks, made him wonder: Was it gangs?

"I didn't want it to be that," he said. "I didn't want to discover that it was, essentially, racial violence going on that night. Subsequently, I learned that it wasn't."

Perceiving a racial component to events is not the same as being racist. But without analyzing every image from Mardi Gras that aired or was published, it is clear that many people saw the same thing very differently.

Some saw several races, mixed together, in a haze of alcohol and violence.

Some saw blacks beating whites and felt vindicated: Their suspicions about racial hatred were true.

Some people saw decades of black anger erupting in a city struggling with racial tension.

"We have a problem and we need to address it and not brush it under the carpet," said City Councilwoman Judy Nicastro, who watched the street fights from a Pioneer Square rooftop. Nicastro, who is white, said she saw blacks and whites assaulting each other. A friend of hers who videotaped the event from the street told her some whites antagonized blacks, taunting them with racial epithets.

And, in the African-American community, some leaders saw tragic, stereotyped images that threatened to push back years of progress.

"We see how it makes the black community look," said Anthony Jackson, 38, vice president of the Washington State Black Democrats. "It's embarrassing."

He winced at the TV clips of blacks moving through the crowd beating whites.

"No one defends the young black males," Jackson said. "All we're saying is don't lay it on our doorstep. Don't judge the whole community by a few idiots."

Even those who witnessed the Mardi Gras melee directly - free of the filter of the press - say they saw different things.

At some events - a football game, for example - the public can generally agree about what happened, said David Domke, a University of Washington communications professor who studies race, politics and the media. But other events, like a riot, get described by social "authorities" - police, the media - through professional prisms. The public is left to interpret those descriptions according to personal experience.

When people watch news events, Domke said, they try to place them in familiar mental boxes to make sense of them. For some, Mardi Gras footage may have triggered images of WTO and other social disturbances.

"Then there's the box of race," he said. "If the person is white, we don't ascribe attributes to the entire community. It they're not white, because of the way stereotypes have been constructed and imbedded, we begin to link the person to perceived group identity. So when we see something that fits into categories, it becomes particularly powerful."

Domke said it was inevitable that a large photo in The Times - of a young African-American man wearing brass knuckles squaring off against a white man with his arms outstretched - would push the race button.

If the race of the victims had been reversed, he said, the debate would have been different. A menacing white man doesn't quickly get branded as all white men. Instead, people try to find a reason to explain the actions of an individual - like they did during last week's school shooting in San Diego by a young white student.

Black criticism of the media seems just as inevitable - a manifestation of a deeply held perception by minorities that the media are a white institution.

A chronic complaint among blacks is that the media routinely portray them as "problem" people, says Gerald Baldasty, a UW communications professor.

Case studies bolster that complaint. For example, Charles Stuart of Boston committed suicide after he was implicated in the 1989 shooting death of his pregnant wife. And Susan Smith of South Carolina confessed to drowning her two children in a car in 1994.

But each initially blamed the crimes on fictional black carjackers - diversions the media and public widely accepted as credible.

Florangela Davila can be reached at 206-464-2916 or at fdavila@seattletimes.com.

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