Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Mall

At 3:15 pm today, after weeks of packing, spraying, scrubbing, and scouring until my knuckles swelled and my fingertips cracked, I turned in a bag of keys to my apartment manager. She told me to be careful, that a protest was happening at the nearby park at 4pm, and that she was afraid and wanted to go home. She’s a lovely, joyful person and a single mother. She was the only person working in the office that afternoon.

Bellevue, Washington is a famously bland and boring city, ranked second safest in the US when I first moved there. It’s a tech and video game hub where Microsoft wives fling hot coffee at their Starbucks barista and dump tags-on designer clothes at the local Goodwill; where hotpot joints spring up like dandelions; and where a family of artisans runs a gem of a clock repair shop next to a Ukranian grocery and an Afghan restaurant. I’m also no stranger to protests; I had folded and packed my own painted banners from past marches in Seattle. So I shrugged off her words, wished her well, and drove away.

Less than an hour later, flashbang grenades and tear gas hit the street a block from where I had lived.

I watched a news broadcast[1] of people running in and out of Bellevue Square Mall with bags and parkas in their arms, of store windows smashed, of white protesters yelling at black policemen, of determined young black women holding signs and saying their piece. The blonde reporter’s disgust was palpable. Later, a police spokeswoman described the looting as premeditated, planned by an out-of-town gang the night before, though I suspect social contagion swept up some restless teenagers as well.

Setting the particulars of the situation aside, with compassion for the protestors who live with injustice and violence, the residents living above and beside the shopping centers, the security guards who were injured, the retail workers who’ll have to clean up afterwards—what struck me was that this was by no means the first or worst time the location had been looted. The land that Bellevue Square Mall stands on was looted from the Duwamish tribe with the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 and distributed for free in 320-acre parcels to any white male settler who asked. In the 1890s, after loggers cleared the trees, Japanese immigrants leased the land, dug up the stumps, and planted miles of strawberry farms. By the 1930s, Japanese farms were the source of most of the region’s produce.[2]

In 1916, a white businessman and newspaper owner, Miller Freeman, founded the Anti-Japanese League of Washington in 1916. He lobbied for an end to Japanese immigration and for a ban on Asian landownership in the 1920s and for Japanese internment in the 1940s and won on all counts. By 1942, the 60 Japanese-American farming families in Bellevue were forced from their land and into internment camps. Most of them had to sell for cheap. Having helped push them out, Miller Freeman then developed the former farmland into a bustling town. His son, Kemper Freeman, built Bellevue Square Mall in 1946.

Now his grandson, Kemper Freeman, Jr., owns Bellevue Square Mall and the ritzy Lincoln Square and Bellevue Place adjacent to the mall, occasionally tries to buy City Council, and donates to Trump. He also donates millions to the Bellevue Arts Museum, a jewelbox of a place. When Bellevue held the Bellwether arts fair in 2019, city officials pressured two artists and a curator into removing or reducing references to the Freeman family and the city’s history.[3]

Arrests were made during the riots. More arrests will be made. The law will be served. Without judgment, which is not mine to make, I only observe that there are thefts that are lawful because laws were created to enable theft, that the question of justice is separate from the question of law, and that we have in many ways lacked justice, though we have not lacked the law, for a very long time.

[1] KOMO News, of the Sinclair broadcasting group—Sinclair’s now the country’s largest broadcaster due to buying up local stations, and has a penchant for conservative propaganda.

[2] Alia Marsha in the Seattle Globalist. Much of the information in this essay is drawn from this article and the next, which themselves draw on David Neiwert’s Strawberry Days.

[3] Margo Vansynghei in Crosscut.

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