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The Seattle drone rebellion

It's not just the little flying helicopters McGinn banished last week. Seattleites are also saying no to the drone-training regimen known as standardized testing.
Seattle police drone

Seattle police drone Credit: Flickr user wac6

Given new (positive) developments in contract talks, looks like school may start on time after all.

Given new (positive) developments in contract talks, looks like school may start on time after all. Photo: Don Brubeck

Seattle is decidedly anti-drone. The community has rejected the Seattle Police Department's use of unmanned aircraft and Mayor Mike McGinn has ordered Police Chief John Diaz to return the model planes to their maker. It's as if a child has gotten ahold of an inappropriate toy — like a BB gun — and has been ordered to march right down to the store to return it.

The controversy could have been avoided, possibly, by using another term for the things, like "model airplanes." "Drones," as they have come to be used by the U.S. military, are viewed as Big Brother's mindless killing machines, violating privacy from the air as well as reigning death. Odd to call it a drone, which is a male bee whose sole job is to have sex with the queen. Are our military drones performing a bizarre kind of imperial impregnation in places like Pakistan? A form of rape from the air?

It is not possible to completely separate the potential value of a drone as a piece of police technology from its use in warfare, where civilians might be surveilled and killed collaterally. In recent decades military technology has been trickling down from the Pentagon to local law enforcement, and the trends — so evident in the streets during the WTO demonstrations in '99 — have only accelerated since 9-11.

We can't seem to ban assault weapons, nor can we hold back the growing arsenals of our own police departments. If common citizens are paranoid about the cops, could at least some of that fear be due to witnessing a steady arms-and-armor build-up on our city streets? Or due to the increasing use of surveillance and tracking technologies, whether setting up cameras in parks or scanning the license plates of parked cars? Could a lack of confidence in city policing at least be somewhat tied to the fact that too many cops look and act like soldiers or spies? The security state can also increase the sense of insecurity.

Mayor McGinn did the right thing sending the drones back to the vendor. If nothing else, they were proof positive that people are willing to imagine the worst of a department that is under the eye of the Department of Justice and various appointed overseers for being too quick to violence.

In another way too, Seattle is rebelling against drones — in the sense of opposing mindless monotony. The teacher-student protest over the MAP tests at Garfield High School have raised a question about the school district's use of tests: Tests that don't reflect the curriculum and are used to determine the fate of teachers, not students.

This comes at a sensitive time as "education reformers" are gaining traction in Olympia. Apostate Democrat Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina says that schools don't need more money so much as they need to better measure inputs and outcomes. And Sen. Steve Litzow of Bellevue wants to begin grading schools from A to F, just as the young inmates are graded.

The "reformers" seem seized by a mania for testing and metrics and demanding measures and accountability. The focus is on making schools more like machines or software. "Reform" seems to involve assigning everyone a grade or a number and pushing people toward the jobs for which industry wants people trained, or conditioned.

While we "reform" education, what about returning to a true mission of education? To cultivate independent, thinking, creative citizens capable not simply of employment but of functioning productively in a democracy. Our schools as institutions still seem far too much like widget factories and daycare centers, not places where critical thinking is cultivated from an early age.

Tom is right that it's not solely about more money. But too much of the reform is focused on increasing metrics rather than humanity. And the definition of education is wrong: It's not simply per-student spending, but funding a social safety net that can make serious education possible for more people.

The Garfield rebellion is a welcome sign of life; a sign that a school system committed to tests for the sake of tests is not acceptable. Neither is producing more drones.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Feb 15, 8:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Perfect: "It's as if a child has gotten ahold of an inappropriate toy — like a BB gun — and has been ordered to march right down to the store to return it."

It must be something in the water around here that keeps stimulating police departments, city councils, and assorted rich people to buy overscaled boy toys. On Whidbey Island, where I live, the volunteer fire/EMS boys have just copped a $500,000 federal grant to buy a fire boat. Seattle has had an irrepressible fixation with toy trains for half a century, from the monorail to the SLUT. Paul Allen bought a giant toy museum, but thoughtlessly left it too close to the heating vent and it melted.

The Space Needle, a make-believe flying saucer, also belongs in this series, but it's beautiful and it pays for itself. Let that be the test for all future municipal toys.

Posted Fri, Feb 15, 8:12 a.m. Inappropriate

McGinn ordering the Seattle Police to sent back the drones to the manufacturer was 90% political and 10% practical. I'm sure there were a few residents of Seattle who were vocal opponents of the drones, but they were off the radar to most of us. So the mayor used this as way to show is control over the police ordering them to return something that they really did not care about. I'm sure we will hear about this over and over during McGinn's re-election campaign.

jd8686

Posted Sat, Feb 16, 4:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Larry Cheek, I fail to see how an island with no water rescue fire boat is a safe place for boats and waterside homes and cabins. The funding seems appropriate to take care of a place that has 65,000 residents on Whidbey, swelling in summer months to probably triple that number.

Whidbey used to have a train if you can harken back to the Glendale train landing days.

Some boy toys are pretty cool, and find useful uses in saving lives or moving people.

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