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Shawn Vestal: Spokane’s Eighth Man group loud, proud and short on substance

Shawn Vestal

Could someone please find Spokane’s Eighth Man an actual issue?

The group’s members have passion in spades. They have commitment. They have identified and named their enemies. They will stand up and beat their chests and be counted. But counted for what?

As this tiny but truculent group of right-wingers has shown since it formed and began hollering several months ago, it has much less on its mind than it does coming out of its mouth. On Monday night, the group reached a new nadir: bellicose rants and disruptions in objection to a ban at council meetings on the term “Hookerville” for East Sprague.

It led to the second time this year that Council President Ben Stuckart has gaveled a meeting to a close following an eruption of sub-adult behavior by the Eighth Man. Despite the group’s talk of citizenship and participation and democracy and public accountability, this appears to be its true reason for being: stamping its foot, sticking out its tongue, getting attention, patting itself on the back.

The group was formed earlier this year to push against the liberal council. Its political nucleus is Councilman Mike Fagan – monitor of anal clefts in coffee huts everywhere – and its spiritual nucleus is George McGrath, the cranky conservative who testifies at virtually every City Council meeting. To hear him rage about the creeping socialism of bike lanes is to drink the purest essence of the Eighth Man.

The group is opposed to the city’s plan to build a bridge from the Riverpoint campus to the East Sprague neighborhood. The multimillion-dollar bridge, for which the city is seeking some state help, offers a chance to add a useful and potentially attractive way to connect people and services that are now separated by the railroad tracks. It has naturally been attacked as a “bridge to nowhere” and a waste of money. McGrath has taken to calling it a “bridge to Hookerville” so often that Council President Stuckart asked, then insisted last week, that he refrain from using it anymore in council chambers after Councilwoman Karen Stratton and others declared it offensive.

“My First Amendment rights are gone because I’m at a meeting of the Spokane City Council and some people don’t like the terms I use?” an outraged McGrath asked.

A handful of other Eighth Man members took up his cause, decrying the jackbooted trampling of his First Amendment rights.

I’m not sure that outlawing “Hookerville” was necessary. Sometimes the best thing to do with childish behavior is ignore it. But it’s a dumb and ugly way to refer to that part of town, and as a First Amendment rallying cry, it’s a nonstarter.

There are rules of decorum in most shared, public spaces, and they are not constitutional free speech violations. Limits on the length of testimony – not free speech violations. Rules against hollering from the back row like a rude jerk – not free speech violations. If you’re in a high school classroom there are rules limiting what comes out of your mouth. If you’re in a courtroom there are rules limiting what comes out of your mouth. If you’re broadcasting on the public airwaves there are rules, and if you’re commenting in an online forum there are rules, and if you’re speaking to your employer or employee there are rules, and if you’re spreading malicious lies about someone there are rules. There are words I cannot use here – some because of the paper’s editorial standards, some because of legal prohibitions, and some because I can’t spell them – but none of that makes me a constitutional martyr.

McGrath isn’t one either. He is free to say “Hookerville” as much as he wants on his own. He can write it down, videotape it, paint it on his T-shirt, tattoo it on his forehead. He can sing a song about it, or self-publish a chapbook of “Hookerville Haiku.” He can mutter it angrily to himself while standing on a street corner next to one of those awful anti-abortion protesters with one of their grotesque signs. He can go on the Rick Rydell radio show, and the two of them can put on their tri-corner hats and bounce the word back and forth all afternoon.

Hookerville, Rick. Hookerville, George. Hookerville, Rick. Hookerville …

It seemed, earlier this year, that the Eighth Man might verge on becoming a real movement. A couple of times, group members filled a lot of seats in the council chambers, and at one point they were trying to peddle T-shirts. Now it seems like the initial passion might have grown mostly out of two issues that always attract hot tempers – immigration and vaccines – and the Eighth Man is starting to resemble a belligerent coffee klatsch: overconfident and underinformed.

Earlier this year, I attended a council meeting and sat among the Eighth Man. It was a festival of muttering and petty complaint. Two men in front of me were talking loudly: One told the other that he wanted to testify but wasn’t sure what to say. The other replied that it didn’t matter – he was a citizen, this is a democracy, and he should speak up.

Maybe the Eighth Man should put that on a T-shirt: Say something, even when you’ve got nothing to say.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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