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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Eighth Man lacks focus, but knows when to stand down

I went to a City Council meeting expecting a brawl.

Instead, there was an outbreak of civility.

Scores of Spokane residents spoke their minds. Most came to call for justice for a homeless, transgender woman who was a victim of a beating in downtown Spokane. Many stood silently while the victim, Jacina Carla Scamahorn, and others spoke – a respectful show of support that was a bracing contrast to the boorish, childish outbreaks of a couple of weeks ago.

Others spoke against bullying, promoted upcoming events and complained about utility billing. George McGrath shared his views, naturally, and a couple of other regulars testified about chalk art and homeless services and whatever else occurred to them. One man testified about an upcoming event of the Metaphysical Research Society of Spokane. Another recited a litany of comments about race made by Councilman Mike Fagan. It was, all in all, a public forum in the truest sense – citizens speaking to their government, three minutes apiece.

What it wasn’t was a pitchforks-and-torches uprising against the supposed “despotism” of the City Council, Council President Ben Stuckart and the rules of decorum. That was the hype heading into the meeting, pumped up by a new conservative civic action group calling itself Spokane’s Eighth Man – as in, the eighth member of the council. In the days leading up to Monday’s meeting, online and on talk radio, this fledgling group – which galvanized around the council’s recent forays into issues tangentially related to immigration and abortion – sounded a call to action like they were preparing to throw crates of tea into the ocean.

In response, a group of Spokane liberals pushed back. The resulting “conversation” on Facebook pages quickly sunk to the dumbest, ugliest depths. Example from one of the Eighth Man posters: “Ben STUCKFART is commie. … Take this city back from the commies like Snider and Mumm,” referring to council members Jon Snyder and Candace Mumm.

Rick Rydell, a conservative radio host, called the council supporters a “pro-government, anti-liberty group,” and urged listeners to get down to the City Council: “Do you stand with the rights of the People? Or do you stand with Big Government?”

In the event, they didn’t stand at all. The few Eighth Man members who arrived sat in the council chambers without incident. Presented with the sight of so many citizens decrying the attack on Scamahorn, several told me, they decided it was not the right time.

Good call, Eighth Man.

At this point, it’s a little unclear what the Eighth Man is for. It seems galvanized around hot-button culture wars rhetoric – Communism! Despots! Big Government! – and its members claim to be leaderless. Someone is running its Facebook page and helping coordinate things, clearly, and it’s obviously a GOP-friendly operation. In addition, the Eighth Man has strong ties to one of the Seven – Councilman Mike Fagan has trademarked the name for use on T-shirts, with the proceeds going to support his radio show and the Union Gospel Mission.

But everyone I spoke to about the group insisted that they are – like Occupy or the tea party or the post-Ferguson protests – spontaneous and informal, and I see no reason not to believe them. If the Eighth Man can put a lid on the booing and catcalling, what they’re doing is called “citizenship.”

Spokane is seeing a surge of this – packed houses at the City Council, intense expressions of belief, the assertion of the absolute right of the citizen to be heard. The Eighth Man is one example. So is Envision Spokane’s future initiative on environmental and labor issues – an initiative challenged by big business interests that an appeals court judge recently ordered back onto the ballot. So was the outpouring of support for Scamahorn; scores of residents spoke and stood and insisted that the community, police, media and government not let the attack be ignored.

Tim Benn, a former legislative candidate, attended Monday’s meeting in an Eighth Man T-shirt. He said the group is focused more on citizen participation than any single issue. The main goal, he said, is to encourage more citizen engagement. I can find virtually no point of agreement with the group – except that one.

“I think it’s catching on,” he said. “Lots of people want to be involved with local government and how our tax dollars are handled. … Everyone probably has a different idea of what the Eighth Man means to them.”

McGrath is the quintessential Eighth Man. He attends virtually every City Council meeting, and his declamations – against bike lanes, spending, everything – tend to imitate themselves. Monday night, he was in fine form, arguing that hate-crime designations are “highfalutin crap.”

“I don’t believe there are very many love crimes,” he said. “If there’s not such a thing as a love crime, how can there be such a thing as a hate crime?”

Later, McGrath said, “A great many times over the years, I was by myself here or one of three people who were not on the council payroll who were here. … A tsunami is on its way. The people of Spokane are realizing we can make a difference.”

I suspect the waves will recede and return, not grow. But if the Eighth Man becomes a constant presence at the City Council – a McGrathian parade of cranky conservatism – then so what? The people who don’t like it have the best remedy available: the chance to speak up themselves.

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

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