Seattle is the Canary in the Coal Mine

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Featured image by Seattle DSA design team’s Jennifer Cheng

By Seattle DSA organizer and Jon Grant for City Council Position 8 Field Organizer Shaun Scott

Between The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, Karl Marx’s most popular writings were scribed in London. A political refugee from contiguous Europe, the socialist scribe found a silver lining on the island of cloudy skies and towering smokestacks; by studying capitalism in its most advanced industrial guise, the underlying instability of the liberal social order could be exposed for all to see.

150 years after the first volume of Das Kapital appeared in 1867, something similar might be said of Seattle. The contended liberalism that reigns here stands in dramatic contrast to the radical image we portray to the global Left.

In Seattle, signs of the socialist tide embodied by Kshama Sawant are juxtaposed with the logos of corporate leviathans headquartered in the Puget Sound region: Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks. The specter of the radical WTO protests of 1999 is starkly framed by a famously violent police force in the present.

In our fight to build an alternative social arrangement based on Left principles, we do not take on capitalism where it is weak; we do so where it is strong. And capitalism is nowhere stronger than it is in the land of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos; a place where pro-landlord PACs refer to renters as “inferiors,” and where the corporate tax rate hasn’t been raised since around the time Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, was released way back in 1989.

Seattle is the epicenter of a modern day dialectical battle between the rich and cash-poor, developers and renters, police and everyday citizens. The struggles against regressive taxes, rampant unaffordability, and police violence being staged here are a lesson to organizers the world over.

If socialists can make it in Seattle, they can make it anywhere.

The Position 8 Example

The central question in the November 7 general election for Position 8 on Seattle’s city council is how the Left can win office in a decidedly liberal electorate and put forward a credible, alternative vision to the milquetoast liberalism of today’s Democratic Party.

The race pits Bernie Sanders delegate and Democratic labor lobbyist Teresa Mosqueda against DSA member and tenants’ rights organizer Jon Grant. Socialists like Grant resist market-oriented solutions to public problems, instead arguing for the kind of confrontation with powerful elites that are necessary to produce public, decommodified goods and services to meet our needs. Liberals like Mosqueda — who has been supported by a landlord interest group that “maintain[s] a commitment to allowing rental housing to function as a market-based industry” — don’t.

In a race with no socialist candidate, Mosqueda’s progressive credentials — which include co-authoring Washington’s 2016 minimum wage legislation, and a solid plan to bolster the city’s social safety net — may have made her the de facto candidate for Seattle’s Left. But Mosqueda’s approach to leadership has prevented her from taking more confrontational policy stances on behalf of renters, victims of police violence, and the homeless. As a result, the emergent left flank of Seattle politics — a bloc that includes Seattle DSA, the Transit Riders Union, and Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative — have rallied behind Grant.

In keeping with the non-confrontational style of Seattle progressivism, Mosqueda has promised to “build consensus around common sense progressive policy.” Her search for reconciliation between inherently oppositional class interests has prohibited her from advocating for progressive taxes on Seattle’s large corporations.

Additionally, Mosqueda has shied away from scrutinizing the labor contract between Seattle and the city’s police union. Mosqueda and her supporters in Seattle’s liberal labor leadership believe that transparently litigating the city’s police contract will lead to political grandstanding that compromises the collective bargaining integrity of other city employees.

As the city’s alt-weekly The Stranger reported this summer:

 

You’ll have both sides giving talking points and talking to their base. The city is going to be banging the table demanding this. The union will be banging the table demanding that,” said Adam Glickman, Secretary Treasurer for Service Employees International Union 775, one of the most influential unions in Washington. Labor unions say any amount of daylight could lead to a slippery slope that threatens the sacrosanct right collective bargaining units to negotiate in good faith. Teresa Mosqueda, opposes opening police negotiations to the public because doing so would “erode the very essence of what makes negotiations possible.”

Ironically, this is the same “slippery slope” argument once used by opponents of Mosqueda’s work to raise the Washington State minimum wage — the notion that taking bold action in a specific area of policy will present a host of “problems” that aren’t worth the trouble.

Seattle journalist Ijeoma Oluo writes thatthe police conduct review process is often one of the biggest shelters for police misconduct and brutality. The process that holds police accountable for their actions is often shaped or heavily influenced by police unions who are beholden to cops, not civilians.” As a result, Seattle cannot begin to reform police abuses of power without calling attention to the contract.  

Mosqueda is supported by the King County Labor Council, of which the city’s police union is a vocal and active member. During the August 1, 2017 primary, civil rights attorney Sheley Secrest, Jon Grant, and other candidates for Position 8 signed a petition to greatly expand civilian oversight of the police. Though solicited by the other supporters, Mosqueda’s signature was absent.

Grant, on the other hand, has taken a more radical approach to police reform — leading to bitter personal attacks from some labor leaders.

In May, King County Labor Council leader Nicole Grant (no relation) chided Jon Grant after Socialist Alternative endorsed him and not Mosqueda. The center of Nicole Grant’s dispute was not any of Grant’s policies, but his identity as a white male, saying, “Jon Grant can say whatever he wants, but here he is on Seattle’s new left, slumming, taking up space, stealing credit, posing.”

Of course, the notion that Grant cannot be an advocate for the vulnerable because he is white is absurd. A political candidate’s identity should be taken into consideration when deciding whether they belong in office, but not by glossing over the merits of that candidate’s substantive politics. The point of representation is not simply representation for representation’s sake, but to include voices left out of the political process. Put simply, representation without an attendant redistribution of resources is meaningless.  

Aside from an admirable commitment to “defend immigrant workers against raids and ICE intimidation,” Mosqueda’s official campaign platform contains no policy proposals to protect Seattle’s undocumented community in the age of Trump. By contrast, Grant’s platform details a plan to fully fund the city’s legal defense services fund for immigrants. He has argued that all non-citizens be allowed to vote in local elections.  

With respect to police violence, Grant’s platform includes a call to revive Seattle’s Community Service Officer program, which would send unarmed social workers (instead of armed police) to deal with citizens suffering mental health crises. Grant wants to create an independent citizen review board that could set disciplinary policy for police officers and, if need be, fire the police chief in the event of an abuse of power.

In addition, the Grant platform has proposed publicizing the details of the contract negotiations between the city of Seattle and the police union. The legal feasibility of this proposal has been the subject of some skepticism, but he is unfazed: “The idea that it’s not worth going out on a legal limb to try to save a life is not a compelling argument to me,” said Grant in a recent interview. “Police stand apart from other employees [because] they’re the only employees that have a license to kill.”

Grant has also proposed raising Seattle’s marginal corporate tax rate to create $160 million of revenue to pay for five thousand units of affordable housing. Such a plan would house Seattle’s entire unsheltered homeless population. Mosqueda declines to support this call for raised taxes, instead advising the city go into debt to pay for more housing.

These stances point to the limits of Mosqueda’s version of liberalism. Democratic Party candidates who are beholden to reactionary sections of organized labor cannot combat the carceral state. Socialists can. And Democratic Party candidates who are unwilling to demand that the world’s wealthiest corporations pay more in taxes cannot address inequality at the root. Socialists must.

How Socialists Can Win

Placing another socialist on Seattle’s city council next to Kshama Sawant would be a beacon to socialists everywhere and a chance to provide an antidote to the city’s tepid liberal establishment. Doing that requires a serious electoral ground game.

The Grant campaign’s field operation is massive. Because the race is a citywide competition, it has built a large operation of volunteers, daily door-to-door canvassing, and remote phone banking. As of this writing, the Grant campaign has collectively knocked 40,000 doors (and counting). Seattle DSA has been responsible for 10,000 of these voter contacts, while also providing valuable data entry and volunteer follow-up.

Seattle DSA organizers have gone so far as to canvass its own membership body (approximately six hundred members), encouraging them to volunteer for Grant and also support future Seattle DSA causes, which include plans to push for a municipal bank in 2018. This has paid off in a big way for the campaign; in the August 2017 primary, the areas where Seattle DSA canvassed for Grant were precisely the precincts whose electoral majorities broke for him.

Austerity in Seattle

Grant defeated the Chamber of Commerce’s preferred candidate in the August 2017 primary. This was a testament not only to the campaign’s competitive ground game, but also to its credible proposals that address the pocketbook issues of all citizens suffering under austerity and unaffordability.

In a May 2017 issue of local Left beacon Real Change, Ashley Archibald wrote that “by systematically slicing away options for progressive sources of revenue, government and voters boxed themselves into a fiscal corner in which sales, excise and property taxes are the few funding options that remain.” These regressive taxes subsidize everything from schools to social services, while the city’s billionaire class gets off scot-free.

In Seattle, as in America at large, acts of corporate charity performed by the likes of Boeing and Amazon are a civic distraction from the disparities of austerity. A 2016 study by Oxfam revealed that Seattle corporations Microsoft and Boeing collectively stashed a galling $109 billion in offshore tax havens. If the city had a more progressive tax scheme, it would not depend on the kindness of neoliberals or its vibrant nonprofit sector to provide basic services.

Overton Window (of Opportunity)

Politicians and candidates like Mosqueda who do not actively seek to raise taxes on the rich find themselves to the right of the International Monetary Fund, which recently conceded that higher taxes on the rich would stem inequality. In their endorsement of Jon Grant, The Stranger decried Seattle’s pervading political mood of “milquetoast centrism.” The inaction of the city’s progressives provides a window of opportunity for socialist candidates to offer something better.

Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant said in a September 2017 episode of the podcast Delete Your Account that “as long as there is a vacuum in power, the Right wing will occupy it. That vacuum exists because so many people are disgusted with corporate politics. The Left needs to occupy that vacuum.”

Seattle’s struggles show us all some solutions. Socialists ignore our situation at their own peril.

 

Unless expressly stated, Dispatches do not necessarily reflect the views of Seattle DSA as an organization or its leadership.

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