October 21, 2016
Meet Kshama Sawant: Seattle councilmember. Socialist firebrand. Enfant terrible. For as big a hit as she’s been in Seattle, I’ve never felt that she really got this town. Oh she gets a part of it, all right. The young part, certainly. The tech part. The hip part.
But not the human part. Not the part that’s who we really ARE.
She says she’s for The People. She keeps using that word. I do not think that word means what she thinks it means. The People is not some big blob that always acts or thinks or feels a certain way or can be predicted according to some theory. It’s not even a bunch of blobs. Ultimately, it’s just a collection of more or less like-minded individuals, each of whom has his own worldview and his own unique set of needs, abilities, and aspirations.
But when Sawant she says she’s The People’s Councilmember, she doesn’t mean “people” as in the actual human beings living in District 3, or even in Seattle generally. What she means is The Poor and Downtrodden People. You know. The Wretched of the Earth-type people – as she defines them. In a word: The Masses. That’s her demographic. Don’t believe me? Google her. Or ask her yourself. Her phone number is 206-684-8587 and her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Sawant’s universe – that is, the socialist universe – politicians represent the socioeconomic class from which they come, whether they acknowledge that fact or not. That’s not merely the way it is, that’s the way it has to be. At least for now. The socialist model holds that until we arrive at a classless society – which is what all socialist fantasize about – the rich and poor must keep slugging it out. Whether the slugging takes place in the halls of government or behind the barricades doesn’t matter: The class struggle must go on!
Given these assumptions, it is crucial for a class struggler and social justice warrior like Sawant to know your socioeconomic background, so she can understand where you’re coming from and what your motivations are. If you’re speaking to her, she needs to know one thing up front: Are you rich or poor? Are you an oppressor? Or a victim? In other words, where are you on the Big Struggle-Go-Round? Once she’s sussed that out, she’ll know how to treat you. Should she ignore you? Should she to listen to your concerns and incorporate them into her program? Or should she give you the you’re-a-hater spiel and send you on your way? Of course, one cannot always tell which side another is on just by their skin or the way they dress; Sawant’s sophisticated enough to get that. And that’s where the ideological acid test comes in. That test has just one question: Do you support her programs or don’t you? If the answer is yes, you’re cool. If no, then shut up and get the hell out of the way why don’t you? You’re holding up progress.
An Authentic Kshama Moment
Let’s see how this works in action. Last week I was at City Hall covering a rally. That action, which was attended by maybe 40 people, was to protest a proposed homeless encampments ordinance that Sawant and other councilmembers were supporting. I’ve covered the ordinance elsewhere, so I won’t get into it in detail here. I will say that there are reasonable people lined up on both sides. The protesters were against it – as am I – because they feel it will lead to more homeless people camping in our Seattle parks, which is something that even the supporters concede is true, because, after all, that’s what the bill is designed to do. Opponents say it’s not any kind of a solution to homelessness and will lead to a great big mess. Supporters say that, mess or no mess, it’s the humane thing to do . . . at least until such time as we get a better handle on the problem.
After the rally, the protesters went upstairs to a City Council meeting on the bill, where many of them spoke against the bill during the public comments period after the meeting. Meanwhile, other anti-bill people had filtered in, and there were a large number of pro-bill speakers there as well. Long story short: Everyone who wanted a turn at the mic got a turn, and no one got shut down or heckled – with the exception of Ms. Sawant, who went outside the agenda and started making a speech after it was time for the public comments to start. I left the meeting early myself, on the assumption that it was going to be another classically boring and wonkified Council session. Which it turned out to be.
Later that day, a friend sent me this. It was Sawant’s take on what had happened, posted on her Facebook page:
Needless to say I was rather shocked to read these words. Even for Sawant, this was strong stuff. Who was she talking about here, I wondered? I thought back to the protest rally in the lobby, before the Council meeting. Was that who she was talking about? It couldn’t be. But she couldn’t be talking about the public comments either, because I knew those were going to be tame. (I checked them out later and yes, they were tame.) So who the heck is she talking about with this “anti-poor” stuff? I still don’t know. But let’s review what happened at the rally and the comments, just to be sure.
The rally had been organized by a group calling itself the Neighborhood Safety Alliance (FB: here). The NSA is a Magnolia-based group that arose out of the Council’s push to put several large homeless camps and “safe RV parking lots” in their neighborhood. I’d been kibitzing with them for a a few weeks now, and they don’t strike me as being a particularly hateful or disgusting bunch. (Couple of them rescued three young children from a filthy encampment just this week, in fact, with an able assist from the Mayor’s office. I’ll give you more on that story in another post.)
The people NSA brought to the rally certainly weren’t haters either. They were just the ordinary folks you see around any NW residential neighborhood: conservationists, soccer moms, Little League kids. They talked about how they’d been impacted by a wave of trash, hypodermic needles, and sketchy people camping out in their parks. Take this kid, for example. He was there with his football team and coach . . .
He was talking about how his team couldn’t use the the Interbay football field anymore because of homeless people camping out in the end zone and leaving hypodermic needles on the field. He had to stand on a chair to look people in the eye, and was so nervous he couldn’t finish. Cute little guy. Is this who Ms. Sawant is disgusted by? Does he look like someone spouting anti-homeless, anti-poor rhetoric? If so, I really do not get that.
Here’s another speaker at the rally, a classic Northwest type named Tom Kelly . . .
Tom’s an ecology buff who does park restoration work. He loves his fellow man plenty well enough, I think. He just doesn’t like seeing endangered native plants and fragile wildlife habitats being destroyed by people throwing tents up wherever they want. He doesn’t want the City encouraging that; he wants them to stop it. He sent me a copy of his speaking notes. Here they are.
Agree or disagree as you like; the question isn’t whether he’s right or wrong. The question is whether he’s anti-poor and anti-homeless. Does he look anti-poor to you? You know what he looks like to me . . . ?
Here are some of the signs the anti-encampments bill people were holding. The rally speakers all stuck to the messages on these signs, as did pretty much all the anti-speakers in the public comments. Nearly all the comments fell into the category of either “protect our parks” or “what you’re doing now isn’t working so please don’t do more of it.”
I didn’t hear one person at the rally saying things like: No homeless in our town! or Just arrest them! Instead, they talked about having shelters be open 24 hours, and having more of them. Some of them wanted more emphasis to be put on getting homeless people into housing, jobs, and drug-treatment programs, as opposed to just letting them hang out in our parks indefinitely. (Yes, the park campers are supposed to be offered “services.” No, they don’t have to accept them.)
There was a general sense among the rally crowd that the City’s current policies weren’t working and that the proposed bill just represented more of the same. I heard anger and frustration in some of the remarks, but it was clearly directed at government policies. It was not directed at individual politicians and certainly not at homeless people.
The Public Meeting
After the rally, everyone filed into the Council chambers for their meeting, and those who wanted to speak after the meeting was over signed in on a sheet. If you listen to the comments all the way through, you will see that the public commenters on both sides are being polite and calm, like I said. Check it out for yourself in the video below. Public comments start at 1:45:07.
The pro-encampments people spoke first since they’d gotten there during the rally and signed up first. After them came the anti-encampments comments, which went on longer. Interestingly enough, Ms. Sawant left the room less than halfway through the public comments, so she didn’t even hear a lot of the anti- comments. Yet she claims that the anti- crowd was “emboldened” and had a “day at City Hall.” Where did she get that?
Sawant characterizes this as a takeover of the meeting by one side, but that is not what happened at all. The pro-encampment bill crowd was out in force, too. Camp boss and “homeless advocate” Scott Morrow was there with several of his folks, for example. You can see them standing in the back of the room with signs. And among the pro- speakers, there were at least six professional advocates. These are folks who were either getting paid to get up and speak in favor or who had a direct political interest in the bill passing. Their number included two speakers from the ACLU, which proposed the legislation; a woman named Allison Eisinger from the Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness; and Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which gets City money to run homeless camps around Seattle. Lisa Daugaard was there as well. She founded a government-supported program that keeps heroin users out of jail until such time as they decide they want to get addiction treatment. (Some people feel that Daugaard’s program is contributing to the epidemic of heroin needles in the parks and other public spaces.) Along with the other pro-encampments speakers, the paid advocates got a turn at the mic . . . just like they always, do because they always come to these meetings.
Contrast this with the anti-encampments crowd. Yes, there were more of them, but none of them was getting paid to be there. And other than Bill Bryant – who’s running for governor as a Rotsa-Ruck Republican – no one on the anti- side had a political or financial stake in the bill being killed.
Does Heckling = Hating?
Ms. Sawant got heckled by a few people before the public comments got started. (That starts around 1:43:30 and goes sporadically for less than a minute.) As I said, people weren’t heckling because of her politics; they were heckling because she was talking out of turn and hogging the mic. She was making a pitch for one of her proposals (“Let’s build a thousand homes instead of a new police station!”) that was not even on the agenda, and this was after CM Sally Bagshaw had already started the public comment period. Bear in mind that people had been sitting there for two hours or more, waiting to speak. They were understandably frustrated by this.
Ministry of Information
As I compare Sawant’s strange words with what I saw, I get that feeling that’s doing her us-versus-them thing again, that this is just another iteration of the socialist feedback loop. It’s almost like the rest of us don’t even need to be there for it. Look at the logical construction of her post. See how she starts off in one place (anti-homeless, anti-poor) then proceeds to another (“our movement” – Who’s she talking to here, exactly? Surely not her constituents. ) and ends up in a third (renters rights). Honestly, how do you go from homeless haters to renters rights in less than a hundred words?
Notice how half-way through, she shifts focus from the public commenters to her colleagues in government. (She doesn’t name anyone, it’s just “certain elected officials.”) She then tries to hitch this up to a different topic which is not strictly related to the matter at hand, just like she did with her “build a thousand homes” speech at the end of the Council’s business meeting. It seems she’s got some kind of renters rights bill that is being held up by those darn “anti-poor” elected officials, who are in league with the anti-poor neighborhoods. You see, it’s all part of some vast anti-poor conspiracy. And it’s being led by people like these kids here. And the Gorton’s fisherman guy.
What we’re seeing here, in all its glory, are the mental gymnastics of an ideological hack, trying to fit everything she sees and hears into a tidy little box of rich people vs. poor people. Of oppressor vs. victim. Everything she needs to know about people can be inferred from whether they support her program. Either you support her bills, demonstrating that you’re with her and the downtrodden, or you’re evil. Period. When read this stuff, when I hear her speak, I really wonder whether I’m listening to the Councilmember for District 3 . . . or the Cuban Minister of Information.
Are all socialists like this? Or is it just her?
For all my problems with socialist theory, I don’t think that’s the problem here. Look at Bernie Sanders. He’s a socialist, and he doesn’t treat people this way. Whatever else you ay about Bernie, at least he’s got some respect. And some experience. But Sawant? No. No respect. And not that much experience either. Not in the human relations category anyway. A good word for her would be “callow.” Which is another way of saying immature, and unlearned. Like a child. I hope she can get over that, but the signs aren’t good.
It hasn’t helped that Sawant lived most of her life in a very different political culture than this one (India). Or that she’s got a large and adoring fan club, and the uncritical support of a star-struck left-wing press. Sawant, a political neophyte, roared into office in 2013 on the strength of her status as as an outsider and her spirited advocacy of a revolutionary $15 minimum wage, the highest in the nation. Oh, and then there’s the whole socialist thing, too. That gave her a certain cachet, a product advantage over the other “progressive Democrat” that she was running against. It wasn’t just a gimmick either. After the new wage was approved and it became clear that she wasn’t going to sell-out and become another wonky, establishment type, her star continued to rise. I believe it has now reached its apogee. Class war will only get you so far in a town like this, and even then, you have to keep an eye on your constituency. The street addicts and tramps whose cause Sawant is taking up with this encampments bill are not going to help her cause in the long run. They don’t vote, they don’t make campaign contributions, and they don’t show up in Council meetings – which is a good thing for all of us. If she quit the Council and went to work an addiction clinic or outreach center, I’d admire her. Otherwise, I’m just counting the days until the next election, when she will certainly get dumped by the voters of District 3, whose neighborhoods she has done much to uglify, along with the rest of the city.
If nothing else, I’ll grant that Council meetings aren’t boring anymore. I’ll concede that Sawant has a certain radical charm about her, too. Of the kind I found quite attractive back in my college days. And yet at the same time there’s something decidedly creepy about her. Something not quite right. She often looks withdrawn and disconnected. She spends much of her time at meetings looking down at her phone or scribbling notes, rather than looking around making eye contact, like a normal pol would do. When someone else is talking (even if it’s one of her fans) she doesn’t seem to be listening. When answering a challenging or hostile question, she talks at such a clip that it’s difficult to follow what she’s saying, and when she speaks to a crowd, she drones.
When you study her arguments, and you see how she stuffs people she doesn’t know into these theoretical boxes of hers – as she does in the Facebook post – the total impression is not that of a visionary leader but rather a delayed adolescent, cloaking her frustration and loneliness in this sophomoric ideological rebellion. I believe this is how others on the Council see her, only, this being Seattle, they’re just too nice to say so.
In Sawant’s absurd and hackneyed characterizations of us, she reveals little that’s true of our character, but much that is true of her own. If she wants to stay a force in Seattle politics, she’ll need to reflect on her behavior, tone done the ideology, and start seeing her constituents as individuals. To swipe a line from Hamlet . . . There are more things in heaven and earth, Kshama, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
–Essay by David Preston, with thanks to Harley Lever and Cindy Pierce