Trolling the Left

Today’s alt-right rally in Seattle appears to be part of an organized, well-funded effort to normalize white nationalism – by baiting progressives into equivalent violence.

I spent part of my childhood in South Carolina, in the Deep South.

It’s where I first learned to despise racism, particularly the hypocritical hatreds of racists who think of themselves as “good Christians.”

More relevant to today’s events, we lived outside town, in bottomlands across the street from an open reservoir. As such, our neighborhood had snakes. Lots of them. All different kinds, ranging from benign to poisonous to don’t-go-anywhere-near-it deadly. One of the first things you do, as a kid in that environment, is to learn which ones were which. Knowing each species’ particular warning coloration tells you their likely behavior, the level of the threat, and how best to respond.

As an adult, I’ve applied that same logic to recognizing the warning colorations of the uniforms and vehicles of various law enforcement agencies. And the same analogy applies to right wing hate groups.

The white nationalists at today’s rally in Westlake Park were not the same as the Klan members in robes, or the neo-Nazis in full regalia, or the Confederate flag-loving, Yankee-hating misanthropists, all of whom gathered for this weekend’s festival of hate in Charlottesville. They were also qualitatively different from the last such rally, when a group used the City Hall plaza a few months ago for the avowed, forehead-slapping purpose of protesting Sharia law in the USA. And that, in turn, was different from the fiasco created by Milo Yiannopoulos’ January appearance at the University of Washington – in which the wife of a non-white, Trump-loving agitator who had been assaulting counter-protesters all evening wound up shooting and nearly killing one of those protesting.

But the organizers of each of these Seattle events had one important thing in common, and also in common with the human sewage that descended on Charlottesville this weekend: they understood the media and propaganda value of traveling to a progressive city to troll the liberals.

In today’s case, the event’s organizer, Joey Gibson, insists that he and his followers just want “dialogue” and “understanding.” He said this repeatedly from the stage today, as well as an interview last night with the invaluable Sakara Remmu, conducted just hours after the deaths in Charlottesville. Another reporter friend who’s followed Gibson’s career says that this is a standard part of his schtick – but that today’s gesture of opening the mic to counter-protesters, a rather brilliant move that also at least temporarily defused the crowd’s anger, was a new tactic and probably a concession to yesterday’s events in Virginia.

Gibson himself? He didn’t even stay for the end of the rally. He had a plane to catch, so he could be in Berkeley for a nearly identical rally there on Monday. And despite Gibson’s protestations, in the Remmu article, on stage today, and elsewhere, that he’s not a Nazi or fascist, the same reporter saw him at yet another rally last week in Portland taking a selfie with an openly racist local alt-right leader. The Portland event featured a format and rhetoric nearly identical to today’s Seattle rally. It, too, drew the inevitable counter-protesters. Actions are louder than words.

All three rallies (Seattle, Berkeley, Portland) have been organized by Gibson’s “Patriot Prayer” group, though that group’s name was absent from today’s rally, billed as “Freedom Rally Seattle.” And while Gibson can spout all the rhetoric he wants to about peacefulness and understanding, these words – Patriot, Prayer, Freedom – are designed to attract fans whose predispositions don’t exactly match his rhetoric – a mixed bag of right wing nut jobs who apparently think that pissing off liberals sounds like great fun. Sometimes, as at the City Hall protest earlier this year (which had a pugnacious Proud Boy security detail just after that group had had a spate of bad publicity), they come itching to brawl. Sometimes, like today, they don’t. More importantly, it’s a format designed to draw counter-protesters. That’s the real point.

Gibson appears to be making a full-time living doing nothing but organizing these hatefests in the cities he thinks – often correctly – are most likely to give him a hostile reception. The group sells plenty of MAGA gear, but merchandise alone isn’t paying for Gibson’s travel, living and organizing expenses. Someone or someones with deep pockets is almost certainly helping to underwrite his operation. Now why would they do that? It isn’t just to troll liberals.

A clue comes from Donald Trump’s response to yesterday’s events in Charlottesville, in which he condemned violence “by all sides” but never specifically name-checked racism, white nationalism, fascism, Nazism, or the alt-right as in the least way responsible. Trump’s statement was widely reviled, including by some right wing politicians and commentators, as a particularly repugnant example of both-siderism.

Remember that two of Trump’s top aides, Steve Bannon and Steven Miller, are explicit white nationalists. In that contest, both-siderism has another function: to place white nationalism on the political spectrum as an opposite but equal phenomenon to, say, Bernie Sanders supporters. The point isn’t just to defend or popularize white nationalism – it’s to normalize it.

Gibson’s operation, with its intentional effort to draw angry critics, is another, more cynical way to similarly balance the scales. Inevitably, somebody on the left is going to hurt someone at one of these rallies. Ideally (maybe, from the standpoint of Gibson, and definitely, from the standpoint of his funders) someone on the left will bring a gun and use it.

At that point, you’ve got the ideal equivalence to shitshows like Charlottesville – and as a bonus, a martyr that can be a rallying point for the alt-right and its fellow travelers, whose sense of grievance and persecution is the oxygen they breathe and cultivate. Groups like Patriot Prayer are not just trolling cities like Seattle; they’re aiming higher. They want a violent response, because it’s a counterweight to the inevitable violence on their side. And with balance comes normalization. The real game is being played at a much higher level than counter-protesters jeering speakers, or some cosplay dude decked out in what he thinks is a uniform who sucker-punches a hippie, or cops pepper-spraying marchers, or ordinary pedestrians that get pepper-sprayed as well or trapped in a melee. They’re all collateral damage. From the standpoint of the organizers, none of their lives manner.

Assuming Donald Trump doesn’t launch nukes that destroy all life in the Northern Hemisphere, one of his most lasting negative impacts will have been to bring racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and all other manner of ugly bigotries not only back into mainstream American politics, but to normalize such views in much of the country as once again acceptable in polite company. Beyond specific public policies, white nationalists like Bannon are all about the next step in that de-evolution: making white nationalism not only accepted everywhere as a normal political and cultural view, but, in much of the country, the dominant view. Most white nationalists really aren’t that into Hitler or the Klan – but Klansmen and neo-Nazis love them, because they want their views to follow a similar trajectory, and normalizing white nationalism creates far more space for them to do so.

Today, a day after Charlottesville, someone easily could have gotten hurt, or killed; Gibson could easily have gotten his wish. Seattle police, preoccupied (as usual) with corralling the anarchist-led antifa contingent that first met a mile away, pretty much left the protesters and counter-protesters in Westlake Park itself to their own devices. There certainly wasn’t enough police presence to respond quickly if violence suddenly erupted. The same was true last weekend in Portland, but with a smaller crowd on both sides.

If the same thing had happened in Seattle today, with Charlottesville fresh in our minds, but with last Sunday’s weather, in the heat and asphyxiating wildfire smoke, emotions might have been far more raw. This also explains why today’s rally seemed to go on, and on, and on. In such circumstances, some people get bored and leave. Others just get angrier.

Nobody on either side of today’s protest came to downtown Seattle to change anybody’s mind. They came (Gibson’s conciliatory rhetoric notwithstanding) to bait each other. And if some alt-right cosplay dude gets shot? You can just see Gibson’s teary press conference: “We kept calling for dialogue and understanding, but all those liberals know how to do is hate.” And Donald Trump issues a much more explicit condemnation of radical leftist terrorism.

The game is to troll anti-racists, and to bait us into showing up, with the hope someone will lose control. We take this bait, every time, as people like Gibson know we will – we’re never going to allow such repugnant ideologies to go unchallenged. And we shouldn’t.

But it’s playing with fire. If even one person decides to mete out justice on his or her own terms, we’re doing white nationalists’ work for them in a way that will reverberate widely.

That – not the words from any stage – is the real danger here. Know your snakes.

[Author’s note: I’m a low-income activist, disabled, and dedicated (despite financial and chronic health pressures) to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting for our rightful place in a city that has increasingly turned its back on many of us. Since 1996 I have also reported, along with my colleague, Maria Tomchick, Saturday morning at 8:30 on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle.

If you find my web and radio reporting and analysis valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for my food, rent, and medical care – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

What’s Next for Nikkita Oliver?

A narrow loss in the primary is the best possible outcome for the movement Oliver leads

Today marks nine days since the August 1 primary election. Only a few votes remain to be counted, and Nikkita Oliver’s mayoral campaign will then need to decide whether it wants to pay for a recount. But it’s nearly impossible for disputed ballots and a recount to help Oliver make up all of the more than a thousand votes she now trails Cary Moon by.

Four years ago, nine days after the general election in November, Kshama Sawant finally passed Richard Conlin in their city council race. Sawant trailed by several thousand votes on election night, and drew a lot of criticism for failing to concede on the spot, but she – we – knew the race was closer than that initial count, and as the days went by she narrowed the gap more and more quickly.

I helped run that campaign, and so I was with Sawant and dozens of supporters crowded into her campaign office as we waited for that ninth day’s ballot numbers to be released. When they were, it was utter euphoria. It also happened to be my birthday, so the whole room sang happy birthday to me while all of the assembled TV cameras waited patiently for Sawant to speak. It’s an awesome personal memory, made even sweeter by the very real improvements to the lives of thousands of Seattleites by Kshama’s presence on city council these past four years.

So quite aside from my opinion of Oliver and her campaign, I have very positive associations with the drama of a radical, grass roots campaign fighting back from an election night deficit to win. And I like underdogs. I should want Oliver to prevail for that reason alone.

Over the past months, I’ve talked with people involved in Nikkita’s campaign, but I haven’t played any direct role in it. But if I were helping to run her campaign, despite my personal preferences, I’d be quietly rooting against Nikkita catching Moon, not for it.

If Oliver had edged out Cary Moon, what people would remember next year is not that Oliver narrowly won in August, but that Mayor Jenny Durkan had beaten her, badly, in November. Large numbers of Seattle voters who might be willing this fall to take a chance on Moon would never give Oliver that same benefit – because Moon is older, more experienced, more moderate, less polarizing, and yes, wealthy and white. If Oliver had beaten Moon, a Durkan campaign flush with money would have had a field day scaring Seattle voters about the risks of an Oliver win. Those ads would work.

Now, instead of being a candidate soundly rejected by general election voters, Oliver is sitting pretty by nearly beating Moon. In doing so, she far exceeded most expectations. Her campaign has been a rallying point for a movement that is now much more experienced and organized. Oliver surged at the end, and so her movement has a ton of momentum going forward – momentum that would largely evaporate if she lost badly to Durkan. Instead, she’s sitting pretty.

So what’s next?

It’s hard to tell to what extent Oliver’s newly formed People’s Party is an independent vehicle that can continue to grow and organize over the next two years, or whether it’s simply a transitory vehicle for Oliver’s personal ambition. But whoever wins in November, Oliver and her movement will now be a force on a number of issues that her movement cares deeply about.

The first and most obvious of those issues is affordable housing. Seattle has done quite a bit on that issue already. Sawant has shepherded a number of tenants’ rights reforms through city council and into law. Seattle voters passed a record-setting housing levy last year, much of which is dedicated to creating more affordable housing. In this year’s city budget, Sawant’s proposal to redirect the $150 million now earmarked to a new police precinct building failed to attract other council support – but the pressure it generated led directly to the success of Lisa Herbold’s proposal to add $29 million in new housing to the budget.

Nothing done so far has led to a fundamental paradigm shift in the developer-friendly city policies that have helped create and exacerbate this crisis in the first place, but Sawant is now quietly working on a more sweeping set of reforms for this fall. Whatever Sawant proposes – or even if some compromise proposal emerges – Oliver’s movement will now potentially be a powerful grass roots asset in trying to force city council (and, eventually, a new mayor) to act.

Should Durkan win in November, you can count on Oliver and her followers to also be a strong counterweight to what will likely be the default pro-law enforcement bias of Durkan. If Moon wins in November, it will surely be with the implicit or explicit support of much of Oliver’s army – and that support should come at a price. One of the first demands will be that Moon take a tougher stance in the now-stalled city contract negotiations with its police unions. If Moon is smart, she’ll also offer Oliver herself a place in Moon’s administration, utilizing Oliver’s undeniable organizing skills in service of a more populist Moon agenda.

And then there’s the new youth jail – a proposal already confronted with noisy opposition, opposition that is now larger, more savvy, and can claim a mandate from Oliver’s unexpected primary success.

A lot will happen before then, but this city-wide primary outcome also leaves the Peoples’ Party better positioned to be a force in 2019’s campaigns for the seven city council district seats. In particular, Bruce Harrell (Southeast Seattle) and Rob Johnson (University District) – both of whom won only narrowly in 2015, and both of whom have been resistant to the council’s recent progressive bent – have to be looking over their shoulders at what Oliver’s having had her strongest showing in their districts means for their re-election prospects.

Oliver and the Peoples’ Party would survive a loss to Durkan, of course, and would continue community organizing anyway – and there’s also the possibility that Oliver would again exceed expectations in a general election race against Durkan. But we’ll never know, and that’s the point. If Durkan won big against Oliver, she could reject out of hand Oliver’s populist demands as having been resoundingly rejected already by Seattle voters. Now, as mayor, neither Durkan nor Moon can claim that.

Oliver and many of her supporters will likely paint this month’s narrow margin as a bitter, frustrating loss. But really, this is just about an ideal scenario. And the narrowness of this loss will just be more motivation going forward.

If she chooses to do so, Nikkita Oliver will now be a local political force for a long time to come. It could scarcely have turned out better.

Can Moon Beat Durkan?

After a crowded and confusing primary race to replace Mayor Ed Murray, it’s down to two candidates: former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and civic activist Cary Moon. With most of the ballots counted, Durkan has 28.7 percent of the votes cast for 21 different candidates. Moon, in second place, has 17.4 percent – and has steadily closed the gap with Durkan as late votes came in. (Nikkita Oliver, in third place, has yet to concede, but nothing in four days’ worth of published totals suggests she can catch Moon. It’s over.)

Durkan enters the fall campaign as the strong favorite to become Seattle’s mayor, and many observers are already assuming her election is inevitable.

They shouldn’t. Cary Moon can beat Jenny Durkan.

To be sure, Durkan has some formidable advantages. In the primary, she was the near-unanimous pick of Seattle’s political and civic establishment, inheriting much of the support that, until April, made the re-election of Ed Murray seem inevitable. She will be able to raise enormous amounts of money, and will also benefit from third party spending (mostly from business PACs) that Moon will get little of. Plus, her family is both wealthy and well-connected, and Durkan’s federal background meant she can also pull in celebrity national endorsements like former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a hero among Seattle’s legions of Donald Trump critics.

But Moon has advantages, too. And Durkan has vulnerabilities.

Start with those primary results. Durkan nearly doubled Moon’s vote total in the early going – but just as there was clear establishment support for Durkan, critics of Seattle’s status quo – especially housing and homelessness policies, police reform, and Seattle’s widening gap between our haves and have-nots – split their votes among all of Durkan’s five major opponents. In particular, Moon, Nikkita Oliver, and Bob Hasegawa all clearly ran in opposition to the business-as-usual approach represented by Murray and Durkan. Durkan, at week’s end, had 48,193 votes. Combined, Moon, Oliver and Hasegawa drew 70,325 votes. That’s nearly 60 percent voting for the outsiders among these four (including the only two people of color among the six major candidates), going into a general election where the average voter will be younger, less affluent, and less white than in the primary. Viewed through that lens alone, Durkan suddenly seems quite vulnerable.

Of course, Moon still has to win over the people who didn’t vote for her. Her campaign should be looking at several priorities in its race against Durkan, but the very first priority, which she’s already begun to do, is to court the endorsements, and then the voters and ideally some of the donors and volunteers, of Oliver and Hasegawa.

That’s by no means a given. Oliver finished a strong third running with the support of the newly formed People’s Party, in direct opposition to not just Durkan but the entire local Democratic Party. Moon, who like most Seattle politicos identifies as Democratic, will have to make the case to Oliver and her voters that not all Democrats are the same, and that she shares far more of Oliver’s agenda than Jenny Durkan ever will.

For the voters, part of Moon’s challenge will simply lie in introducing herself. Moon got important support in the primary, most notably with The Stranger’s endorsement (without which, Oliver likely beats her). But before this year’s campaign, Moon was virtually unknown to the average voter; her highest-profile past work was with her opposition to the downtown tunnel project. In hindsight, that looks remarkably prescient – but it was also several years ago. Neither Moon nor Durkan has ever held elected office, but Durkan at least can point to a high-level public position as U.S. Attorney for Western Washington. Moon still needs to prove to most voters that she has the chops to be a big city mayor, and to demonstrate what her priorities as mayor would be.

Durkan’s experience is her strength, but it’s also a significant vulnerability. Beyond being widely viewed as a representative of Seattle’s civic establishment, she’s not well-defined. Moon can help do that. Durkan’s pro-law enforcement background, as both a U.S. Attorney and a prosecutor, means that Moon can tie her to the widespread local establishment resistance (including the last three mayors) to taking seriously the need for wholesale reform of the Seattle Police Department. In particular, Durkan’s refusal as U.S. Attorney in 2010 to prosecute on federal charges the SPD killer of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams should be known to every single Seattle voter by November – and by contrast, Moon needs to stake out a strong pro-reform position. No other single issue is as likely to help mobilize Oliver and Hasegawa supporters.

Durkan has also not been clearly defined on how she would respond to the ill-effects of Seattle’s current population boom. For over a decade, establishment politicians like Murray have actively courted support by shoveling as much corporate welfare as they could find into developer and real estate pockets. Durkan inherits much of that support, whereas Moon made her name opposing the tunnel as, basically, a multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded development scheme. Moon needs to make the case that addressing Seattle’s affordable housing crisis requires radical solutions, not simply the nibbling around the edges (while things continue to worsen) proposed by Durkan – and that creating meaningful amounts of affordable housing is also the single best way to address Seattle’s skyrocketing rates of homelessness. And Moon needs to make the case that her own personal wealth doesn’t blind her to the needs of Seattle’s less fortunate.

It will take money for Moon to be able to clearly define both herself and Durkan by November. Most voters never see a political candidate in person, and far more people vote in the November election than the August one. In the most recent similar elections, in August 2013, about 142,000 people voted for Seattle mayor (with a similarly competitive multi-candidate field), but in November of 2013 over 202,000 people voted for the same office. Compared to primary voters, the new November voters are almost by definition less engaged and less likely to know who the candidates are and what they stand for.

Moon’s fundraising in the primary (about $150,000) was only a third of Durkan’s. Now that she’s Durkan’s sole opponent, Moon will also need to court some of the primary donor money that went elsewhere – and Seattle’s new Democracy Voucher program doesn’t extend to the mayor’s race this year. Moon doesn’t need to equal Durkan’s fundraising, but she does needs to raise enough money to be competitive with Durkan in getting her message out. Moreover message needs to be clear and memorable enough to withstand Durkan’s inevitable October advertising blitz and high-profile establishment endorsements

Framing the Debate

Both women present as likeable, thoughtful, and competent – Moon is solid on this score, but she can’t make up the ground she needs to against Durkan simply by having a more winning or sympathetic personality or promising to “get things done” more effectively. Seattle’s century-long failure to elect a woman as mayor won’t be an issue this year, either.

Many of these are steps that political campaigns take routinely, but routine alone won’t be enough for Moon to win. Her best hope – and probably her only hope – for overtaking Durkan is to turn the race between the two into a referendum. If you like how things are going in Seattle – a booming economy and population, construction everywhere – vote Durkan. If you think Seattle needs a corrective to inadequate infrastructure investment, traffic gridlock, overflowing schools, a city government that shuts out the concerns of many of its residents, and policies whose affordability “solution” is simply to force any household that doesn’t have a six-figure income to leave town – vote Moon.

That focus would draw the ire of the Seattle Times and the city’s business establishment – and the likely support of The Stranger, Seattle Weekly (which endorsed Oliver in the primary), many of the supporters and legislative district endorsers of Oliver and Hasegawa, and more than a few backers of Mike McGinn (who also once won election as an outsider) and Jessyn Farrell. That leaves the younger, less affluent, and more non-white electorate that didn’t vote in August to tip the balance.

In that scenario, if you’re Cary Moon, you’ve got to like your chances.

Democracy at a Crossroads

The Trump presidency will end, or American democracy will end. Or both.

Last night’s bizarre spectacle of a health care vote in the U.S. Senate, in which a terminally ill John McCain cast the deciding vote to end (for now) the grotesque Republican effort to dismantle much of our country’s health care system because it got reformed by a black guy, was a pivotal moment in a much larger story.

In casting his vote, McCain, who will never have to worry again about re-election, gave cover to many of his Republican colleagues, who knew how dangerous their bill was but were more worried about the likelihood of losing a primary challenge (and their jobs) to the frothier end of the Republican base. A lot of people will debate why McCain voted as he did. Perhaps, as he claimed earlier this week, he really was offended by the charade of a democratic process used to force a vote on a bill literally written over lunch Thursday, and presented to the Senate less than three hours before the final vote.

But if that was the case, McCain could have avoided several days of this nonsense – and utter panic among millions of Americans whose lives were literally threatened by this week’s series of votes. He could have voted “no” on letting any of those bills ever reach the floor. But instead he let the process play out in a way perfectly calibrated to maximally humiliate and damage Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

More likely, McCain – who is every bit as vengeful as the president – never forgot Trump’s mocking during last year’s presidential campaign (and McCain’s re-election bid) of McCain’s brutal POW experience. This was revenge served on ice. And it brought cheers not only from Democrats and Americans who need (or might someday need) access to health care, but plenty of other Republicans who are now, finally, starting to openly turn on Donald Trump.

Aside from his usual petulant tweets, Trump actually had very little to do with the Senate vote. He’s been busier lately watching his business empire and his personal family (not to mention his political career) increasingly become the focus of Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation, and scrambling madly to try to head that off. He’s responded by publicly attacking every single official involved with oversight of the investigation; throwing Jeff Sessions, his most loyal Cabinet member, under the bus as a ploy to try to get the power to fire Mueller; and claiming that the FBI (which would inherit the investigation if the special counsel is fired) should report directly to him as his private law enforcement agency.

Meanwhile, the anonymous quotes that started coming out in the very first week of the Trump presidency, of a White House marred by complete disorganization, terrible morale, and vicious infighting, have burst out into the public. At the same time, Trump’s attacks on Sessions have reportedly enraged not only Sessions’ former Senate colleagues, but many of Trump’s Cabinet members, who reason (correctly) that if Trump can publicly humiliate and sabotage someone as loyal as Sessions in this way, any of them could be next. (Note that it’s the Cabinet members who would first need to sign off on any 25th Amendment attempt to remove Trump from power, and those same Republican Senate colleagues who would be the key votes to approve it.) Also this week, military leadership is all but openly defying the Commander in Chief on his bizarre tweet that (apparently) ordered all transgender individuals expelled from active military service. Even the fever swamp conservative media is finally starting to splinter, taking up sides on who to blame as the wheels fall off. (Hint: only the most credulous are buying the claims that it’s somehow all the fault of liberals.)

All the while, the Mad King (as Revel Smith so presciently dubbed Trump a full year ago) reportedly watches the infighting with glee, a mildly retarded five-year-old giggling and rubbing his hands in delight as his subjects shiv each other for his entertainment.

All in the last four days.

This is not sustainable.

Trump built his career – and enormous wealth – by relentless self-promotion, bullying, fraud, and lies. In the private sector, his wealth insulated him from the consequences. The same tactics somehow got him elected president. He’s not going to change now; it’s who he is.

But governing, unlike real estate, is a collaborative process in which there are many bases of power; trust is the coin of the realm. Trump doesn’t do collaboration, or trust; he does fear. And in a mere six months he’s managed to destroy what was already a remarkably small number of political allies in DC. Plenty of Republicans fear their unhinged base; they’ve treaded carefully around Trump because Trump enjoys a strong tribal loyalty among that base.

But regardless of whether his election last year was made possible by Vladimir Putin and the same clique of Russian oligarchs and mobsters that keep popping up in every facet of Trump’s life, he’s now vulnerable to impeachment on a number of fronts, not least of which being his clear and unapologetic efforts to obstruct justice. He hasn’t been able to get any part of his legislative agenda enacted by a Congress tightly controlled by his own party; half of his senior leadership is rumored to either be leaving or being pushed out; and more than a few of them are spending a lot of their (or Trump re-election) money on private lawyers.

Donald Trump has only one tool in his governing toolbox – fear – and the Republicans whose support he now needs to survive, let alone enact any part of his agenda, increasingly do not fear him.

Which Way Will It Go?

There are so many moving parts to this governing crisis that it’s impossible to keep up each day with the cascading bad news. But the need to govern doesn’t stop. In the next six weeks – some of which Congress won’t be in session for – Republicans somehow will need to pass both operating budgets and a debt ceiling increase to avoid the federal government shutting down all but its most essential services. Right now, it’s hard to imagine this Congress being able to do either. And at last report, the Trump White House hasn’t even tried to prepare any sort of plan for this contingency, which could cost the American economy billions (if not trillions) and trigger a global economic crisis. It would be comically inept were the stakes not so high.

And all of Trump’s (and Republicans’) wounds have been entirely self-inflicted. What happens with the first, inevitable, external crisis: when North Korea decides to try out its new toys, or a hurricane wipes out Miami, or Russia decides to annex Belarus, or somebody blows up the Gateway Arch? Has their ever been a presidency that inspired less confidence in its ability to protect American lives and interests? Has one ever seemed more willing to seize on any excuse to try to suppress threats to its power?

Trump is who he is, and he seems to hire people based solely on loyalty and on having bullying personalities similar to his. There’s a reason that he seems to think he has more in common with Vladimir Putin than any US politician. It’s hard to see how he salvages his presidency from this imminent train wreck by any means other than ending our country’s long, flawed but noble experiment with democracy. His most existential threat is the Russia investigation, and he seems determined not just to (illegally) kill it, but turn US law enforcement into his personal service and an arm of his political power.

Last night, as the Senate prepared to vote on its health care abomination, Bernie Sanders was making the cable TV news rounds, observing accurately that denying health care to millions of Americans, and driving up the cost for the rest of us, all to pay for tax cuts for the extremely wealthy, was only the tip of the current Republican agenda. That includes, among other things, privatizing Medicare, Social Security, the Veterans Administration, and any other economic sector not already owned by the privileged few. This is the oligarchic model Putin (who came from a KGB background and already had access to Russia’s security apparatus to further his goals) used to consolidate power in Russia. By selling off state assets to newly minted oligarchs who owed their personal fortunes to him, Putin was able in turn to buy off Russia’s legislature and courts as well, Now he’s untouchable.

This is who Donald Trump wants to be, and this is the template he’s trying to use. Cable news is full of politico types wringing their hands that Trump doesn’t respect democratic norms, but it’s rather more serious than that.

Now that’s Donald Trump has been elected (with a healthy assist from a hostile foreign power intent on undermining Western democracies), he has no further use for democracy in any form that could threaten his power. Norms of decorum are the least of it. And roughly a third of Americans would be just fine with a dictatorship, especially if it’s wrapped in religion and white nationalism. That’s more than enough to cloud the issues, and grease the skids, at every step in America’s descent. By the time our Dear Leader is killing journalists, torturing dissidents, and both expanding and further privatizing our for-profit prison system, it’ll be too late.

And if Trump wants to remain the most powerful man in the world, he’s pretty much closing off any other avenue of actions. He’s not that dumb.

The Even Bigger Threat

The good news is that the other two-thirds of us want no part of this dystopic future, and that within the halls of power, Donald Trump seems to have pissed off plenty of people who, like John McCain, are just waiting for their chance at payback. For every way that Trump can try to shut down the Russia investigation, Congress, law enforcement, and the courts still have a half-dozen ways to block him. Our government is fast approaching a reckoning in which this circus will do real damage to people who count (and who count their money). Trump can and will be neutralized.

The bad news is that while Donald Trump may be a dangerously ham-fisted, emotionally arrested megalomaniac, he’s still just a symptom, not the problem. Tens of millions of Americans still think he’s awesome. And he’s not the only billionaire who wants the US to become a kleptocratic oligarchy on the model of, say, Putin’s Russia, or China’s unique approach to totalitarian capitalism. The Koch Brothers still personally own several state governments, and there are plenty of other less visible would-be oligarchs who want a Trumpian future, regardless of whether Trump himself is in it.

And if Trump goes? Meet President Michael Pence, a Christian Jihadist who can seamlessly appeal to Trump’s religious fans and who is far more experienced and competent than Trump in making the levers of government work for his ends.

Trump’s dream of being permanent King of the Universe isn’t working out so well at the moment. But it’s what comes next that’s even more concerning. Every US president since Richard Nixon has claimed still more power for the Executive Branch; each successive one, up to and including Obama, has claimed for himself (and thus normalized) the new powers claimed by his predecessor. Even as Trump lies with every breath and tries to trample one once-unassailable check or balance after another in an effort to stay in power and out of prison, he and his party are governing so badly, and he’s personally alienating so many people who (like John McCain) have the power to thwart him, that chances are good the 45th President can be stopped in his bid for total power.

There will be far fewer McCains willing to stand up to the 46th President. There will only be the American people.

Revisiting City Council, Position 9

Pat Murakami herself managed to convince me not to vote for her.

Every time over these past many years, when giving election recommendations, I’ve encouraged readers and listeners not to take my word for it. Do your own research. I’m just one guy, and I can make mistakes.

And I made one in this year’s primary.

I tend to include strategic voting (not necessarily the best or most sympathetic candidate) among the factors that inform my picks, and on occasion I’ve chosen one candidate in the primary, and another in the general election. But I don’t remember ever getting information that caused me to change my mind before the vote in question has even happened. Until now.

And it’s not the race you might think, the one where several strong progressives are competing against each other for an open mayorship. It’s the at-large Seattle City Council Position 9, where I picked small business owner and neighborhood activist Pat Murakami over incumbent Lorena Gonzalez.

I was well aware that Murakami has some…problematic history fighting against the placement of social services in her neighborhood. But here was my logic: Gonzalez hasn’t been horrible overall. But in the city council’s most urgent issue, the runaway development that aspires to turn every third Seattle neighborhood into a miniature Manhattan, a series of zoning and development decisions have driven much of the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crises. Gonzalez has been and would continue to be part of that problem. Murakami likely would not.

For the last decade, as part of successive mayors’ zeal to ram through upzoning, neighborhood activists have basically been shut out of city decision-making. First, the long-time and highly respected head of Seattle’s department that oversees neighborhoods was forced out. Ed Murray moved to entirely defund the city’s neighborhood council system. The new district system for city council implemented in 2015, with all nine seats up for election, certainly encouraged more candidates – but the winners two years ago included arguably no council members previously known primarily as advocates in and for their districts. Meanwhile, small business owners are fast becoming an endangered species, and our city is doing less than nothing to help forestall tat. The only small business owner currently on city council, Tim Burgess, is retiring.

My logic was that while I’m not thrilled with Murakami’s record on issues I care about, her campaign platform is more nuanced than her history would suggest, and as one of nine members she would bring a badly underrepresented voice to city council. Plenty of readers, including some friends whose experience and opinions I respect enormously, objected, citing Murakami’s history, but I still think that logic was sound. They didn’t change my mind.

Pat Murakami herself did.

Responding personally to criticism in a thread from a post by the invaluable Sarajane Siegfriedt, here’s what Murakami wrote last week:

“If someone came here because they were rejected by their families (for example, because they are gay), then we should embrace and assist them. If their pastor sent them here with a one-way bus ticket because they are a drug addict that that community doesn’t want to deal with, then shame on them! Every community should take care of their own members that can’t take care of themselves….

“If the taxpayers of Seattle are fine with paying for permanent housing for people that arrived here last week via a bus ticket given to them by a pastor, social worker or police officer from another state, then of course, we’ll pay for and provide the permanent housing…no matter how despicable they are.”

Okay, I made those last six words up. But they don’t seem out of place, do they?

One of the statistics from this year’s point-in-time count that Murakami should know by heart is that 87 percent of homeless people here have previously had housing in King County. That’s seven of every eight, and it tracks with the same types of numbers in other cities with exorbitant rents. Further, of the people who do arrive here from elsewhere, it’s usually for opportunities – a promised job, or an environment more welcoming to sexual or other minorities, or access to needed physical or mental health services.

The number of homeless that “come here to get free stuff” or who get handed a ticket out of their home towns is vanishingly small. It’s a bizarre and cruel myth, based on fear and popularized by hatemongers like KIRO-FM’s Dori Monson. The only people who believe that this scenario happens with any kind if regularity are simply looking for a way to rationalize their bigotry. They’re horrible human beings. Promoting such stereotypes on the campaign trail isn’t just appalling – it’s also dangerous in itself, because it panders to and legitimizes such bigotry in others – and that’s already, sadly, a significant problem in our city.

It’s even worse in this case, because it’s hard to tell from her words whether Murakami’s “nuanced” approach stems from benevolence or bitterness. Either way, it’s bad. You can’t help people who bear almost no resemblance to your stereotypes of them, because you’ll never understand what does and does not help.

And this wasn’t ten, five, or even one year ago. It was last week. When such sentiments come, unprompted, will ballots already mailed, from a candidate for city-wide office who has had every chance to know better – and who, failing that, also lacks the wisdom to simply STFU – they’re instantly disqualifying. I will not be voting for Pat Murakami.

Or for Lorena Gonzalez, who still has the same problems. Or for official civic menace David Preston, for that matter.

One other candidate I should mention, who is being promoted by union friends I respect, is WFSE Local 304 President Ty Pethe. I’d like to take a chance on him. But his campaign has underwhelmed, and his voters’ guide statement is frankly embarrassing – we learn that he’s a union guy, that he loves his union, that he likes humble bragging about his honesty, that he’s a union guy, and…that’s it. I have no idea what he’d do on council.

I’ll definitely be revisiting this vexing race in October. But for now, as I often recommend when I don’t feel comfortable supporting any of the candidates for a position, I’m going to… skip it.

UPDDATE: Murakami is still going in this thread. She’s not helping herself.

Murray Needs to Resign

I’ve kept my mouth shut, but I was assured several months ago by a couple of different sources that a copy of the thought-to-be-destroyed 1984 report by Portland authorities on allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by Ed Murray did, in fact, exist; that it was being sat on; and that it was pretty damning.

Now it’s out. And Murray can spin all he wants, but my sources were right. It’s pretty damning.

All this happened over 30 years ago, and even if Murray had been criminally prosecuted back then, it would have been for crimes now long past the statute of limitations. So I totally get the frustration and anger of Murray and people close to him. This probably WAS a political hit, timed to cause maximum damage to Murray and his career. And it has. The standards of acceptable conduct for an elected official are rather higher than simply staying out of prison.

Ed Murray knew all of this. He spent decades as an elected official, climbing the ladders of power, knowing that these allegations were buried in his past. And he knew that politics isn’t fair. For 20 years in Olympia he thrived in part by using strong-arm tactics; he became the sort of legislator who got his way by bullying rather than persuasion or negotiation. Now, legislators from both parties who served with Murray have been watching his downfall with glee. What’s good for the goose, etc.

In the big picture, none of that matters. A big city mayor has several major roles, the most important being: to steer public policy, to administer a major organization and its many thousands of employees, and to be the public representative of the city.

While I don’t particularly want six months of, say, Kate “Downtown Seattle Association” Joncas as my interim mayor, a lot of people can capably fill those first two roles for a few months. But Murray can no longer credibly do that third job. Ed Murray as Seattle’s representative to the world is now officially an embarrassment, one doing a lot more harm than good – not just to Seattle’s image, but in particular to the emotional health of sexual abuse survivors here and everywhere. Mayor Ed Murray, drawing a public salary and standing at a podium before the cameras, is a representative of Seattle. He’s also now the representative of every abuser and creep who ever got away with it.

Ed Murray needs to claim credit for all the good he’s done in his career, gracefully resign, and return to life as a private citizen. Now. Right now. It may or may not be fair, but it’s the right thing to do.

Primary Election 2017: It’s Crowded at the Top

It’s become a summer tradition in Seattle. In about the middle of July, people receive a primary election ballot in the mail, turn to each other, and say: “There’s an election?”

This year is particularly vexing, because there are only eight or nine items (depending on which district of Seattle Schools you live in), all of them local, on the entire ballot for Seattle voters. There’s no federal or state elected offices up for grabs this year. But those few items include primary elections for the four most powerful local elected officials in our area: Seattle’s mayor, Seattle’s two at-large city council members (after the council went to a split district/at large system in 2015), and the King County Executive.

Easy, right? Did I mention that two of those three Seattle positions have no incumbent, and that they have, respectively, twenty-one, nine, and seven people on the ballot?

Keeping it all straight in the heat of summer is going to be far more than most people can, or want, to do – especially with 21 people running for Seattle mayor and 16 more running for the two city council seats.

There’s one other important new aspect to this year’s election: Democracy Vouchers, the slips of paper mailed to registered voters last January that can be used to channel up to $100 in publicly funded donations to the candidates of your choice – if those candidates are running for city council (which is on this summer’s primary ballot) or city attorney (on the fall ballot). If you lost those slips of paper, you can get replacements here http://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/i-am-a-seattle-resident/voucher-replacement. To find out more about this groundbreaking program, go here http://www.seattle.gov/democracyvoucher.

It’s a lot to track, but I’m here – again – to help. And as has been true for each of the 22 (!) years I’ve been passing on my election recommendations, the usual caveats apply: this is one opinion. Take it for what it’s worth, which is, well, one opinion. Do your own research.

Remember, this is a top-two primary, meaning that the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election in November.

And be sure to return your ballot by Tuesday, August 1, but don’t think for a second the job of changing the world, or even our city, will be over when you do. Social change comes from below. Voting becomes most useful when people have already organized, not when the people and policies we empower are approved. Get out and make yourself heard all the time, not just by mailing in a piece of paper.

As for which lines to fill in the bubbles for…

THE TL;DR VERSION

King County Executive: Dow Constantine
Port of Seattle #1: Ryan Calkins
Port of Seattle #3: Ahmed Abdi
Port of Seattle #4: John Persak
City of Seattle Mayor: Bob Hasegawa
City of Seattle City Council #8: Mac McGregor
City of Seattle City Council #9: Pat Murakami
Seattle School District Director #4: Eden Mack
Seattle School District Director #5: Zachary Pullin DeWolf
Seattle School District Director #7: Betty Patu
King County Proposition 1: Rejected

THE DETAILS

King County Executive: Dow Constantine wants to be your next governor, following the path of former King County Executive Gary Locke. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson also wants to be your next governor, following the path of former AG Christine Gregoire. (Jay Inslee took the third common route, via Congress.)

Ferguson has been busy for the last couple of years making headlines by taking on well-chosen liberal bene hoirs like Donald Trump, Tim Eyman, and Comcast. Constantine has kept a lower profile, but he’s up for re-election this year, and it’s a measure of his power and the quality of his performance as county executive that he’s drawn no serious opposition. He has three challengers on this summer’s primary ballot: permanent wack candidates Stan Lippman and Goodspaceguy, and Bill Hurt, a retired Boeing engineer who admits up front that “My candidacy’s an attempt to attract attention to my blog” – a blog focused solely on trying to stop the eastern expansion of light rail, and the Seattle-based Scary Brown People who might then ride it. The Republican Party, which not long ago fielded competitive candidates for this position, didn’t even bother this year. Constantine’s done a good job, and for all practical purposes he’s running unopposed. Dow Constantine.

Port of Seattle: Commissioner, Position 1: For literally decades, the Port of Seattle has been one of the most corrupt and insular public agencies in the state. With its own, independent taxing authority, the Port has long been run as an obedient subsidiary of the industries it does business with: cargo companies, airport vendors, and (more recently) the cruise ship industry. Senior staff, immune to public oversight, have been part of the problem. A succession of CEOs come, fit right in with the culture, and make bank until they leave, usually under the cloud of scandal. And for far too long, the Port of Seattle Commission – the one piece of this cozy arrangement that is in theory accountable to the public – has also been dominated by interests that, at best, are only too happy to go with the flow. Port Commissioners get paid poorly for what is supposed to be a part-time job – so, as with Seattle’s School Board, it usually attracts candidates who are either independently wealthy or have a vested interest in one of the Port’s customers. Or both.

It’s impossible to understand Port Commissioner races without this essential context – and as such, with the exception of occasional reform-minded people who sneak on the commission, it’s impossible to give the benefit of the doubt to almost any incumbent in a Port race. If you’re not part of the solution at the Port, you’re very definitely Part of the Problem. And with three Port Commission seats up for election this year – one of them open, the other to with POTP incumbents; and with environmentalist Fred Felleman having been elected to a four-year term in 2015, in theory the Commission could get a rare reform majority this year.

In theory. But in these first two positions, as we saw with the King County Executive race, not all challengers to an incumbent are created equal.

In Position 1, the incumbent is John Creighton. He’s by all accounts a nice guy, who has traded on business connections and a wealthy family to win three terms on the Port Commission. His record during that time isn’t terrible…but he’s seeking a fourth term as already the longest-serving member of the commission, and a former commission President. He claims to want greater accountability at the Port – but in a dozen years, there’s little or no evidence he’s made that a priority. It’s time for fresh blood.

Creighton has three challengers this time: former state senator Claudia Kauffman, Bea Querido-Rico, and Ryan Calkins. Kauffman served one term without distinction as a state senator from Kent from 2006-10, before achieving the nearly unthinkable feat of losing as a Democratic incumbent in a district that should be a Democratic sinecure. There’s nothing in her candidacy that suggests she’d be more effective at the Port. A better choice in Calkins, who has a good mix of economic and trade understanding, nonprofit and union experience, progressive values, and a commitment to transparency that would be a clear upgrade on John Creighton. Can he make that mix work on the port commission? Let’s find out. Ryan Calkins.

Port of Seattle: Commissioner, Position 3: Here, the incumbent is Stephanie Bowman. She’s…adequate. At best. But like Creighton, she’s shown little inclination to interfere with business as usual at the Port. This year, she has two primary challengers: Lisa Espinosa and Ahmed Abdi. Abdi, a Somali immigrant, is the more impressive challenger. He’s got good priorities, calling out the Port for its opposition to paying workers a livable wage and its notorious invitation to Shell Oil two summers ago (which Bowman supported). And it’s true that an immigant, non-white voice on the Port Commission would itself be a breath of fresh air. Is Abdi conversant enough in actual Port operations? If he gets through the primary, he has three more months to make that case. Ahmed Abdi.

Port of Seattle: Commissioner, Position 4: This is the one open seat, and as such it’s attracted the most candidates: Eight, headlined by the surprise candidacy of Seattle City Council veteran Peter Steinbrueck.

Like anyone else who’s been around local politics for a while, I know and like Peter. For a decade, from 1997-2007, he and Nick Licata were often the lonely progressive voices on a council that was far more corporatized than today’s (and that helped lay the groundwork for our current homelessness and housing crises.) Four years ago, he ran an unfortunate campaign for mayor that never really took off due to the odd combination of Peter and establishment consultant Cathy Allen. But he’s still a really good guy, and a civic treasure.

And he’s not the best candidate for this job.

Honestly, I don’t know why Peter is running. Both professionally (he’s a well-regarded architect and urban planner) and on council, he hasn’t shown any obvious past interest in the Port of Seattle. The port commission doesn’t pass laws; his budget and oversight experience would translate, but only if he were more familiar with the Port itself.

And there’s another progressive candidate for this seat who has probably forgotten more about the Port over the years than Peter Steinbrueck has ever known.

I first encountered John Persak in the ’90s, when he was a young IWW firebrand. But unlike many young radicals, he stuck with it. Today, he’s risen to become a policy expert and vice president of the ILWU longshoreman’s union. As such, he’d be an ideal advocate on the commission for exactly the constituencies the Port has cared the least about in recent years: the middle class blue collar workers on the waterfront, and the lower-paying airport service workers whose raise to a $15 minimum wage the Port fought so hard against, even as the last Port CEO was paying himself and his buddies exorbitant raises. It’s been a while since a union representative, any union representative, was on the port commission. There couldn’t be a better time, and Persak has spent a lifetime preparing for the role.

In a crowded, open seat race like this for a relatively obscure position, Steinbrueck’s connections and name familiarity will likely enable him to be one of the two finalists. Who will also make the cut? It’ll be tough for Persak. In 2015, in a similar crowded open seat race (the one eventually won by Felleman), the other finalist was a grossly underqualified woman, simply because she was the only woman in a nine-person primary. Again, in this eight-person race, there’s one woman, and she’ll have an advantage. There’s also a well-monied former Delta Airlines board member who ran in that last open seat race, permacandidate Richard Pope, and several others. Persak’s the only one who would be a strong, committed, knowledgable advocate for the people most impacted by the port commission’s decisions. John Persak.

City of Seattle: Mayor: Hoo Boy. Twenty. One. Fucking. Candidates.

Fortunately, only six of them are running serious, viable campaigns. You can forget about the other fifteen. Alex Tsimerman is not going to be our next mayor. (Thank Gaia.) Neither are Harvey Lever, Mary Martin, or a dozen others. But the six worth paying attention to each have significant strengths and serious flaws that are worth considering. In alphabetical order, they are: Jenny Durkan, Jessyn Farrell, Bob Hasegawa, Mike McGinn, Cary Moon, and Nikkita Oliver.

Jenny Durkan was the last of these candidates to announce, once Ed Murray had withdrawn from the race; she’s relying heavily on Murray’s donors (and even some of his political staff), as well as her own family’s money and connections, for what instantly became the business community’s campaign of choice. As a former US Attorney who has never held public office, it’s hard to tell what kind of mayor Durkan would be; she starts as a Murray doppelganger with many of the same strengths (including the LGBTQ base) and weaknesses, but she’s also shown signs in the campaign of having creative, thoughtful ideas of her own. On the other hand, one of her decisions as US Attorney was to not federally prosecute the SPD cop who shot and killed John T. Williams in 2010. She could be surprisingly positive as mayor – or not. I’m betting on “not.”
Jessyn Farrell is a sleeper in this race. She’s not well known outside her Lake City base. But in her five years representing Northeast Seattle in Olympia (she left her secure seat to run for mayor), she’s gotten high marks from every progressive Olympia hand I’ve talked with, representing a variety of constituencies – an impressive record for a relatively young legislator. She could well inherit much of the environmental vote that mobilized for Mike McGinn in 2009, as well as appealing to women voters who are skeptical about Durkan. She’s smart, creative, and strong on the issues. Keep your eye on Jessyn Ferrell. All that said, she’s relatively young and has no executive experience – and she starts as arguably the least-known of the major candidates. This probably isn’t her year – but we could do a lot worse than Ferrell for mayor.
Bob Hasegawa has a different problem: as a longtime legislator representing Southeast Seattle, he was prohibited by law from raising money for his campaign before the legislature ended its third (!) special session on June 30. [UPDATE: MY MISTAKE. IT’S *STILL* IN SESSION.] With well-funded candidates like Durkan in the race in a crowded primary, that’s a significant disadvantage – which is a shame, because Hasegawa is a beloved icon in the south end. In Olympia, and before that as a union organizer, he’s spent his entire adult life fighting on behalf of working people, communities of color, and the mnny constituencies being left behind by Seattle’s ever-widening wealth gap. And he has a proven record of effectiveness that can’t be matched by most other candidates. That’s critical when tackling not only Seattle’s many difficult issues, but reversing decades of city hostility toward the people Hasegawa fights for. As a bonus, unlike our last three mayors, he’s not an arrogant, bullying asshole. That alone would be a welcome culture change. But first, he has to get through the primary.
Mike McGinn is running an odd campaign. In 2009, he surprised everyone and won with the solid support of the environmental movement. Those voters largely abandoned him four years later, when he lost to Murray. Now he’s back trying to champion neighborhoods and homeowners – and rhose are the people most likely to vote in our summer primary.
It’s not a bad strategy, even if it’s a complete reversal from the evangelical zeal with which he promoted density (and corporate welfare for developers) during his one term as mayor. McGinn is as responsible as any single individual for our current affordable housing crisis. He also fought hard against any sort of accountability during the Department of Justice’s investigation and action sgainst SPD. Those are serious negatives.
However, McGinn also did some really good things as mayor. He invested in the south end and in racial equity as no mayor has before or since. The Rainier Beach Community Center was his doing, and he forged important connections with immigrant communities. His approach to homelessness was flawed, but it was positively benevolent compared to what came before and afrer. Don’t rule him out – but given his abrasive (and sometimes openly misogynist) personal style and past pivots, it’s very difficult to predict how he’d govern during a second term, That’s a problem.
Cary Moon was running a stealth campaign, until winning the surprise endorsement of The Stranger. She’s a long-time civic activist but hasn’t been much in the public eye since helping to lead the effective, if ultimately doomed, 2007 fight against the downtown tunnel – a stand that looks better every year. She’s organized, well-versed in the issues, and has all the right priorities. It’s easy to see why The Stranger endorsed her.
The downside for Moon – as with Nikkita Oliver, who I’ll discuss next – is that Moon has never run an organization of any size. I have more confidence in her than I do in Oliver to step in and do the job, and Moon is far better at engaging with constituents outside her base. But there would still be hiccups. And Stranger endorsement notwithstanding, she hasn’t raised much money (relatively speaking), hasn’t been very visible, and will have a tough time getting through this primary But, er, stranger things have happened.
Nikkita Oliver is clearly the people’s candidate in this race – literally, as standard-bearer for the new People’s Party. She’s a charismatic natural leader who has emerged in recent years as an articulate, forceful, and effective community leader on issues like the youth jail and police accountability. She has by far the most enthusiastic backers, the most volunteers, the most juice of any of these candidates. She won the endorsement of the Seattle Weekly, and a significant dissent from members of The Stranger’s editorial board, on the strength of the cultural shift she’d represent. And I not only agree with but admire many of the radical positions she’s staked out. But that doesn’t mean she can either win in November or be a good mayor.
The big problem with Oliver is her lack of experience, and it manifests in many ways. Her support is deep but not broad; for a populist candidate, she hasn’t shown much interest in reaching out to forge the many coalitions needed for a successful city-wide race. As a 31-year-old activist, absolutely nothing in her past suggests she’s either qualified or capable of running the fastest-growing major city in the US, or the 11,000 workers it employs.
Oliver’s reply to this criticism is that she’d “learn on the job.” It took McGinn, an outsider and lawyer with far more experience than Oliver, two solid years to get his bearings – and he didn’t have the whole of the Seattle establishment arrayed against him like Oliver would.
To her credit, she has learned as a candidate. Early on she often showed an embarrassing lack of awareness of some issues – as when, in an interview, she seemed unaware that Seattle voters passed a huge housing levy last year, much of which was dedicated to affordable housing. She’s making fewer of those mistakes now, but even so, some of her positions – like her support for HALA – are both puzzling and worrisome.
Overall, Oliver has a lot going for her. But if I needed brain surgery, I wouldn’t pick a second year medical student with great new ideas about operating room procedure, no matter how engaging that person was. I’d want to pick a surgeon I was confident could do the job. Seattle’s many urgent challenges are at least as complex. Oliver’s young, dynamic, and has plenty of time to get more experience, but I don’t want a mayor, however much I like their rhetoric, who needs training wheels. And neither does most of Seattle, which along with her agenda virtually guarantees Oliver would lose a two-person November election badly. That might well result in the next mayor (especially a Mayor Durkan) sidelining the issues Oliver champions as only being the concern of a noisy but small minority. We can’t afford that.

If, as it appeared in March would be the case, Oliver was the only serious candidate standing between Ed Murray and a second term, I would have endorsed her enthuiastically. But we’ve got a lot more choices now. Bob Hasegawa has many of the same priorities as Oliver, but doesn’t carry her risks. He’s shown he can forge broad alliances and get laws and policies passed. And he’d be a credible progressive champion if matched against a business-as-usual candidate like Durkan.

As I said at the outside, each of these six candidates has things to recommend them, and each has flaws. But only one has not only the right values and priorities (and a track record of commitment to them), but the experience to turn those values into city policy. Bob Hasegawa

City of Seattle: City Council, Position 8: This open seat race, replacing the retiring Tim Burgess, has attracted several great candidates and one really bad one.

The bad one is Sara Nelson, the Seattle Times-endorsed candidate who identifies herself as owner of Fremont Brewery. But her relevant experience was serving as the senior legislative aide to the widely reviled Richard Conlin. In 2013, Conlin was upset in his city council bid for a fifth term by Kshama Sawant, both because she out-organized him and because Conlin’s arrogance and hostility to many of his constituents motivated some extremely unlikely bedfellows to help an open socialist beat him. That arrogance and hostility, basically toward anyone who wasn’t a developer or other large business interest, extended to Conlin’s office, which was unusually resistant to the most ordinary of constituent services and meetings. That is the experience Nelson, as the business community’s suggested replacement for Burgess, would bring to city council. Literally anyone else running in this race would be better. Most of the nut job contingent running for mayor would be better.

Nelson is particularly dangerous in the primary because there are several great candidates likely to split the progressive vote. The two strongest candidates so far, in terms of fundraising and volunteers, have been Jon Grant and Teresa Mosqueda. Grant ran a populist campaign against Burgess two years ago, almost entirely focused on affordable housing, and had a surprisingly strong showing; he’s the only candidate for the seat this year who filed to run before Burgess decided to retire. A former Tenants Union director, Grant has become far more conversant on other issues in his second run. He’d make a great councilperson.

Mosqueda? I have my doubts. She’s labor’s candidate in this race. A Washington State Labor Council executive, she helped author the minimum wage initiative that won statewide approval last year; she has nearly every union in town behind her. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. On the issues city council needs most urgently to address – and that Grant is a powerful voice for.- local unions have, frankly, been part of the problem with affordable housing and homelessness, only too willing to shovel money and favors to developers in exchange for short-term construction jobs. On issues I and many other Seattleites care most about, I don’t trust her.

Alas, Grant risks splitting the vote in this race with two other really good progressives. As an NAACP attorney, Sheley Secrest has been on the front lines of race and especially law enforcement issues for years. She also played a key role in 2013 in giving Sawant credibility in African-American communities. Mac McGregor is equally impressive – a charismatic longtime civic activist who seeks to become the first openly trans member of the city council of a major US city.

Since they haven’t run before, neither McGregor nor Secrest are as well known as Grant, and Jon honestly has done the best organizing job of any council candidate this year. You can’t go wrong with any of the three, but with Mosqueda also running a strong campaign, only one of the three is likely to make it to November. That will almost certainly be Grant, bur I’m going with McGregor, for the simple reason that a strong showing by him will help encourage either him or other trans candidates to run in the future. Mac McGregor.

City of Seattle: City Council, Position 9: Two years ago, Lorena Gonzalez sailed to election in an open seat, largely on the strength of a compelling life story and the connections she made as Mayor Ed Murray’s attorney. The concern, as she joined the council, was that she would be an unhelpful ally for a mayor intent on undermining any council ideas he couldn’t claim credit for.

Instead, Gonzalez has forged a much more independent path. She’s been friendly to business interests in some cases, a fierce advocate for the dispossessed in others. It’s been so strong a performance that when Ed Murray dropped out of the mayor’s race, she could seriously, credibly explore a mayoral run. (She sensibly declined – she’ll have plenty of oppottunities, and more experience, in the future – and Jenny Durkan jumped in instead.)

Instead, Gonzalez is likely to sail to re-election again, but she’s still got six opponents in this primary, and one of them will advance to the general. The worst of the batch is David Preston, by far the most dangerously abusive civic menace on the ballot (and that’s a ballot with Alex Tsimerman in the mayor’s race.) The best is Pat Murakami, a civic and neighborhood activist with many of the right priorities. Among other things, Murakami makes a compelling case that Gonzalez, in her time on council, has been only too willing to let developers terraform the University District and South Lake Union with almost no meaningful commitment to affordability. I don’t agree with Murakami on everything, either, but our city council has pretty much shut out neighborhood activists ever since council members started (allegedly) representing neighborhoods. In that context, Murakami is the better choice in this race. Pat Murakami.

UPDATE: It took all of ten days for me to take the for-me-unprecedented step of rescinding my endorsement for Murakami, while the election was still underway. Read why here. Skip it.

Seattle School District 1, Director District 4: As mentioned, for decades the Port of Seattle has been the local public agency that is the most corrupt, insular, and contemptuous of the public it serves. And for decades, the Seattle School District has given the Port stiff competition in all of those areas.

Like the port commissioners, Seattle school board members are (supposedly) part-time, grossly underpaid, and given wholly inadequate staff support. Like the Port, Seattle School District has had an all-too-frequent succession of chief executives who were cynical manipulators. Like the Port, Seattle Schools are unrelentingly hostile to the people most reliant on them, in this case teachers, support staff, parents, and especially students. Like the Port, Seattle Schools have a serious problem with racial equity – a doubly serious issue in a district with a majority of non-white students. Like the port commission, the school board occasionally gets reform-minded members, but more often it has overwhelmed board members who get led around by the nose by senior staff concerned primarily with protecting their own fiefdoms. Nauseatingly, where the Port glories in its culture of corruption, Seattle Schools justifies every depredation as being “for the kids.” Bullshit.

Like the Port, Seattle Schools needs a thorough culture change. And that starts with its board members.

Three of the seven board positions are up for election this year. In the primary, only people in their district vote, and then the top two advance to a city-wide vote in November. The first two of these positions are open, and have solid – even exciting – options.

For District 4, Megan Locatelli Hyska is a Bernie Sanders-inspired newcomer who says a lot of the right things, but is fuzzy on actual policy. That’s not the problem for Eden Mack, a longtime education activist who – like John Persak at the Port – has forgotten more education policy than most current board members know. Mack wants to prioritize racial equity. Just as importantly, and unlike Hyska, she has the chops to get that done. Eden Mack.

Seattle School District 1, Director District 6: Zachary Pullin DeWolf is the clear choice here. A Native American activist, he’s been on the board of both the Seattle Housing Authority and Gender Justice League, and has a long history of fighting for racial and gender equity. He’s what our schools look like, and he’s what our school board should look like. Zachary Pullin DeWolf.

Seattle School District 1, Director District 7: In recent years, one school board member has consistently fought, frequently alone, to get the district to improve its long-standing, shameful record of de facto discrimination against its non-white students. Betty Patu is an icon. We need her on the school board for another term. Betty Patu.

BALLOT MEASURES

Only one county-wide measure is on the primary ballot this year:

King County Proposition One: Sales Tax for Cultural Access Program: Seattle area voters are notoriously willing to tax ourselves. An arts levy, like this one, would normally be a slam dunk. Most people support arts funding. In a community with any sort of aspirations to civility, it’s not a luxury.

But the timing on this one is really, really unfortunate. This levy would create a county-wide increase of one tenth of one percent to fund cultural access to the arts, particularly through public schools and especially for lower-income students. That’s a worthy cause – and one funded here by the people least able to afford it. Sales taxes are the most regressive of our state’s limited range of revenue options. Moreover, thanks in large part to Seattle area Democrats who caved to Republican obstructionism, Olympia just agreed to impose a massive property tax increase aimed almost exclusively at Puget Sound property owners. That will add up to $1,000 a year for many homeowners. More importantly for this measure, it will also hit rental properties, and many if not most of those property owners will simply pass the full increase along to their tenants – even though their state property taxes are, in turn, tax-deductible for the IRS.

In short, many of those least able in our community to pay more taxes are about to get hit with a huge increase in their already skyrocketing rents. That’s who would also disproportionately pay the sales tax increase in Prop. 1. And we have enough wealthy philanthropists in our county happy to fund the arts. (Social services? Not so much.) Let them pay for these worthy programs – not those of us least able to afford it. Rejected.

And remember to get your ballots in by Tuesday, August 1!

[Author’s note: I’m a low-income activist, disabled, and dedicating (despite financial and chronic health pressures) to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting for our rightful place in a city that has increasingly turned its back on many of us. I’ll also be reviewing these races with my colleague, Maria Tomchick, Saturday morning at 8:30 on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle.

If you find my web and radio reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

Homeless Lives Matter

How Seattle “Protects and Serves” the Homeless

This week, the City of Seattle’s Human Services Department released two important but seemingly contradictory documents that capture perfectly the destructive assumptions behind “Pathways Home” and the city’s new, supposedly data-driven approach to our city’s homelessness pandemic.

First out on Tuesday was its Request for Proposals (RFP) for 2018 city funding for nonprofits hoping to provide shelter to the homeless. The RFP marks the first time in over a decade that the city has opened up its shelter funding process to competitive bidding – largely because for years only a limited number of nonprofits have operated most of our city’s shelters. A number of sweeping changes and bewildering assumptions are buried in the RFP’s thick bureaucratese. Happily, Erica C. Barnett saves me the trouble of decoding it by doing a fine job here of breaking down what the document means.

In short, most of the $30 million in shelter funding available from the city is dedicated to shelters that funnel their guests into “Rapid Rehousing,” the Pathways Home program that focuses on giving people three-to-nine month vouchers to cover renting private market housing. Another $20 million in city funding will go to programs like hygiene centers that are no longer considered part of the shelter system and are thus outside the scope of the RFP.

A few specifics of the RFP and its implications are worth highlighting:

First, as I reported earlier in June, for the last month the city has been telling current shelter providers that in order to be eligible for the new funding, they must allow 24/7 access to their shelter space rather than only providing emergency night shelter – a requirement that will disqualify almost all of the current, mostly church-based locations.

This becomes a neat bureaucratic trick for destroying Seattle’s existing emergency shelter system without claiming to do so: “Well, we have all this money for shelters, but nobody applied for it…” It’s a similar trick to claiming that the city has unused shelter capacity on many nights – which is true, if you include, for example, the places with mandatory hours that conflict with job requirements, or which have proprietary religious worship as an all-but-compulsory part of the package, or that have other alienating conditions that many homeless people find even more problematic than sleeping outdoors.

The “but we’re funding shelters, really!” ruse becomes more obvious with Pathways Home’s own language, which promises as part of its Rapid Rehousing scam to “rightsize” the “survival services and permanent housing imbalance between shelter beds available and housing available.” Since, in the first months of Rapid Rehousing, there’s already reportedly a 6,000 person waiting list for a program that’s now placing literally scores of people in permanent housing; and since the number of people living on Seattle’s streets overwhelms the roughly 3,000 shelter beds available on a given night; this translates to: “We don’t want to embarrass ourselves by being unable to place shelter guests into housing that doesn’t exist, so we won’t offer them shelter, either.” If you’re not signed up for nonexistent housing, you’re on your own.

In the corporate world, “rightsizing” has been used exclusively for a generation now as a euphemism for “cutting,” as in, “we’re going to buy this company and rightsize its workforce.” That never, ever, ever means “we’re going to hire more people.” And in a corporate-modeled program like Rapid Rehousing, the semantic tricks are identical.

And make no mistake: Rapid Rehousing is a scam, in terms of what it promises and what it can do. For most homeless individuals, being expected after a few months to pay market rates for rental housing is a near-certain ticket back to homelessness.

There are a few situations in which a few months’ subsidy is all people need: individuals recovering from illness or who find a job after a period of unemployment, for example. But many homeless people already work, and still can’t afford Seattle’s skyrocketing rents – now approaching a median cost of $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. If you’re homeless simply because you’re poor, tough luck.

If you have sufficient earning capacity but first need to be “fixed” – given help for substance abuse issues, say, or job retraining, or assistance recovering from a messy divorce – Pathways Home and its wraparound (and highly expensive) case management can definitely help. But the baseline problem with Pathways Home is that it is based on an outdated, paternalistic notion of who is homeless and why. In this view, if people are homeless it’s because they have personal problems – not because they have been failed by institutions or public policies that, to pick a not-random example, encouraged an unprecedented crisis in Seattle’s affordable private market housing without adequately funding public housing in turn.

Once again this week it was announced that Seattle had the fastest-growing rents of any major city in the nation – a news item treated as completely unrelated to HSD’s unrealistic RFP rehousing targets.

What Housing Crisis?

In the Pathways Home universe, if you’re homeless, for whatever reason, it’s your own damn fault. The city certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. The very DNA of Pathways Home is a mixture of outdated paternalism, right-wing judgmentalism, and bureaucratic ass-covering. (“If they’re still homeless, it’s because they didn’t want to be helped.”)

Seattle’s affordable housing crisis is treated as a vaguely relevant externality having nothing to do with why people live under bridges. As always, this is justified by DATA!! The same bureaucratic types that for decades have been meeting poverty or inflation reduction goals by changing the definition of poverty or excluding inflationary costs (like housing, health care, and other essentials) from the Consumer Price Index – these are the types of definitional tricks at work and play here. And there are two major ones in this week’s RFP.

First, the goals set forth for successful funding bids to meet are predicated heavily on success in rehousing a shelter’s guests in “permanent housing.” (Barnett does a good job explaining what does and does not count in these types of definitions.) Transitional housing, of the type provided by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and others, doesn’t count as a successful outcome, because it’s not permanent – but private market vouchers do count as a successful outcome, regardless of whether their residents can continue to afford rent after the vouchers expire.

In other words, underwriting someone’s rent for a few months in an apartment they can’t otherwise afford is considered a Pathways Home success. If they have to move to a friend’s couch or some abandoned doorway afterwards, that doesn’t count as a failure – in fact, it’s not considered at all, unless the newly re-homelessized (is that a word?) sign up for the Pathways Home shelter system, with its fake permanent housing track, all over again after their vouchers expire. Then, they’re just another newly homeless person, with no relationship to their previous experience. In neither case are they tallied as returning to homelessness.

This amounts to a guarantee for the provider (and Pathways Home) of either a 100 percent or a 50 percent success rate in placing an individual in permanent housing – for an individual that, after a year or more in the system, still has no permanent home. Aren’t statistics fun?

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

To the extent that Pathways Home does acknowledge Seattle’s brutal housing market, once again, it’s relying on old news. From Barnett’s article:

According to the RFP, “Data does not currently show us if people are being housed in their communities of choice or displaced to other locations.” Pathways Home, however, explicitly states that part of solving homelessness in Seattle may involve moving people to “housing that is a considerable distance from work or which creates a substantial rent burden”—in other words, housing that may be unaffordable and far away from Seattle. “While these are not ideal situations, they are all better than the alternative of homelessness,”

The missing data echoes the Department of Justice’s inability earlier this decade to determine whether there was any systematic racial bias in the Seattle Police Department’s policing, because SPD simply didn’t keep the relevant data. However, the idea that a program can rely on private market housing for Seattle’s homeless by uprooting them from existing jobs, families, and support networks, and moving them to Federal Way or Kent or Lynnwood, was problematic enough even when those areas had housing that was more affordable than Seattle’s.

And guess what. “Housing that may be [or is] unaffordable” is only “better than the alternative of homelessness” for a short while, until the resident has exhausted his or her financial reserves and is homeless again. Then, it’s exactly the same as being homeless, except that it’s a Pathways Home success story. As captured by Data.

And even that flawed premise of cheaper rent in the far suburbs no longer applies. Exorbitant rents are now the norm throughout Puget Sound. On average, you might save $100 a month in rent living in Auburn – maybe – but if you have to go to Seattle for a job, or for any other reason, more than a couple of times a week, additional transportation costs will eat up even those marginal savings with a significant additional loss of time and quality of life. But “we can ship them to distant suburbs” is an easy CYA reassurance from and for policy-makers for whom such considerations are almost always pocket change. As a bonus, it appeals to that segment of policymakers whose preference for dealing with the homeless is just to make them go away.

This all adds up to the most fatal of the many flaws in Pathways Home’s faith-based approach to manipulated data. Barnett again:

A report from a homeless advocacy group in Washington, D.C., which implemented a Pathways Home-style rapid rehousing system, found that many families fell off the “rapid rehousing cliff” when their vouchers ran out and they had to pay full market rent for their apartments; indeed, all the studies that have concluded that rapid rehousing is a success were in markets where rents are a fraction of what they cost in Seattle, such as Houston, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

So What Does Work?

That RFP, from the city’s Human Services Department, was on Tuesday. Then, on Thursday, came this:

Seattle’s city-sponsored homeless camps are working even better than expected. That’s the short version of a report just released by the Seattle Human Services Department reviewing the first year and a half of camps in Ballard, Interbay and Othello. The camps — comprised of tiny houses and/or tents on platforms—are administered by the homeless advocacy and services groups SHARE and Nickelsville. Based on data from the federal Homeless Information Management System (HMIS) from September 2015 through May 2017, the report says that 759 people have lived in the camps and 121 of them found a “safe, permanent place to live.”

“The City-permitted encampments have met and exceeded the contracted performance measures,” [HSD’s report] reads. “The model is successfully serving people who have been living outside in greenbelts, on the streets, in cars and in hazardous situations.”

That conclusion isn’t surprising; it echoes what homeless people and their advocates have claimed for years. The source, however, is surprising. HSD has been at war with SHARE and Nickelsville for just as many of those years, primarily over its discomfort with the self-management model those two groups use, allowing homeless guests themselves to run the shelters and encampments they live in. Despite a decades-long track record of success, that sort of empowerment model still makes paternalistic, control-minded bureaucrats – public and nonprofit alike – deeply uncomfortable.

Even more interesting are the results HSD found so successful: 121 of 759 encampment residents finding permanent housing, or about 16 percent. Remember that the city only grudgingly agreed to fund encampments in the first place once it became blindingly obvious that the city didn’t have anywhere near enough indoor emergency shelter capacity to meet the demand. These three existing outdoor encampments were funded specifically as overflow: equivalents in function to indoor shelters.

So compare that outcome with Tuesday’s RFP, which defines success for emergency shelters steering guests into permanent housing as: 50 percent for single persons, youth and young adults, and 80 percent for families. In other words, the Nickelsville success rate that thrilled HSD came two days after the same department issued an RFP demanding that bidders meet a success rate three to five times higher.

This leads to two conclusions: First, that the city’s homelessness program is deeply, internally incoherent. And second, that the goals laid out in the RFP are an incentive nearly certain to result in manipulation of data to show “success” that, like Seattle’s affordable private market housing, simply doesn’t exist.

Homeless Lives Matter

Meanwhile, for the past two weeks, parts of Seattle have been in a justified uproar over the June 18 killing of Charleena Lyles by two Seattle Police Department officers. The investigation is ongoing, but there is already plenty of publicly available information to make clear that Lyles didn’t need to die – but that the institution responsible for her death will hold itself legally and morally blameless.

So what are we to do with the fact that according to the King County Medical Examiner, a record 48 homeless people died in the first four months of 2017 alone – compared to 91 in all of 2016 – and that was almost certainly an undercount?

Of those 48 deaths, six were due to opiate overdoses; another four were homicides. An unusually cold winter accounted for a spike in deaths. But in many cases, the deaths are a combination of factors. Poverty. Illness from a weakened immunue system and/or lack of access to timely medical care is common. People can have substance abuse or mental health issues, but it’s always hard to tell whether those predated and helped cause the homelessness, were exacerbated by homelessness, or were a result of it. If you had to struggle to find safe shelter each day, you might self-medicate, too, but the lack of an affordable apartment could still be the root cause of your homelessness.

Now, none of those deaths were at the direct, violent hands of public employees. Certainly none were executed in front of their own small children by the people they asked for help from, the way Charleena Lyles was. Lyles’ death was viscerally horrifying.

But the City of Seattle seems intent on a homelessness approach that dismantles much of an emergency shelter system that keeps peoples alive – and does so in favor of a “permanent” housing approach that helps fewer people, at a higher cost per person, and steers them into housing that will often be only a temporary mirage.

Regardless of any professed intent to help, the architects of those public policies kill people as dead as if they were struck by officers’ bullet.

When politicians and bureaucrats decide upon and then implement policies that they know will inevitably endanger lives – lives of our community’s residents who are least able to fend off such challenges – a certain number of those people are predictably going to die. They will die despite the many committed, well-intentioned people on the ground doing their best to help with what they have.

What they have going forward looks like it will be a system predicated on blaming the homeless themselves for what are, in many cases, institutional and policy failures. They are policies designed to play well to the rafters, regardless of their actual impact on the ground. (“But we have DATA!!”)

Our city’s emerging Nonprofit-Homeless Industrial Complex seems predicated on approaches where the control rests with the service providers rather than their constituents – not just because those constituents lack specialized skills or experience, but because they’re considered morally inferior and need fixing. (Because what’s the alternative?)

The problems start at the top – with policymakers whose primary concern with homelessness is funding, public perceptions, or optics, rather than the homeless themselves. That’s why the homeless themselves are virtually the only stakeholders who are never, ever in the room, or even consulted, when policies governing their lives are crafted and adopted.

The great contributions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have been twofold: to use the system’s most spectacular (and irreversible) failures, like the killing of Charleena Lyles, to also highlight the smaller but far more numerous racially based abuses that our law enforcement system inflicts on a daily basis; and to give a collective voice to the people who for far too long have suffered those abuses in obscurity.

We learned this week – or at least, Seattle’s Human Services Department acknowledged this week – that on balance, shelters managed by the homeless themselves continue to have very good outcomes. That’s a lesson that needs to be internalized throughout Seattle’s Nonprofit-Homeless Industrial Complex. The homeless themselves have voices. They have relevant experiences. They, too, demand accountability.

It’s a lesson too many of Seattle’s elected officials and candidates and department heads will find counter-intuitive – but that’s their problem. Homeless lives matter.

Questions About the Death of Charleena Lyles

Focus.

Tonight, the Seattle City Council is holding a special public meeting at 6 PM at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall to hear public concerns about the June 18 killing of Charleena Lyles in her home by two Seattle Police Department officers.

Last week, I posted an article suggesting that the three most helpful targets for activists in the wake of her death were the state legislature (to reform the uniquely impossible legal requirements in our state that shield on-duty law enforcement personnel who misuse deadly force); the federal court overseeing the city’s consent decree that mandates reforms in the Seattle Police Department; and the city’s ongoing contract negotiations with the two unions that represent officers and management within SPD. That’s relevant due to union objections to, among other things relevant to this incident, body cameras, less-lethal weapon requirements, and crisis intervention training.

City council members have no direct influence with any of these. Some are privy to the union negotiations, but even those are managed by the Executive Branch, currently under Mayor Ed Murray; and the negotiations, if they’re happening at all, are held in secret. No city official will comment on them tonight, and nobody from the council or SPD is about to say anything meaningful about the ongoing internal investigation of Lyles’ shooting. We’re unlikely to learn much tonight, and council isn’t relevant to the most immediate, urgent, and achievable activist goals.

But.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about Charleena Lyles’ death – questions that council members and local media need to be asking, too. What follows is a necessarily incomplete list of important ones, along with a couple of suggestions for things the city council can and should do. And to be clear, activists need to keep bringing the heat long after tonight’s meeting has come and gone.

The questions fall in three broad categories.

The Shooting Itself

Because Officers McNew and Anderson have claimed they feared for their lives, and because SPD’s use of force guidelines permit deadly force when an assailant with a knife is within 21 feet (as Lyles was), the officers will likely face no legal consequences for killing Charleena Lyles. But there are still far too many inconsistencies in their accounts that need to be addressed.

What was the knife or knives Lyles was allegedly using? Where did it, or they, come from, and when did she get them?

Did she get behind one of the officers, or between them and the door? Was she shot from behind by one of the officers?

Both officers had batons, and one had pepper spray. Why weren’t they used instead of deadly force?

Did the officers believe Lyles posed a threat to the three children in the room?

Why didn’t officers try to disarm the diminutive Lyles? Why didn’t they simply leave, barricade the door, and call for backup?

Before the Shooting

On June 5, two weeks before Lyles’ death, a similar home visit by SPD officers resulted in a nearly identical turn in her mood. In that incident, she threatened officers with a large pair of scissors. Unlike June 18, she was talked down, arrested, and as a result also had a subsequent appearance in mental health court. All this was noted in SPD’s database and accessed on June 18.

So, first of all, why did officers even respond to her call?

Lyles called 911 to report a suspected home burglary in which she believed an XBox was stolen. It wasn’t a burglary in progress, and it wasn’t an urgent call. Many citizens reporting such burglaries never even get visited by officers; they’re told to fill out a report online, or SPD takes a report over the phone.

Given the very recent history of a threatened attack on officers in her home, why did SPD even send officers to her home again?

Instead, they arrived in 45 minutes, discussing her June 5 incident and mental health status but apparently failing to prepare for the possibility, let alone likelihood, that it might happen again.

Why didn’t the officers meet Lyles in the apartment hallway or outside, where her movements would be more visible and no household objects were at hand (like a kitchen knife) that could be weaponized?

Going inside, why didn’t they have some sort of barrier between themselves and Lyles. Why didn’t they stay near the front door where they could retreat easily if needed?

Why didn’t an officer make sure the kids were moved to a different room, so mom could talk to the officers in private? (And the kids would be safe if mom suddenly had one of her moods.) If there weren’t enough officers, why not wait for backup? Or – again – why were they there at all?

Both officers had SPD’s crisis intervention training; one of them was considered a specialist, with 40 hours of training. None of their actions reflected that training.

Is the training itself deficient? Or is the training fine, but some officers simply don’t take it seriously?

The Social Safety Net

Lost in the shooting itself, and the reality of yet another black life extinguished by white law enforcement, is a local social safety net that failed Lyles at nearly every turn.

Charleena Lyles had four children by multiple fathers, and was pregnant with a fifth. She had a history of substance abuse. She was recently homeless and had been placed in her low-income housing through a nonprofit. Four kids, a pregnancy, and serious poverty are enormously stressful for anyone, even without the onset of serious mental illness. Yet Lyles seems to have had almost no help navigating all of this. The home was a mess.

Why didn’t she seem to have a home helper to help her cope with all the kids and a new home? Where were the fathers, or any kind of community support before she died?

How was she managing financially with a new home (when very recently she didn’t have one) and five mouths to feed? How precarious and stressful was her money situation? Did she have any kind of help with child care, or with navigating the often confusing, intentionally humiliating, and endlessly time-consuming “helping” social service agencies?

What kind of treatment did she have, or not have, for her mental illness? She reportedly had a prescription, but didn’t take the medication because she feared it would impact her pregnancy. That’s a perfectly reasonable, and serious, concern, one any competent health care provider or pharmacist should take pains to avoid – but apparently didn’t. Moreover, many anti-psychotic drugs can help with the illness but leave the patient sluggish and struggling to function – let alone able to manage four young kids. Lyles had every card stacked against her, and very few people seemed to care.

We live in a country where access to health care, especially mental health care, is a catastrophe, especially for poor people. Institutional racism is also a thing here – as it is in every aspect of a social safety net that found a home for Lyles and her children, but apparently did very little to help her cope with the kids, the pregnancy, the poverty, and a debilitating illness that resulted in her lashing out at SPD officers on two separate occasions this month. We know how the second one ended.

What Seattle City Council Can Do

Most of these concerns won’t be relevant in questions to council members tonight. (Though remember that local media, and through them the general public, is also in the room.) But two areas are very much relevant:

Seattle’s Budget

Council members amend and approve the city’s budget; that process for 2018 begins this fall, and emergency supplements can happen at any time.

Charleena Lyles was vividly failed by our city’s social services and health care access. But so are thousands of other Seattleites who are still very much alive. If Lyles snapped in part because she was stressed and overwhelmed coping, and not getting adequate help, council members need to honor her by taking a hard look at how to better fund those services and how to make them more accessible and user-friendly.

Police Oversight

Council also has an oversight function with SPD. In the Lyles case, that’s important for two related reasons.

The first is that after years of union and political obstruction, there remains no meaningful civilian oversight of SPD.

That is only one example of something that would help with a second, much broader problem, which will be on full display tonight. For all that public officials and SPD leadership has touted the reform process, SPD has done almost nothing to even acknowledge, let alone try to repair, its long legacy of abuse and the serious distrust for SPD among many local communities, especially among people of color.

The details of the Lyles case are important, but ultimately, they’re not why so many people are enraged. They’re enraged because yet another black life has been extinguished by local law enforcement, with every indication that Charleena Lyles didn’t have to die. The anger over Lyles is anger over literally decades of abuses, large and small, abuses that in many cases continue. You can’t understand the furor over the death of Charleena Lyles without that context.

City Council oversees SPD and its budget, but it also has the right to demand big-picture priorities. And council members need to demand that SPD’s reform process extend beyond hiring, training, internal policies, and all the other pieces of trying to redeem decades of cultural rot in the department. Those are all critical steps. But so long as SPD continues to treat whole communities like The Enemy – and so long as those communities expect SPD to treat them like The Enemy – the reform process means little. SPD needs to start working proactively, and hard, to earn the trust of all of Seattle’s residents. And council members can and should have something to say about that. Tonight.

The Killing of Charleena Lyles: What Should Be Done

The officers involved almost certainly won’t face any legal consequences for Charleena Lyles’ death. But the problems that led to her death are mostly recurring and institutional – and can be fixed.

UPDATE #1 6-23-17: In a classic Friday evening news dump to minimize coverage of unflattering news, SPD has released the interview transcripts from McNew and Anderson, the officers who killed Lyles. It’s bad.

They say both had batons, and Anderson also had pepper spray; and that McNew asked Anderson to use a Taser, but Anderson replied that he didn’t have one. That exchange indicates that there was time, measured in seconds, for the pair to make a decision that didn’t involve the summary execution of Charleena Lyles.

The diagrams accompanying the officers’ interview transcript are even more problematic. They indicate that McNew let Lyles get between him and the door – something that, prior to entering, the officers had specifically discussed NOT allowing Lyles to do. If that’s true, it also means that McNew – the more experienced officer, and the one with 40-hour crisis intervention training – very likely shot Lyles in the back. If she turned to face McNew at the last second, Anderson would have had to shoot her from behind.

The medical examiner’s report will, hopefully, tell us. If it doesn’t find that Lyles was shot from behind, it means either the officers’ diagram is inaccurate, or the medical examiners’ finding is inaccurate. And, again, body cameras would have recorded this critical detail.

= = =

When Charleena Lyles was shot and killed in her home last Sunday, June 18 by two Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers, in front of three of her four children, family and community alike erupted with calls for justice.

That’s not going to happen.

SPD spokespeople say the officers opened fire during an otherwise routine visit, after Lyles had called to report a burglary, because Lyles suddenly brandished a knife at them. (Subsequent reports have claimed Lyles had two knives.) The officers’ audio recordings of the incident show the time between when the tone of the visit suddenly changed from routine to alarmed, to when Lyles was shot dead, was a mere 14 seconds.

Activists should understand that for much of the general public – read general white public – Lyles is an unsympathetic figure, in many ways a stereotype of the worst characteristics assigned to African-American mothers. She was poor, living in low-income housing; a single mother, she had four children, with a fifth on the way; she had a history of convictions and documented drug use; and had struggled recently with mental illness, but reportedly wasn’t taking her prescribed medication, fearing – quite reasonably – side effects that would harm her pregnancy.

Meanwhile, superficially, the two SPD officers involved in the shooting, Steven McNew and Jason Anderson, seemed to do everything right. McNew had completed a full 40-hour training in “crisis intervention certification,” the SPD training that makes officers go-to resources in calls that involve mental health issues. Anderson also had the shorter, eight-hour version of the CIC training, which SPD now emphasizes as part of the federal Department of Justice-mandated reform process a federal court now enforces.

Lyles’ mental health problems were a matter of record for the SPD, especially due to a June 5 incident stemming from a call from Lyles – unrelated to last weekend’s burglary call – in which Lyles’ mood suddenly shifted and she threatened responding officers with a pair of scissors. That incident ended peacefully, but with Lyles charged and later attending a hearing in mental health court.

As a result, McNew, the CIC specialist, was one of the responding officers on June 18, and he and Anderson can be heard on both their audio, their car’s dashcam, and apartment complex hallway surveillance video discussing Lyles’ history before entering her apartment. Once they did so, it was a routine, professional call until, as on June 5, the tone suddenly shifted. A few seconds later, Lyles was dead.

When confronted with a knife, police officers are ordered to shoot if they fear for their lives and the would-be assailant is within 21 feet – seven steps, the time it takes for an officer to draw his or her service weapon, remove the safety, aim, and fire. There is no known video of the shooting itself, but Lyles’ subsidized housing almost certainly left less than 21 feet between her and the officers. Depending on the distance, there may also have not been time to use a less lethal alternative – beyond which, with a knife attack, some less lethal weapons won’t help because they take too long to deploy (e.g., a spooling taser) or an assailant can still lunge forward even as the weapon is deployed (e.g., chemical agents like pepper spray).

Much of the general public, including some people who are otherwise sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement, aren’t alarmed at these details. As one progressive white acquaintance noted to me this week, “What were they [the officers] supposed to do?”

As it turns out, there was plenty that could have been done differently. Charleena Lyles did not have to die.

Balanced against these seemingly exonerating details is the visceral horror anyone with a soul feels for Lyles’ death: a diminutive, pregnant mother of four killed in front of three of her own children. Activist response has been the largest of any local incident in the #BLM era, including the 2016 shooting death of Che Taylor. Anecdotally, even many SPD officers were aghast at Lyles’ death.

That doesn’t mean there will be any legal consequences, though; absent a surprising medical examiner revelation (e.g., Lyles was shot from behind), the only evidence in the shooting itself is the audio recordings and the reports of McNew and Anderson. There is nothing to contradict their narrative of a sudden, mortal threat – and officers can’t be charged if they legitimately believe their lives to be in danger.

It’s virtually inconceivable that prosecutors could rebut that standard in the death of Charleena Lyles – let alone that a jury would then convict the officers of any charges. And because of the complexities of Lyles’ case, it also seems unlikely that Lyles’ death will spark any broad public outcry beyond the existing #BLM movement.

But that doesn’t mean Lyles should have died. And it doesn’t mean changes should not be demanded.


What They Could Have Done

Much of the activist wrath this past week has been generated by the simple, visceral reality of another black life taken by a department with a long, sordid history of racially based abuse. But the details in Lyles’ case are far from exonerating, for either McNew and Anderson or for SPD. Why did SPD’s visit to Lyles’ home on June 5 end peacefully, but the one on June 18 – when they were supposedly better prepared to deal with Lyles’ mental health struggles – didn’t? Why, of the countless interactions each day between SPD officers and mentally ill individuals, did this one end so badly?

Much activist criticism has focused on ways to disarm Lyles or de-escalate the situation without gunfire. SPD says the officers were carrying a less-lethal weapon, as required. They’ve said the officers didn’t have tasers, and no batons are visible on the officers in the outside videos. That most likely leaves pepper spray, possibly the least effective weapon for deflecting a potential knife attack in close quarters (or with children present). But it would still have been better than killing her. Why didn’t they use it?

And why was that the only apparent alternative on hand? Lyles’ history, and the risks she presented, were known and discussed in advance of the visit. SPD took the time, on a non-urgent call (the burglary was not in progress), to find an officer with 40-hour CIC training. They could also have taken the time to ensure the officers had adequate choices for defending themselves from a repeat of the June 5 incident. (Of course, we don’t know whether the officers did bring such alternatives, but simply left them in the trunk.) Why didn’t the officers have batons, a far better weapon to deflect a knife attack? For that matter, with kids present, the risks of simply physically disarming the diminutive Lyles were serious but relatively minor weighed against the alternatives – and could have been reduced further with Kevlar or other protective clothing. Officers could also have brought, or improvised, any sort of portable barrier. Lastly, and most obviously, depending on whether they thought Lyles’ children were in danger, they could have chosen to simply leave, barricading the apartment door and calling for backup. If they thought the kids were in danger, protecting the kids – not protecting themselves by leaving the children traumatized and motherless – should have been their top priority.

All of these options depend on where in the apartment the officers, the door, Lyles, and her children were. But since there’s no audio evidence of the children moving during the incident, three of those four elements were under the officers’ control at all times.

And needless to say, if this is how SPD trains its crisis intervention specialists, a hard look needs to be taken at that training. But that’s hardly the only institutional problem that has clouded Lyles’ death.

There’s no visual record of her killing because, seven years after body cameras for SPD officers were first approved, and with funding in place to equip every officer, McNew and Anderson weren’t wearing them. Many SPD officers don’t, because their union, the notoriously reactionary Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), has opposed them – as they’ve opposed virtually every reform under the DoJ consent decree. Similarly, officers are required to carry a less-lethal weapon, but they have the right, encoded in their union contract, to be able to refuse to carry any particular one. If, say, McNew didn’t have pepper spray with him because he doesn’t like using it, that’s his right, negotiated by his union and agreed to by the city.

Similarly, just because training in mental health intervention (the eight-hour training) is required doesn’t mean officers have to take it seriously. The long-running problems uncovered by the Department of Justice’s investigation – echoing decades of community complaints – paint a picture of a department whose cultural rot extended from top to bottom. Under the reign of SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole, brought in in 2014 to help implement reforms, there have in fact been some improvements. But corrupted cultures don’t shift quickly, and SPOG in particular has been an unapologetic champion of the department’s Old Ways – and the officers and commanders, some now sidelined by O’Toole, who flourished in them.

Currently, SPOG is working on an expired contract with the city. A new contract was resoundingly rejected by SPOG members last July, and there’s been no public signs of progress on a new agreement since then. Moreover, the SPOG leaders who negotiated that contract – which basically traded a pay increase for accepting court-ordered reforms – were ousted in favor of old hard-liners. SPD’s management union, the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), is also negotiating a new contract, and that’s been further complicated by O’Toole’s having staffed top leadership posts with her own people rather than some with more seniority. In both cases, the unions present major impediments to implementing reforms, and the city, under Mayor Ed Murray as in past regimes, has been reluctant to seriously demand them. Moreover, any draft agreement also has to be approved by the federal court overseeing the DoJ consent decree. It’s little wonder contract negotiations are at an impasse.

The unions, especially SPOG, have also been fiercely resistant to any meaningful civilian oversight. The Office for Professional Accountability (OPA), the city’s attempt at such accountability, was grudgingly accepted by SPD during a previous wave of demands to curb SPD abuses, but only because it was set up to be toothless, dominated by law enforcement interests, and limited to reviewing, without subpoena power, previous internal SPD investigations. Under the reform process, its scope and powers have expanded a bit, but it still hasn’t proven itself a significant check on SPD abuses. Another product of the reform process, the Community Police Commission, has been more representative of community concerns, but so far the CPC has mostly been ignored under Murray in police reform discussions.

Without a civilian body with the ability to independently investigate an incident like Lyles’ death, investigation falls to an SPD internal investigation – sometimes farmed out to a different agency, like the King County Sheriff’s Office or the Washington State Patrol, if there’s an institutional conflict of interest. All on-duty killings also get a hearing at a coroner’s inquest that determines the cause and circumstances of death.

Beyond the union contracts, the impediments to legal accountability for officers are formidable. On rare occasions, a self-defense claim by an officer can be rejected, as in the highest-profile on-duty law enforcement killing in recent local history, the 2010 killing of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by SPD officer Ian Birk. In that case, the mortal threat confronting Birk was Williams, oblivious, walking down the street carving a piece of wood with a small woodcarving knife. He never saw the officer who shot and killed him from behind.

Jurors at Williams’ inquest rejected Birk’s claim that he feared for his life. Instead, they found the shooting “unjustified,” the only instance in literally hundreds of cases since King County enacted its current inquest system 45 years ago in which a law enforcement killing hasn’t been found to be “justified.” But even then, Birk couldn’t be charged. State law not only offers the fear-for-one’s-life defense, but requires that prosecutors show the officer had personal malice directed toward his or her victim – a near-impossible legal standard not found in any other state. Birk was never charged; SPD fired him, but he was free to find work with another law enforcement agency.

McNew and Anderson won’t be charged, either. But there are still plenty of useful, achievable changes that activists should demand.

What We Want

Many of the issues raised by Charleena Lyles’ death aren’t specific to Lyles, and focusing on them rather than Lyles herself sidesteps the tendency of some people (and not a few local media outlets) to focus on passing judgment on Lyles’ life. Whatever her struggles, the symptoms publicly reported are consistent with the onset in many women in their late 20s of schizophrenia, an illness that can be compounded during pregnancy. Whatever her diagnosis, she had no control over her actions on June 5 or on June 18. She didn’t deserve to die over them, and McNew and Anderson didn’t need to kill her. And in similar future cases, there are a whole lot of institutional changes that could help. Broadly, they fall into two categories: law enforcement-related changes and social safety net changes.

1) Social Safety Net Reforms: SPD officers frequently need to deal with homelessness, substance abuse, and other social safety net issues precisely because the government resources directed to these issues are inadequate and, at times, poorly designed and implemented. Mental health is no exception, and over the past two decades there is a long roster of unfortunate incidents involving SPD officers and individuals with mental health issues. Cops shouldn’t have to be safety net first responders – but since they are, clearly the training McNew received, and what he did or didn’t learn from it, needs review. And funding for mental health treatment programs needs to be expanded dramatically.

That, in turn, is a subset of access to health care generally, now under ferocious assault by congressional Republicans – especially Medicaid and other programs helping lower-income Americans. When those changes come, at minimum state and city budgets need to make up the difference. That will take a lot of public pressure.

2) Law enforcement reforms:
Under the reform process, SPD has done remarkably to try to heal the community distrust cemented by decades of systemic abuses, often directed against poor and non-white Seattleites. SPD’s reform plan needs to get serious about such efforts.

Institutionally, there are three levels at which activists need to focus demands in the wake of Charleena Lyles’ death:

The federal court overseeing the DoJ consent decree:
The Department of Justice, under Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and Donald Trump, no longer much cares when cops kill black people. (Or anyone else.) But the consent decree, negotiated under the Obama DoJ and now in the hands of a federal judge and court-appointed monitor, is beyond the current DoJ’s reach. And it needs to step up. Charleena Lyles’ death is directly related to the implementation of court-ordered reforms, particularly concerning use of force policies and CIC training. An internal SPD investigation and review of Lyles’ death won’t cut it, not when it involves factors the court has already found deficient within SPD. The court needs to authorize its own investigation, and the public needs to demand it.

Those union contracts: Any new agreements with SPOG or SPMA need to pass muster with the court, but city officials need to press much, much harder for contract changes that allow SPD to become more accountable and less a law unto itself. Ironically, body camera video might well provide conclusive evidence to back up the McNew/Anderson narrative of Lyles’ death – and any number of other incidents in which officers’ integrity or actions are publicly challenged. Similarly, choice of weapons, better training, meaningful civilian oversight, and any number of other reforms are stalling not just because of union resistance, but because politicians like Ed Murray have been reluctant to push harder. They need public encouragement on this score. A lot of it. And, next January, a new mayor will take office, and he or she needs pressure, too, before and after the election. (Voters should remember that the current conventional favorite in the mayoral race, Jenny Durkan, was the U.S. Attorney for Western Washington who declined to bring federal civil rights charges in the 2010 killing of John T. Williams.)

Olympia: Finally, the state law that effectively prevents prosecution of cops who kill without proper justification needs desperately to be changed. That won’t happen this legislative year, but 2018 is another matter. Lawmakers also need to be pushed hard next year on health care and mental health funding.

Meanwhile, the state legislature isn’t the only option for law enforcement prosecution reform. I-873, an initiative that would change our state’s uniquely “regressive and dangerous” use of force standards, is currently collecting signatures. You can find out more about it at the home page of Washington for Good Policing.

Ultimately, the challenge of Charleena Lyles’ death isn’t that it was a rare type of incident – it’s that it’s not rare enough. The sooner that we can address mental health care access and pressure the federal court (consent decree), the city (union contracts), and the state (use of force laws), the less likely that future Charleena Lyles are to be killed by the people charged with protecting them.


[Author’s note: Ironically, I had hoped to post this article earlier this week, but was delayed by both additional details being made public and by personal health and money crises. If you find my reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on geov.org’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]