Monthly Archives: August 2015

“If You Don’t Vote, You Have No Right to Complain About the Government”

How often have you heard variations on this statement? Personally, I lost count long ago. It’s a perennial taunt from people who are, by and large, happy with the political status quo in this country.

So when I came across it almost word-for-word today in a comment thread of a national progressive political blog whose comment community I respect a lot, I took the time to respond.

And that response got a lot of positive response. So here it is. Feel free to borrow any portion the next time you need to slap down a comment like this:

Anyone that chooses not to VOTE has lost the right to complain about the Government. I am sick and tired of listening to the whining of people that do not vote.

My response:

“I don’t want to pick on you, but I hear this a lot, especially from older liberals who think the system works. It’s worth replying at length because IMO it’s a truly toxic opinion. Speaking as someone whose livelihood for several decades has revolved around civic engagement – and who has a perfect voting record, FWIW – it’s also bullshit. And it also comes from a place of enormous privilege, usually from someone who has the sort of class and educational background, and perhaps race and gender as well, where they just assume that their opinion matters.

“Fairly or not, there are a lot of people who think voting is pointless. And who can blame them? Most non-political people pay attention to voting primarily during the presidential races. I’ve lived in…uh…about a dozen different states in my life, in all four time zones. Even if there were presidential candidates with a chance of winning who believed in a lot of the things I do – which has never happened, ever – not once during a presidential election have I lived in a state whose electoral votes were in question at the time. Nine presidential elections. Not once.

“This is the norm in our country. If you don’t live in one of about a dozen states – except for Florida, Ohio, and maybe Pennsylvania or Michigan, they’re not even the more populous ones – if the outcome is in doubt in your state it means that nationally it’s a landslide and it’s over. And here on the West Coast, it’s usually decided before polls close regardless. And that’s in nine elections – for a millennial who’s only voted in one or two, the impression is even more skewed.

“The real place voting and civic engagement matters is in local politics. And how would anyone know to care about those? TV news doesn’t cover it – they’re busy chasing fires and car crashes. Even if someone happens to read a newspaper, they have a fraction of the local reporters or coverage they once did. Most schools certainly don’t teach civic engagement or explain why it might be fun or interesting, let alone effective. Unless you and your friends happen to be affected by an issue, local politics won’t be on your radar. Ever.

“And all this is beside the point. I participate in the economy. Therefore, I pay taxes. If I don’t have any meaningful say in how those dollars are spent – and most people, voters or not, don’t, because the incumbents making those decisions are very hard to remove from office if they want to stay there, and even if “your guy” is in office most people don’t have the time or interest to track budgetary committee meetings and go over line items – I forfeit my right to have an opinion if I didn’t cast a ballot? That is random, privileged, self-righteous bullshit.

“Our system is broken in a bazillion different ways – the infusion of the kind of money most of us won’t see in our lifetimes being only one obvious example. But you, and many others, think that someone who chooses not to bother trying to influence a system they think is unaccountable and beyond their ability to influence has no right to complain that the system is broken?

“Let’s try that logic in a few other settings where people perceive they have no influence:

“‘I don’t buy my favorite xxx any more because they’re cheaply made now and wear out or break immediately. Therefore, I have no right to complain that xxx’s wear down or break immediately.’

“‘Our local police department acts like it’s above the law. There’s no mechanism other than internal investigations for holding any officer accountable for illegal or criminal behavior, and those investigations always exonerate the officers, every time. But since I’m not an Internal Affairs cop, I have no right to complain about it.'”

“‘I won’t set foot in an airplane because too many of them blow up. Therefore, I have no right to complain that too many airplanes blow up.'”

“That’s how you sound to the people you’re criticizing. Now, I happen to think that they’re wrong, but I guarantee your judgmental harrumphing – as though they’re the problem, not a political system that isn’t worth their time – isn’t going to lead any of them to want to join you in being more politically engaged. Quite the opposite.”

Let the Cash Tsunami Begin!

As results trickled in from this month’s first primary electing Seattle City Council members by district, two strong trends emerged – trends that are completely mutually incompatible. The tension between them – between the citizen-powered campaigns the new district system supposedly enable and the massive floods of campaign cash flowing from Seattle’s newfound wealth – will be the dominant story of this fall’s general election.

The primary was a good night for activist campaigns. The biggest of them, of course, was Kshama Sawant, the council incumbent whose socialist class rhetoric is as alarming to Seattle’s civic establishment as its popularity is bewildering to them. Big money opposition to Sawant in the District 3 Capitol Hill seat had coalesced around Pamela Banks, a former Urban League head who touted her progressive credentials even as her stances – and donors – belied them. With two other active candidates in the race, and after doubling down on her image with a campaign centered around her demand for rent control, Sawant was expected to win only a tight plurality.

Nope. Instead, Sawant topped 52%. Her closest challenger, Banks, lagged far behind at 34%. It turns out that Seattle’s renters, caught in an unprecedented housing crisis, aren’t all that alarmed by talk of rent control after all. Who knew?

Jonathan Grant knew. The underdog former Tenants Union executive, running citywide against well-funded rocker John Roderick and labor activist John Persak for the right to challenge council president Tim Burgess this fall, campaigned almost exclusively on housing issues. Grant not only beat the far better-funded Roderick, but held the powerful Burgess to under 50%. With almost all of Roderick and Persak’s votes likely to go to Grant in November, Burgess appears surprisingly vulnerable.

Voters also threw a long-overdue retirement party for Jean Godden in District 4 (University District), promoting well-funded developer favorite Rob Johnson – no surprise – and progressive LGBT activist Michael Maddux – more of a surprise. A strong progressive also narrowly topped a well-funded establishment favorite in District 1 (West Seattle), with Lisa Herbold, an 18-year legislative aide to the retiring Nick Licata, edging Joe McDermott aide Shannon Braddock

Progressives did well elsewhere, too. Environmental activist Fred Felleman topped a crowded field for an open Port of Seattle Commissioner seat. Reform candidates Jill Geary and Leslie Harris won the two Seattle School Board races. And King County Elections Deputy Director Julie Wise thumped two political candidates for the right to run that critical agency. Given that summer primaries have less of a turnout and skew older, whiter, wealthier, and more conservative than general elections, the primary bodes well for progressive candidates’ chances this fall.

Or not.

At first blush, the new mixed 7-2 district system for council elections worked as designed. It gave challengers a greater chance against incumbents, and encouraged more candidates – a record 47 ran for the nine seats, compared to only a handful of serious challenges to incumbents over the last decade of stagnant council politics. With three incumbents retiring and Godden losing at the polls, city council hasn’t seen so much turnover in ages. Whether districts are the reason or voters are simply disgruntled, city council is suddenly accountable in a way it hasn’t been for at least a generation.

Predictably, the people who’ve benefited most from that lack of accountability are fighting back.

With Seattle’s newfound, unprecedented wealth, and with the unlimited spending made possible by Citizens United, so called “soft money” showed up for the first time this year in a local primary – independent expenditures meant to support one or another candidate, but not directly tied to their campaign.

The biggest beneficiaries were Johnson and Braddock, who reportedly had $200,000 in such hidden money spent on their behalf. But the most attention came from the first announced donation, a $65,000 drop to a previously unnoticed candidate in District 5 (Northeast Seattle) from the National Association of Realtors. Kris Lethin was a realtor himself, but one with no real campaign or chance. In a crowded field, the NAR spent a whopping $50 a vote on Lethin, apparently solely because he opposed rent control.

The message to other candidates this fall couldn’t have been clearer: toe the pro-development line, oppose rent control and linkage fees and impact fees and incentive zoning and any other taxes or regulations that might impinge on the current developer gravy train, and expect a lot of cash – amounts that make a mockery of the city’s pathetic little $700 limit on individual donations. Count on Johnson and Braddock to get lots more such business money come fall. Even more so for Banks, whose uphill effort to unseat Sawant will be the most expensive council race in city history. If Grant looks competitive, Tim Burgess will also be a beneficiary.

Housing activists aren’t the only people wanting to control city council. Their opponents have deep pockets. and Seattle politicians remain a shockingly cheap, loyal, and pliable investment. It’ll be a long fall.

Upon Further Review…

Locally and nationally, progressive political blogs and social media threads have blown up over the last 48 hours in response to two #BLM activists shutting down presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ speech at a Social Security and MediCare anniversary rally Saturday afternoon in downtown Seattle. The debates have tended to center around the wisdom of the two activists’ tactic. Locally, a consensus seems to be emerging among activists that the whole thing was awesome, with the cries of Sanders defenders that he’s really pretty good on racial justice issues quickly receding.

But Sanders was never the point of this direct action. And I remain convinced of what I wrote in the immediate aftermath: that the action was tactically counter-productive to the #BLM movement. After all the arguments in support of the action, I remain unconvinced that this was the “successful” action that others are hailing. Success, for #BLM, isn’t measured by getting on the news or by launching feel-good rhetorical bombs, aka “truth-telling,” from stage. Most immediately, it means getting law enforcement officers (LEOs) to stop murdering people of color, especially African-Americans; and it means getting the justice system to hold LEOs accountable under the law when they commit such crimes.

The most generous possible interpretation is that Saturday’s action maybe, very indirectly, helped these goals through alerting the public that the issues (or at least, some of the activists) haven’t gone away in the year since Ferguson. That’s pretty tangential. At the same time, the choice of tactics and target very directly harmed the same movement. That – not the specific tactic of interrupting a presidential candidate’s speech – is why I still think it was a bad idea.

This latter train of criticism to my earlier post was summed up by a pithy Facebook comment from an old friend and activist colleague: “You used to eat the state. What happened?” And the answer is, nothing happened, to my beliefs anyway, at all. No matter how sympathetic I am to their motives, when I think allies have erred, I’ve always been willing to say so. Most notoriously, I took a huge amount of shit in 1999 for very publicly ripping the nihilists whose minor acts of vandalism during the anti-WTO protests became the public’s justification for a week-long police riot seen around the world, and the entire arc of repressive anti-democratic police tactics at large international gatherings ever since. And the burgeoning fair trade movement in the US, not to mention the vaunted labor-environmental alliance of those demonstrations, promptly died. My reaction wasn’t because I was philosophically opposed to property destruction – it was because at that time and place it was both idiotic and insanely counterproductive.

Saturday’s misstep wasn’t of that scale (thank goodness), but it was born of the same self-indulgence and lack of movement self-discipline, a sloppiness that some in other parts of the world would never be tolerated because it gets activists killed. (We’re not there – the US isn’t a true police state, not yet – but we’re on our way, and activist movements had better get real about that. #BLM, with its roots in issues identical to those of the Black Panther Party of a half-century ago, should know this better than most.)

A lot of arguments have been raised online in the last 48 hours, and for what it’s worth, it’s been an interesting discussion. Let’s dispense with the more frivolous arguments first:

Bernie Sanders was relevant to Saturday only as a media hook. The activists themselves acknowledged this by refusing to negotiate on-stage with Sanders’ people, who wanted to try to find a way for both sides to speak. It was about media attention, not Sanders’ platform or how sympathetic he might be or whether he marched with Dr. King or anyone else.

(Sanders, it should be noted, was a spectacularly poor target for a couple of different reasons, but I’ll get to that.)

Let’s circle back to the #BLM movement’s immediate goals. How did Saturday’s action lend to stopping police killings or change prosecutorial and judicial practices? With apologies to his fans, it’s very unlikely that Bernie Sanders will be the next President of the United States. It’s even less likely that he’ll be its next Attorney General. Instead, odds are overwhelming that he’ll continue to be what he is: a politically isolated backbencher, one that doesn’t even sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a US Senate whose agenda is controlled by the Republican Party. Statistically, even the number of people in the US who will ever hear him speak (let alone read a…zzz….zzzzz…campaign platform) is vanishingly small. His ability to stop extrajudicial LEO executions is near zero. His ability to inspire others to do so is limited at best.

Similarly, I’ve seen plenty of comments to the effect that Saturday’s event was “successful” because progressive white activists have been talking about it. Again: So what? Progressive white activists, even in a liberal bubble like Seattle, have almost no ability to win elections on our own. We’ve been completely unable so far, on our own or in coalitions, to reign in even the worst excesses of SPD’s decades-long reign of thuggery.

The people who do matter in that struggle, politically speaking, are local police commanders, prosecutors’ offices, judges, and especially the elected officials charged with overseeing them. Those folks are susceptible, perhaps, to pressure from #BLM and its white supporters – but only if they’re already sympathetic to the undeniable moral clarity of preventing violent criminal acts and holding the perpetrators of those acts accountable even when they’re cops.

Therein lies the problem with Saturday’s action. Two of them, actually.

Do you know how those folks around the country – as opposed to people on progressive political threads – saw Saturday’s news from Seattle? “Nation’s most leftist major political figure shut down by activists who don’t think he’s leftist enough.” By choosing Sanders as their target, Saturday’s activists did two things. First, over the past year, #BLM’s targets have been direct, not symbolic. Even the expressions of rage and protest violence in places like Ferguson and Baltimore were understood in the context of the racist, corrupt police departments literally on the scene. Targetting a presidential candidate without even a plausible potential ability to influence #BLM issues is several steps removed from the moral authority that comes with a proximate target. Second, by targeting someone who is already an outlier in American politics, the public perception of #BLM shifted from a set of issues everyone, including the President, has had to at least rhetorically address, toward one that by the definition of the activists involved on Saturday is so fringe that even an outlier like Sanders isn’t “pure” enough to meet #BLM’s demands. By seizing the stage on Saturday, two young activists helped self-marginalize #BLM – and with it, made it that much more difficult to pressure elected officials and judges and to get law enforcement and judicial institutions around the country to change their practices. Officials in cities around the country have nightmares about being the Next Ferguson. They sleep just fine dismissing the rantings of a few isolated, powerless activists. If #BLM as a movement devolves into the latter, it’s dead. Nobody can afford that, least of all the men and women in the sights of tomorrow’s racist cops.

(Oh, and the bit about calling out audience members for their white supremacism? It might be true, and it surely felt good to say it, but how does that help recruit peopto ramp up local political pressure? That’s the sort of stunt agent provocateurs pull for a reason.)

Happily, the news cycle moves quickly, and in a few days the incident – if not the impressions it leaves – will mostly be forgotten outside Seattle. But progressives of all types fall into this trap too easily: doing direct actions that are emotionally gratifying or get media coverage, at the expense of long-term strategic positioning. The forces arrayed in favor of institutional racism and omnicide are powerful enough already. Let’s not make their job any easier.

#BLM Shuts Down Bernie Sanders – Again

Some context to this afternoon’s incident, in which #Black Lives Matters activists shut down presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’ planned speech to a large, adoring crowd at Westlake Park. (Link warning: Seattle Times paywall. And hey, nice job, Times, running with a photo of Sanders giving a wave that looks a lot like a Nazi salute. Slimeballs.)

What most of the public doesn’t know – because it happened in a lefty media bubble – is that #BLM activists did the same thing to Sanders three weeks ago in Phoenix, at a joint appearance with fellow longshot Democratic presidential candidate Gov. Martin O’Malley at the annual Netroots Nation (NN) convention.

NN started over a decade ago as Yearly Kos and has evolved into a broader progressive media event, but it’s still largely an isolated bubble of progressive punditry. The July 18 #BLM protest touched off sharp debate, pro- and con-,within that bubble – after all, events like NN are still largely white-dominated even though the Democratic Party’s strongest base, and many of its most progressive elected leaders, are people of color, especially African-Americans. So the response circled around two themes: the propriety of this sort of protest, and the question of why Democratic elected leaders and presidential candidates are, by and large, so disengaged from #BLM issues.

That debate isn’t going to happen this time. This was a public rally – not a gig at a private event where more mainstream media outlets aren’t about to dignify NN and its media attendees with any sort of legitimacy. This will be – already is – a big deal in mainstream media, and most people watching and reading won’t have any of that context. What they’ll see is protesters shutting down a speech by the most prominent progressive politician in America because the protesters felt he wasn’t progressive enough on issues important to them – in other words, they’ll come off as disengaged, spoiled children demanding attention without having earned it. It’s a purity purge, which by definition positions #BLM as being on the fringe of mainstream political and cultural American issues, rather than central to them. The tactic serves to marginalize and delegitimize #BLM and its issues, precisely the opposite of the activists’ likely intent.

Calling the audience “white supremacist liberals” from the stage didn’t help, either. Honestly, if any of the white supremacist yahoos who showered Dylann Roof with money for his defense fund this summer actually had two brain cells to rub together, they could have spent a fraction of the money they pissed away on Roof to instead hire a few agent provocateurs to do exactly what was done today. But hey, why pay someone when there’s young, angry activists happy to unwittingly damage their own movement for free?