On civil disobedience, Kshama Sawant, civility, and intentional misreporting

On Wednesday, Socialist Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant (judging from local media, that’s her full legal name) was one of four activists arrested in SeaTac for peacefully protesting a lawsuit by major airlines seeking to prevent SeaTac’s airport workers from having their minimum wage increased – even though both the city of SeaTac (via its voters) and the Port of Seattle (via its commissioners) have passed that increase.

In American politics, historically, the main political purpose of civil disobedience has been to draw attention to injustice, usually involving an oppressed or exploited community or class whose complaint is not being given much attention solely through other, more traditional political tactics. Regardless of what you think of Sawant or the various campaigns for a $15/hour minimum wage, this week’s SeaTac protest fell squarely in that tradition. And yet the tenor of much of the mainstream local coverage was aghast. Civil disobedience is just…just so uncivil. (Much better for poor people to trust their fate to huge companies and their $600/hour lawyers with their best interests at heart, right?) Particularly amusing was the P-I’s Joel Connelly, self-appointed Guardian of Civility, calling Sawant a “socialist diva” because, er, she’s no Warren Magnuson. Or something.

But the vapors-and-smelling-salts routine was simply annoying. Far worse was the intentional misquoting of Sawant over at the Seattle Times, a paper whose conservative editorial page bias has bled ever more perniciously into the paper’s reported (and supposedly objective) news stories since the P-I’s print demise.

Here’s the Times quoting Sawant after her release:

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Sawant said it was her “obligation as a public servant” to exercise civil disobedience and risk arrest.

“This is how you show political leadership,” she said on Wednesday.

Now, Sawant is no stranger to sectarian hyperbole, and my first reaction to this was an eyeroll – there she goes again. Really? Public servants are obligated to get themselves arrested? How often? Is there some sort of test of minimum righteousness the issue must rise to? How does that work, exactly? Has an elected official who never risks arrest but gets all sorts of cool new laws and budgetary provisions passed still lacking, by Sawant’s calculation? And define “public servant,” anyway.

But it’s actually kind of an interesting idea, because it assumes that there will be injustices that rise to that level, and then the question becomes, what should a public servant’s role in addressing that injustice be? You could get a pretty good discussion out of it, actually, once you get past the knee-jerk tendency to think it’s just Sawant being Sawant again.

Except that it wasn’t. Because that’s not what she said. At all.

KIRO-TV had the full quote, in context and not helpfully “summarized” to say something else entirely:

:”When workers are showing such enormous courage to fight for not only themselves but other workers – they’re fighting for everybody – then my duty as an elected public servant is to be right there with them. This is about showing political leadership.”

That first long sentence, in the Times version, got reduced to: Sawant said it was her “obligation as a public servant” to exercise civil disobedience and risk arrest.

Did you catch that little trick?

Sawant’s actual statement to reporters was constructed as an “if…then…” statement that places her action as a “duty” as an “elected public servant” to stand with the people taking the real initiative and risk.

The Times left out that she was elected; transformed “duty” to “obligation”; specified civil disobedience and arrest as the tactic she has a duty to pursue (rather than “standing with” whatever her constituents were doing); left out the affected workers entirely; left out that Sawant sees them as “fighting for everybody”; and, of course, left the impression that Sawant was crediting only herself – and not the protesters she was standing with – as showing political leadership.

In other words, by cutting out about a line of Sawant’s statement, the Times managed to use her own words to portray her as an unaccountable law, and ego, unto herself. Why simply call her a “diva” when you can selectively (mis)quote her own words to appear to demonstrate it?

That doesn’t happen by accident. Nor is it an isolated incident. And it makes Sawant’s strikingly high approval rating in a poll on council incumbents a few weeks ago even more remarkable. Either Sawant would be even more wildly popular if the local reporting on her were actually accurate, or nobody in Seattle under the age of about 70 reads the Seattle Times any longer.

Or both.

Leave a Reply