Right after Trump won the election in 2016, two local organizations, Transit Riders Union and the Economic Opportunity Institute, began a discussion about how the city should respond to the new and challenging political environment. Because Trump made clear his opposition to public transportation and other urban democratic institutions and values during his campaign, it was believed that all of the ground Seattle and other cities had made during the Obama years would be lost. Night would fall once again on progressive urbanism (PU), a political project that had only been in the light for barely a decade.
PU, which began at the end of the 19th century, first came to an end after World War II, when the federal government selected suburban, car-defendant expansion over urban public housing and transit-dependent development. PU only returned at the end of the last decade, after soaring gas prices and the housing crash made nonsense of the suburban dream. This rejuvenated PU, however, is often confused with market urbanism (MU), but the two are deeply different. Though pro-density, walkability, and transit, MU, unlike PU, believes solutions to urban problems can primarily be solved by private enterprises. PU is all about transit, walkability, and density; but it emphasizes robust public institutions and social welfare programs. Its key understanding is that urban poverty is not an economic problem; it's a political one. Transit Riders Union is a grassroots organization that embodies these values and understandings.
On the day after the Muslim ban, January 28, TRU had its first official “Trump-Proof Seattle: Tax the Rich” event at the Labor Temple. The speaker was Council Member Lisa Herbold. And the main idea discussed was the appropriation of money stored high in the upper classes of the city for protection and expansion of progressive programs that were threatened by Trump's climate-denying, pro-car, and deeply regressive administration.
When I first heard of the Trump-Proof movement, I actually thought it had a decent chance because Seattle almost universally loathed the new president. A stunning 92 percent of the city's voters denied the pussy grabber—though some in that number gave, like Sawant, their vote to a candidate whose chances of winning were like those of a snowball not melting in hell. On top of all this, Trump's brazen anti-science statements and policies outraged a city that has huge and internationally recognized scientific institutions and enterprises. Lastly, the Muslim ban signed on January 27 upset even the neoliberals who run Microsoft and Amazon. The opportunity for wide political support on an income tax had never been better.
On March 1, there was "Lunch-&-Learn" at City Hall about Trump-Proofing with an income tax on the rich. It was co-sponsored by Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Mike O’Brien. This was followed by the first series of Town Hall events that concluded with Bruce Harrell expressing his support for the cause. Another series of Town Hall events followed the resolution by the Council to work with the Trump-Proof coalition. All of this political activity reached the passage of the tax by the Council on July 10.
But here is the thing, and the bottom line of my post: the founders of the movement—TRU, EOI and other progressive urbanists—have been eclipsed by Kshama Sawant and the Socialist Alternative, which, during the course of the movement, deliberately removed the "Trump-Proofing" part of the founding message and pushed just the "Tax the Rich" part. (This alteration and its purpose was not lost on a number of PU organizers.) Because Sawant and her party are very well organized, and never miss an opportunity to run to the front of the line during a march or jump in front of any camera with their signs, you would think they started the whole thing. But they didn't. And credit must go to the Transit Riders Union and Economic Opportunity Institute for first seizing the moment, in much the way Sawant's $15 seized its moment. Credit must also go to Lisa Herbold.