At the end of her term, Council Member Kshama Sawant plans to leave City Hall behind to focus on national movement-building and video broadcasting, as she wrote in an op-ed published Thursday morning in The Stranger.
The move amounts to one of many losses for Seattle politics, which I’ll tick off later on in this post, but it also represents a return to form for the city’s lone elected socialist. Sawant initially gained notoriety for her leading role in the local Occupy Wall Street movement, and she maintained it by participating in countless demonstrations, including one protest that produced perhaps my favorite—and the most telling—televised interview of all time.
In the fall of 2014, police arrested Sawant and three other protesters (“a cargo handler, a former airport worker, and a church pastor,” according to the Seattle Times) for standing in the middle of International Boulevard. The estimated crowd of 100 had gathered to protest Alaska Airlines, which was headquartered nearby, for filing a lawsuit to stop SeaTac’s $15 minimum wage from applying to airport workers.
As a cop escorted Sawant to his car, right-wing operative Brandi Kruse, who was then a right-wing broadcast journalist, shouted, “Do you have anything to say, Councilwoman?” In response, Sawant threw a smile over her shoulder at her fellow protesters, and they all went wild.
“Kshama, is there anything you want to say?” Kruse asked again.
“Yes,” Sawant said. “I want to say to everybody who’s watching: This is what you need to do. You need to engage in civil disobedience—nonviolent civil disobedience—in order to fight for your rights.”
Then Kruse ramped up the condescension. “As a councilwoman, do you really think you should be in handcuffs? Does that send a good message?” she asked, as if Sawant were a child, as if the civil rights movement had never happened, as if getting arrested in America was even really a crime.
“This is about political leadership,” Sawant said. “All the best activists in the past and in the present have put their lives on the line to fight for workers.”
And then, Kruse, unable to contain the angry mommy within, asked, “What do you think the Mayor’s going to have to say about this in the morning?” As if the Mayor were daddy.
“You’ll have to ask him,” Sawant said, smiling again as Kruse faded back in with the scrum.
That brief exchange exemplifies everything the tankies love about Sawant and everything that quiet, comfortable, conservative Seattleites hate about her. And it foreshadowed some of her most memorable moments of political leadership, as she’d have it, in her decade on the council: letting protesters into City Hall during the summer of 2020, joining demonstrators outside former Mayor Jenny Durkan’s mansion that same year, standing with workers on countless picket lines, scandalizing Kevin Scofield, rallying with small businesses to save their restaurants, organizing tenants to fight for the roofs over their heads, and using the copy machine in ethically dubious ways.
Though she claims she’ll continue stirring up shit in City Hall from the outside, when she walks out the door later this year, she’ll take that movement-style politics with her, which is a real loss for the city.
That style relies on amplifying big, loud, persistent demands from the working-class–not from lobbyists or Democratic operatives. It pisses people off—especially people in power. Sometimes it works, as it did with the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Sometimes it doesn’t work, as with the fight to save the Showbox. And sometimes, movements don’t really want Sawant and her red shirts to join them, as with some factions of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. But the movements always rose from the bottom up, and Sawant used her office as a hub to support their swift, direct action in the halls of power as a matter of course.
However, for all the political will that Sawant demonstrated and amplified, she lacked political power. As one of nine votes on the council, the Democrats and conservatives almost always outnumbered her or worked to water down her legislation. What she did do, though, was use her voice to tell the city what elected officials could do if they contained an ounce of her will.
Big hole in the budget? Tax big business and fill it with their gold. Eviction tsunami inbound? Then stop evicting people in the winter, so at least they don’t freeze to death. SCOTUS overturns Roe? Okay, pay for abortions for all. Without Sawant or someone like her on the dais, the range of what’s possible shrinks to anemic, technocratic nibbling around the edges.
But it’s not like she didn’t pass any legislation at all. Losing Sawant on the council also means losing a powerful voice for renters, who make up more than half of the city. She pushed through several key laws to try to balance power a little more in favor of tenants, and she routinely fought for more eviction lawyers in the budget.
Fighting for renters wasn’t just one of her areas of policy expertise. Policies like rent control drove her campaigns and her office, and in her op-ed she says she'll keep that up. The council may retain a few mostly reliable votes for renter protection, but it will lose the member willing to put forth the strongest policies, the policies that would make big changes that truly threatened the bottom lines of property holders. Finding another politician with that level of commitment to the needs of a transient class of people will be difficult.
Losing someone willing to buck powerful people and politically sacred institutions in general will also suck. Sawant is one of the few politicians on the left in Washington state who does not think twice about crossing big business or union leadership. Her exclusive commitment to trying to meet the demands of rank-and-file workers, as she did with the carpenters strike and on several other occasions, is rare and valuable in a world where labor leaders “partner” with giant corporations just to get along.
And though you might expect the creepy freaks on the other side of the political spectrum to clink champagne glasses tonight, local Republicans and conservative Democrats also have reason to pour one out: at the end of this year, they won’t have their boogeyman anymore. They won’t be able to pin the failures of Democratic incrementalism on one ~divisive~ Seattle City Council member. Though Council Member Tammy Morales often sides with Sawant, putting her image on a flier with a bunch of burning cop cars just doesn’t hit the same. They tried with King County Council Member Girmay Zahilay, but it backfired big time. Sorry, Kathy.
This elegy is almost certainly premature. After all, in her op-ed, Sawant claims she plans to stay involved in local politics as a movement-builder—though right now it seems like she’s mostly concerned with yelling at popular progressives for betraying workers and the movement, etc. And maybe some new lefties with her grit, her organizing skills, and capacity to annoy coalition-building Democrats will run for office and win seats on the council. But nobody can cut through the bullshit like Sawant. That particular quality is irreplaceable.