In a crowded meeting hall at the Burien Public Library, which also functions as its City Hall, Craig Keller walked up to the microphone after more than a couple dozen Burienites (yes, Burienites) spoke overwhelmingly in favor of the city's recent law to protect undocumented immigrants and religious minorities.
Keller, a twice-failed Republican congressional candidate from West Seattle, greeted the city's council members and advised them that they could reach him by P.O. box. He does not live in Burien.
Keller proceeded to read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail" before describing, in graphic detail, charges against a Hispanic man for a vicious alleged sexual assault on a 19-year-old Burien woman last month.
"I figure I'm just a messenger, and a volunteer messenger, to over 3,600 Burien residents," Keller said. He had brought his camcorder to film the whole meeting.
Even though Keller does not live in Burien, he is the driving force behind an effort to undo the city's law prohibiting public employees, including police, from asking about a person's religious affiliation or immigration status. He had rounded up 3,648 signatures by July 21—just five over the minimum—to land the Burien city council with a serious problem: pass a repeal of the ordinance, or put it to a vote.
At last night's meeting, Burien council members did neither. The delay could open the city up to a lawsuit over the council's timeliness in considering the petition, the Burien city attorney warned.
During a Monday night city council meeting, several public commenters—including a man who signed the petition and said he hoped he could withdraw his signature—said they had been "accosted," misinformed, or misled about what the petition meant.
"What they told me wasn't the truth when I signed the petition," Jim Hamer, a 72-year-old resident who told The Stranger he lived in Burien "before I was born," said. "I thought it was simply to get it on the ballot so the people could decide how they wanted to vote, and I'm for that."
Hamer didn't know that the petition also gave the council the option of voting to repeal the sanctuary city ordinance immediately. He said he called up the election board to get his name from the petition removed, but was told he was too late.
Burien City Councilmember Lauren Berkowitz, who argued that "human rights should not be put to a vote," suggested the city could challenge the validity of the petition's signature-gathering tactics. At that point, activists started chanting and clapping to delay the question—and the meeting—for another week. Berkowitz helped the activists, speaking at length to effectively filibuster the council's decision.
Burien City Attorney Lisa Marshall suggested that delaying the vote could make the city legally vulnerable, as local laws require that the council consider Keller's petition by July 31, the deadline to put the measure on the November ballot. In response to a question about whether he'd consider suing the city, Keller declined to comment. He added that his residency in Seattle, rather than Burien, is "not a legitimate concern."
Council Member Debi Wagner expressed frustration with Berkowitz and activists who stayed until 10:30 p.m. to delay the meeting. "This is a business meeting, not a pajama party," she said.
At one point, after calling for multiple recesses, Burien mayor Lucy Krakowiak asked Burien police to escort everyone out of the meeting room. Police then advised that the mayor could point at individuals she found disruptive, and police could issue criminal citations, or even arrest.
Burien PD explains that mayor can point at ppl and ask them to be removed. If they stay, may be subject to criminal citation. pic.twitter.com/PJYYhGY2qf
— Sydney Brownstone (@sydbrownstone) August 1, 2017
But the public comment section wasn't just made up of immigration activists. Long-time Burien residents, several of them Italian-Americans, spoke in favor of the sanctuary city ordinance.
"Burien has changed," a former Army nurse named Elizabeth told the City Council. "When I went to high school here at Highline there was one black and one Asian. There were no Latinos. There were Italians and I'm one of them."
"I want people to realize that things have changed, and I think it's for the better," Elizabeth continued. "It's important to have that diversity. We're not a white community anymore."
Several speakers also identified themselves as former Seattleites who were pushed out by rising rents. "I think a lot of people are proud to move to Burien, and are proud of the diversity, because Capitol Hill doesn't show that," another speaker said.
Luis, an LGBTQ immigrant who didn't want to be identified by his last name, stressed that immigrants paid taxes, worked hard, and built lives as the immigration process kept them away from citizenship for decades.
He also emphasized how much Burien is changing, and said he'd like to see that change reflected on the all-white Burien City Council. "I got here in 1989, so I think I've seen a shift economically, geographically," he said. "More communities of color have been pushed out. If you don't have a high-income salary you can't afford to live on Broadway anymore. So we need laws by cities like Kent, Renton, Burien that are actually embracing the communities as they move in."
In June, Burien had its first ever Pride, Luis added. "And it was the bomb."