On January 12th of this year I did something that I’ve never done in my 18 years of living in Seattle. I hopped on a bus on a weekday afternoon to attend a Seattle City Council meeting.
It never had occurred to me before that day that I could go and be involved in the politics of my city. But like many people who have met Kshama Sawant, I was encouraged by her to be involved. She helped me to understand that my participation — that all of our participation — matters.
And what I witnessed that January day in our city’s council chambers reminded me that this is our city, that this city belongs to all of us who reside here, whatever our skin color, wherever we are born, whatever it says on our birth certificate.
If we live here — I was reminded — it’s our job to stand up for the wellbeing and rights of all our city’s residents.
And because of what I witnessed that day at the Seattle City Council meeting, which I will detail for you in just a moment, I was very surprised and disturbed by the dismissive and dangerous comments made about Kshama Sawant’s ability to represent the diversity of her district by her opponent Pamela Banks in a recent interview:
“With Black Lives Matter, [Sawant] only talked about the police needing to be investigated for how they’re treating the protesters. I don’t know that she understands the history of slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and the impacts that has had on our community. If you’re not from here and you don’t understand the history of this country…”
The danger of Banks’ comments is not just that they’re inaccurate in their characterization of Sawant’s record as a council member, but also the xenophobia and exclusivity that erupts from any argument that implies that our understanding about oppression and ability to contribute to a struggle or movement is rooted in where we are from.
This is a particularly worrisome argument to be brought up in the 3rd District, which is populated with immigrants from dozens of countries, in a city where 17 percent of the population is foreign born.
As a city council member, Sawant has an exhaustive record of demonstrating that she understands the history of this country and the implications of segregation and oppression very well. Her record is a long string of actions that demonstrate her commitment to inclusion.
She was, in fact, the council member that called for a special session inviting testimony about the presence of the SPD at Black Lives Matter protests; she was the only council member that voted against the 210 million dollar new youth jail — an active symbol of the school-to-prison pipeline that impacts so many families of the 3rd District; she was the council member who worked with Indigenous Activists to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
And, Sawant consistently shows Seattleites that our political involvement does not come from being born at the “right place” or into the “right family,” but from perceiving the needs of those around us and taking action on those needs.
It is striking that Sawant became politically active when she moved from a country stereotyped by poverty to the U.S., a country sometimes stereotyped by its wealth and excess. When she saw the anguishing poverty here in this country, she was moved to pursue a doctorate in economics and then to put that doctorate to work by taking action within a movement fighting for a Seattle that is “affordable for all.”
At a recent rally for Sawant at Town Hall, I asked a transgender youth why she was volunteering for Sawant:
“Kshama is the only politician who makes me feel heard. I feel like she represents me,” she told me.
I knew exactly what she meant. I also feel welcomed into the political arena by Sawant’s presence. Somehow, her willingness to jump in and take action reminds me that I can do the same. The reason I especially wanted to attend that council meeting this past January is that the meeting began with a special session called by Sawant in which citizens gave short testimonies about the excessive police presence at recent Black Lives Matter protests.
As I walked in, I saw the line that snaked around the crowed room of those awaiting their turn to tell their stories of pepper spray, of police bikes being used as weapons, and of the general level of intimidation used by SPD to “keep the peace” at the series of protests in solidarity with Ferguson that began in the summer of 2014 and swelled again after the non-indictment of the Darren Wilson in November last year.
After 30 minutes, testimonies were cut off — even though many were still waiting in line for their chance to share their experience — and the regular council meeting began. Seattle Port Commission Member Courtenay Gregoire was there to talk about the role of the port in the city’s economy.
As Gregoire spoke, one voice from the back of the crowd called out “I can’t breathe” and then another shouted “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” One by one, people around the room stood with their arms in that haunting position of surrender echoing Michael Brown’s vulnerable gesture.
For the most part, the council ignored these protests and continued to listen to Gregoire, distracted but apparently determined to continue with the business at hand.
And then, silently, Kshama Sawant stood with her arms in solidarity. She just stood. She just stood with her arms up in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. And then she interrupted the normal business of the meeting and asked that Police Commissioner O’Toole address the concerns that had been voiced.
In this simple gesture of standing in solidarity that Sawant reminded me not to be hypnotized by the “business at hand” into forgetting our duty to stand for the rights of all people. She reminded me that any one of us — no matter where we are from or who we are — can be an ally to the struggle.