Kshama Sawant: Democrats and the Right Are Attacking Me — And Left Movements Everywhere

For Seattle’s ruling class, having even one socialist, Kshama Sawant, on city council is far too many. Which is why, Sawant writes in Jacobin, since she first won office in 2013, the attacks from Democrats, the Right, and corporate juggernauts like Amazon haven’t stopped.

Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant speaks as demonstrators hold a rally outside of the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct on June 8, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (David Ryder / Getty Images)

Big business, the right wing, and now the courts have rung the bell on what is now the fourth round of the fight to expel socialists from Seattle City Hall.

The corporate elite are determined to do so by hook or by crook. They failed in the first three rounds to buy this city council seat, the last time with unprecedented corporate cash from Amazon. The latest effort, a right-wing recall campaign, is perhaps the most serious threat so far, seeking now to use the courts and four trumped-up charges to overturn my reelection last year.

It’s not for nothing. Socialists and social movements have dramatically altered the course of Seattle politics since my first election in 2013, and we have repeatedly set powerful examples that have spread nationally.

We spearheaded fights for Seattle to become the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage, landmark renters’ rights victories like the winter evictions ban and the move-in-fees cap, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our first-in-the-nation ban on chemical weapons, the Amazon tax earlier this year for affordable housing and a Green New Deal — a $2 billion transfer of wealth from wealthy corporations to ordinary people over the next decade — and more.

Victories like these are why the ruling class wants a do-over, not only of my reelection, but also of all these victories for the working class and oppressed communities. Already, for example, they are trying to overturn our chemical weapons ban in the courts. Democracy is no concern. Just as the right wing fought to steal the vote for Trump nationally, locally they want to reject last year’s progressive vote in Seattle’s District 3.

When I was first elected in 2013, the first open socialist to hold office in Seattle in nearly a century, the city’s political establishment was in an uproar. The main local weekly, the Stranger reported that corporate Democratic politicians in City Hall were “apoplectic” and had likened my pending arrival to a “mountain lion in a grocery store.”

In the seven years since that time, our opposition has taken up virtually every tool at their disposal to try to block or oust us.

All of this began with a visit from two leading Seattle politicians in my first week in office to inform me that it was all well and good that I had rabble-roused my way in the door, but that City Hall ran “on their terms” and that our $15 minimum wage campaign would be stopped. It continues at present with the right wing sending racist and sexualized hate mail and leaving threatening material at my house.

Attacks from the corporate media have been constant. The Seattle Times has penned one hit piece after another, along with vicious, Red-baiting, and racist cartoons against my office and our campaigns. They have allowed me to reply exactly once in seven years in office. Seattle’s corporate and conservative media are no doubt about to go all out in using their bully pulpit to campaign for my removal.

Seattle’s wealthiest corporations have spent big to block socialist and progressive politics, from the well-heeled business opposition groups launched against the $15 minimum wage (and later against the 2018 Amazon tax), to last year’s $1.5 million attempt by Amazon to buy City Hall for its chosen corporate candidates with unprecedented PAC money.

The river of corporate cash has included extensive lobbying, despite former real estate lobbyist (and brother of Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan) Jamie Durkan’s admonition that “every dollar” spent on lobbying was being wasted because of “Sawant’s army” (by which, of course, he meant working people’s movements).

Since they have failed in all their efforts to force my office to back down, pro-capitalist politicians have fought relentlessly to block or co-opt social movements — and, if all else failed, to claim credit for their victories. This is to discourage working people from getting organized.

It has happened again and again, most recently with attempts by establishment politicians and corporate media to deny the tax Amazon movement credit for the Amazon tax and trying instead to award it to Democratic council members who refused to support the tax until the final days — after our movement brought enormous pressure by gathering over thirty thousand signatures for a ballot initiative.

Multiple lawsuits have been launched against my office, including by two police officers claiming “defamation” after I called the police killing of unarmed black Seattle resident Che Taylor “murder.” There have also been more than a dozen “ethics” complaints brought against my office. All these lawsuits and complaints have been so far dismissed or defeated, but that won’t stop more from coming — particularly since the courts are friendly territory for capitalists and the Right to fight in.

The Crackdown

Why this endless parade of attacks? Because big business and their political representatives in Seattle cannot tolerate having even one elected socialist who unambiguously fights for working people. Most of all, they fear the example it sets — especially at a time of massive crisis, with tens of millions protesting and a new generation looking again to socialist ideas. I have always argued we need a new party for working people, independent of corporate cash, corporate America, and its two parties. Attacks like these show why.

The right-wing recall campaign is backed by apparently limitless corporate cash. This includes the support of billionaire and major Trump donor Martin Selig, who in 2018 spent $25,000 to help overturn the first Amazon tax. Already the recall campaign has raised over $180,000 in funding from the usual corporate and right-wing donors including CEOs, investors, and Republicans.

It’s no accident that two of the four recall charges against me are directly linked to my support for the Justice for George Floyd protests, or that the recall charges are virtually identical to those brought against me by Amazon’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, at the height of the movement in June (Durkan was elected mayor of Seattle in 2017 with an unprecedented $350,000 in corporate PAC support from Amazon). It’s no accident that the recall campaign’s main charge in their public campaigning so far is the absurd claim that I promoted “lawlessness” with my support for Black Lives Matter, a racist attack on the movement.

This recall effort is part of a nationwide backlash by the right wing and political establishments of both parties against Black Lives Matter. Nationally over fifteen million people have taken part in the protests. The ruling class is increasingly using the courts as well as the police against protesters, resulting in over fourteen thousand arrests this year.

This crackdown on Black Lives Matter and the Left includes attacks on other progressive elected representatives like black Kentucky state representative Attica Scott, who was charged with felony “rioting” and targeted for removal for protesting to demand justice for Breonna Taylor. It also includes the suspension of socialist and former leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, for his criticism of the brutal attacks of the Israeli ruling class on the Palestinian people.

Washington State recall campaigns have often been highly politicized and legally flimsy. Seattle’s last elected socialist, Anna Louise Strong, was driven from office by a recall campaign in 1919 for her links to the labor movement and opposition to World War I.

While I support the democratic right to recall elected officials, the Washington State recall law as written is highly undemocratic and unequally applied. The authority over whether a recall petition goes forward is determined first by the courts, while denying the right to a trial. I will never be allowed to testify against these dishonest charges. In fact, the truth of charges in recall cases explicitly do not have to be proven, but will nonetheless have the appearance on the ballot as though they are established facts upheld by a court.

Kshama Sawant in 2014. (Shannon Kringen / Flickr)

Two of the charges are related to my participation in the Black Lives Matter movement, one claiming I used my office unethically to campaign for the Amazon tax, and the fourth for being an elected socialist who is democratically accountable to my working-class organization. Our appeal will go to the state Supreme Court on January 7, after which if the recall goes forward, the recall campaign will begin gathering its 10,700 signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The essence of all the charges is that I have used my office to fight unambiguously for working people and social movements, as I was elected to do.

An All-Out Fight

It is no accident that while the court case against me advances the case against Mayor Durkan for overseeing a brutal crackdown on recent protests was thrown out by the state Supreme Court. This despite the enormous evidence of Seattle police brutality, including extensive video and over nineteen thousand written complaints from protesters and other community members — leading so far to a sum total of one written reprimand for a police officer, with a second facing a potential paid suspension of up to three days.

Seattle’s ruling class fully supports Durkan’s vicious crackdown on the protests. Yet they were horrified when I opened the doors to City Hall in June for an hour-long general assembly (with protesters wearing masks) to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and to defund the police. They fully back Durkan and the Seattle police in spite of the department’s twenty-eight police killings since 2011 — without a single conviction. Yet they were horrified as families of the victims of police violence co-organized a protest along with Seattle Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) near Durkan’s home at which I spoke (and they dishonestly claim I “led”).

My organization, Socialist Alternative, and our movement in Seattle have responded to this attack by launching a solidarity campaign. We are going all out against this right-wing recall attempt and stepping up the fight to win our demands: an elected community control board with full powers over the police, including the right to set policy and subpoena officers; urgent COVID-19 relief, including a guaranteed jobs program and canceling rent for those with lost jobs or income; and a socialist Green New Deal, funded by taxing the rich.

Over the past two months, before the most recent COVID-19 spike, we took to the streets, talking to thousands of voters in our district, mobilizing 150 volunteers, and raising grassroots donations from more than 1,500 people. We’ve won the support of unions like the United Auto Workers Local 4121 and the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1488, and of progressive organizations like Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and the Transit Riders Union.

This will be an all-out fight between working people and big business in Seattle, and it will take a powerful grassroots movement to win against all the might and resources of the corporate elite and the Right.