In Seattle, a riot-stoking socialist councilwoman may just find herself held accountable
This past summer, widespread protests led to outbreaks of violent crime in major cities around the country. Public officials around the U.S. mostly condemned the violence, with some calling for calm.
In Seattle, Kshama Sawant, the socialist politician who's been known to ruffle feathers at City Hall, had a different take on the violence.
Her office was directly implicated in the months of civil destruction that overwhelmed Seattle.
Now the people of Seattle are responding in kind, and Sawant may be held to account for the possible crimes she committed during the dangerous riots.
It started like this:
On the afternoon of June 7, Kshama Sawant stepped to the podium at Othello Park in the Ranier Beach section of Seattle. She introduced herself: "Good afternoon, everyone! My name is Kshama Sawant! I am the socialist at Seattle City Hall!"
She spoke assertively, her tone intensifying with each harsh denouncement of capitalism, her political opponents, and the police. She even attacked Seattle's leftist mayor, Jenny Durkan, demanding, "Durkan must go!"
She lashed out at other non-white council members for approving of a police contract, insisting, "Our movement should refuse to accept betrayers, regardless of the color of your skin!" With every iron-fisted declaration, she exhausted her voice further, relaying her message in shrieks of rage that ground through the park's sound system. She declared, "My socialist city council office stands in solidarity with the movement in demanding 'Defund Police'!" and "Capitalism itself has racism and oppression on its DNA!"
Ms. Sawant's captive audience that afternoon was taking part in the "We Want to Live" rally, one of hundreds of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd on May 25. The flyer for the rally described the event as a "March for Black Lives and to End Violence." Since I live here, my observation is that though there are militant left-wing groups associated with BLM, the majority of BLM protesters are rational Americans calling for reform. The rally attracted a staggering 15,000 people to Othello Park, where community members delivered impassioned speeches to thunderous bouts of applause.
Amid the spectacle of a mourning community assembling and collectively calling for reform, Councilwoman Kshama Sawant found a pulpit to preach socialist doctrine.
After the event, local radio host Tony B claimed that Sawant was never invited to speak and bullied her way on stage. He also remarked that Sawant's speech "felt offensive" and that she "hijacked the moment, hijacked the stage, for her personal use, politically."
The following day, the situation in Seattle spiraled out of control. It's not clear who gave the order, but by approximately 6:30 P.M., Seattle police officers of SPD's Eastern Precinct had removed the last protective barriers positioned around the precinct, boarded up the windows, and hastily abandoned their post with little warning. After days of mass protests, widespread looting, and arson, the unrelenting mob drove the police out of the area and took control of the city's territory. This was the start of the Capital Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, a six-block autonomous zone established through an aggressive insurrection.
Councilwoman Sawant was on the scene to celebrate the chaotic spoils of what she called a "global rebellion against racism." Standing in the street where her own district was just attacked, surrounded by hundreds of rioters who had just overwhelmed the police, Sawant described the takeover of the East Precinct as a "victory" and declared: "the only way we could have a society free from oppression is if we fight against capitalism itself, and fight for global socialism!"
During the impromptu rallying speech, she announced her own event the following day and invited all to attend. Sawant, entrenched in her radical worldview, must've beamed with optimism at the site of a boarded up police department covered in graffiti. Seattle, spattered with burnt cars and looted businesses, had devolved into lawlessness; Sawant took advantage of the unique opportunity.
On Tuesday, June 9, thousands of people huddled into Cal Anderson Park for Sawant's public meeting. Sawant started right from where she left off the previous evening in CHOP: "Dear friends, this is an uprising!" against, she continued, a "rotten system of capitalism!" She again celebrated the occupation of the East Precinct as a great victory but insisted that more victories were necessary to "fuel" the movement. Near the conclusion of the public meeting, Sawant instructed her followers to gather at the corner of the park, where the group would organize before marching southbound down the embattled streets of Seattle.
The Seattle City Hall building had been closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing access to only a small number of employees for health and safety reasons. Sawant, as a member of the City Council, had access to a set of keys.
At approximately 9 P.M., this same marching protest, which numbered over a thousand people, followed Sawant to City Hall. There, the glass double doors were flung open and the protestors packed into the locked-down building, holding signs and singing songs calling for Mayor Durkan to resign. Sawant had unlocked the doors, led her followers inside, and declared a second victory; the occupation of City Hall.
Once inside, Sawant was introduced to speak by a fellow member of Socialist Alternative, the Marxist political party that Sawant belongs to.
After Sawant repeated the same radical calls in another supposedly impromptu speech, activist Moe'Neyah Dene Holland stepped to the microphone, observing, "I'd just like us to look around the room and realize how outnumbered [by white people] the Black community is, even at a Black Lives Matter protest," and requesting, "for all the council member affiliates, please stop using Black Lives Matter for your political campaigns.''
The City Hall takeover was short-lived. After two hours the protestors disbanded and headed back to CHOP. Nobody was reported to be injured
When asked if she was aware of the risk of packing a thousand people into a City Hall building that was closed due to a pandemic, the councilwoman said, "I don't deny it [the risk]. The rebellion is still happening. That shows you the complete failure of capitalism as a system."
It's plausible that many of the rioters involved in the attacks at the Eastern Precinct and City Hall were doing so out of a mob mentality, rather than as part of a broad political strategy (acknowledging this possibility does not justify the actions). For the extremists at Socialist Alternative, the violent protests, what Sawant referred to as a "rebellion," could be organized to incite a full-fledged socialist uprising. However, they failed, and the democracy they intended to dismantle is pushing back.
Ernie Lou is a Seattle resident that describes himself as a bleeding-heart liberal. He has also said, "Sawant is totally off the rails." After starting a campaign and website calling for the recall of Kshama Sawant, on August 18th, Ernie Lou filed a recall petition to the Kings County Election Office. The petition included six charges against Sawant related to her conduct during the BLM protests and her "Socialist" office's relationship with Socialist Alternative.
According to Washington law, a recall petition must be approved by a judge before entering the signature collection phase. On Sept. 17, Judge Jim Rogers ruled that four of the original six charges contained in the petition, "Define 'substantial misconduct clearly amounting to misfeasance, malfeasance or a violation of oath of office and there is no legal justification for the challenged conduct. These four charges are ORDERED CERTIFIED for election."
Sawant has appealed the judge's decision to certify the petition. The appeal will be heard and decided by the Washington Supreme Court on Jan. 7. If Sawant's appeal is denied and the petition is allowed to proceed, then the petitioners are required to gather 10,700 signatures for the recall vote to be included in a special election to be held in April. Then the voters would decide to keep Sawant in office or have her recalled for breaking the law.
The democratic structures that Sawant attacked and intends to dismantle have stood firm, and now Sawant faces the prospect of losing her seat. If Sawant is ultimately recalled through the ballot box for her abuses of power, it would be justice for the people of Seattle and a victory for the principles of democracy over totalitarian swindlers; a small dose of democracy after a summer of chaos.