Occupy Seattle creates real change in local government

Occupy Seattle has been harshly criticized by the media as dirty and politically ineffective, but one Occupy Seattle activist points to a growing list of the group's political victories.

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An Occupy Seattle activist closes her Chase account.

Occupy Seattle has been harshly criticized by the media as dirty and politically ineffective, but one Occupy Seattle activist points to a growing list of the group's political victories.

Editor's note: Author and activist Mark Taylor-Canfield appeared on Crosscut's recent City Hall panel about Occupy Seattle and Occupy Wall Street. He is a member of the Occupy Seattle Media Working Group.

Since the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations began in New York City a few months ago, local and national news media have continually criticized the movement, reporting that the occupation groups are disorganized and politically ineffective. KIRO radio personality Dori Monson recently described the Occupy Seattle protesters as “filthy rats.” Monson suggested that the president of Seattle Central Community College, Paul Kilpatrick, should call in “exterminators” to get rid of the demonstrators. This kind of inflammatory rhetoric delivered by a few local radio shock jocks during the last week has left many participants at Occupy Seattle feeling frustrated and a little bit concerned for their own safety.

But despite these claims by some very conservative commentators, Occupy Seattle has already had a direct influence on the folks at City Hall. The political implications of Occupy Seattle’s interactions with local governments are hotly debated by most media pundits, but if the occupations, marches, and protests organized over the last two months are any indication of future events, Occupy Seattle will surely be a factor in local politics for at least one more election season.

Occupy Seattle’s campaign to boycott Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo has already had an effect on the local economy. Boeing Employees Credit Union reported that 699 new customers opened accounts on Nov. 5 — “Bank Transfer Day.” Last year on a comparable Saturday — Nov. 6 — they had 166 new accounts.

The Occupy Seattle group’s interactions with city government began in a series of failed negotiations involving Mayor Mike McGinn. In a public statement on the city website, McGinn expressed his support for the occupiers. Still the mayor ‘s offer to invite the protesters to City Hall was not well received by the majority of Occupy Seattle participants, who were unhappy that the offer required tents be taken down each morning by 7 am and included an outright ban on protest rallies at City Hall. Even so, a small group of campers did move there. Tensions escalated during the month of October, eventually leading to confrontations with police and parks department rangers, who repeatedly tried to kick the group out of Westlake Park.

It remains to be seen whether McGinn’s passive aggressive approach to the OS group will cost him votes if he chooses to run for re-election. Political observers in the Occupy Seattle camp have commented on the fact that the majority of city residents who voted for McGinn also express support for the nation-wide Occupy Wall Street movement. They suggest that the mayor’s decision to allow the Seattle Police Department to arrest and harass protesters could come back to haunt him during his next election campaign.

After their encampment moved to Seattle Central Community College, Occupy Seattle had time to regroup. Now they are organizing activism inside the city government. On Nov. 5 Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien joined the demonstrators in their declaration of independence from large corporate banks, when he publicly withdrew his own personal funds from Wells Fargo.

In fact, the only official “demand” that the Occupy Seattle general assembly has ever actually endorsed (and sustained) — bank divestment — has now taken the form of a resolution before the Seattle City Council. It calls upon the city to consider withdrawing the public’s money from banks that received government bailouts — Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Chase. According to the group’s demand, the city’s money must be re-invested in small locally owned banks and credit unions, thereby keeping the money in the local economy, rather than sending it to Wall Street.

Council member Nick Licata introduced the resolution before the Seattle City Council on Nov. 14, and it passed unanimously. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “It was difficult for us to convince one of the council members who didn’t understand why we should support Occupy Seattle. But after a lot of discussions, we finally got the votes.”

Members of the Occupy Seattle working group on home foreclosures have been organizing weekly pickets at the King County administration building where homes are being auctioned. These activists have been lobbying both the King County Council and the Attorney General’s office, calling for local governments to offer some financial relief to the homeowners.

Still, Occupy Seattle hasn't limited itself to initiatives directed at city and county governments. Linda Boyd and other occupation participants are organizing a campaign to support Washington State Representative Bob Hasagawa’s bill to establish a publicly owned state bank. Boyd’s optimism about their potential for political victory is contagious.

“If Bob Hasagawa wants to propose this kind of legislation, we can help him organize support for his bill. I’m talking with folks from Occupy Seattle and we’re forming a working group to research and promote this idea of a publicly owned Washington state bank. We want to get the Seattle city council to endorse the proposal, and we want to lobby the state legislature to pass Bob’s bill.”

She added enthusiastically, “Yes, I know we are just beginning to organize this movement, but I think we’re making a good start!”

In addition to their support of Hasagawa, Occupy Seattle is planning to join forces with dozens of other community organizations to “occupy the state capitol” in Olympia on Nov. 28. Their aim is to stop some of the drastic state budget cuts to health, welfare, and education. They are demanding that the state legislature close substantial tax loopholes for corporations and for the wealthiest residents of Washington State to provide revenue for some of these programs.

A coalition of progressive tax reform groups and labor unions have suggested that a significant portion of the state budget deficit could be eliminated simply by reforming the state tax code. Organizations calling for tax reform as a way of providing new revenue include local SEIU chapters, members of AARP, the Community Health Network, the Statewide Poverty Action Network, and the Our Economic Future Coalition.

But despite political pressure exerted by the ”Occupy Washington” group during a five day sit-in at the state capitol in April, state legislators have so far refused to consider their demand for tax reform during the upcoming special session.

Regardless of what local news media is reporting, the evidence shows that Occupy Seattle is gaining influence inside local government. And Occupy Seattle participants say they plan to continue these lobbying efforts, to pressure their elected officials to do the right thing.

In spite of strong criticism regarding their lack of political organization, a few of the Occupy Seattle activists seem dedicated to the idea of pushing for political and legislative programs that directly address economic injustice in their own neighborhoods, and in communities throughout the state.


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