As a veteran and practitioner of 1970s’ protest rhetoric — “Free the Panther 21: Off the pigs!” “Student rights for student power!” “Hey, hey, LBJ: How many kids did you kill today?” — I sure enjoyed what the corporate media called the “blistering” inauguration speech of Kshama Sawant, Socialist and a new Seattle councilmember.
“In this system, the market is God, and everything is sacrificed on the altar of profit,” she said. Cool. A welcome blast from the past.
Now let’s get down to work.
Back in my day, all the Students for a Democratic Society kids got crew cuts so they could be one with the workers, who, anyone could tell you, hated the long hairs and hippies. It didn’t quite work out for SDS. The workers hated them as well.
Rhetoric, like haircuts, is symbolic, and symbols aren’t productive in terms of actually getting stuff done. So here’s eight practical items that Sawant should add to her agenda:
1) Fix the damned potholes. Love it or hate it, most workers drive to work, and too many of our Seattle streets look like logging roads. In addition to wear and tear, many groups—the cable companies, the construction workers hired by wealthy developers, even public employees looking for things like abandoned pipe shafts— dig up the streets, and their asphalt patches are like a capitalist’s acne. An added benefit of fixing the potholes is that bike riders won’t take tumbles, injure themselves, and then sue the proletariat.
2) Accept (reluctantly) the race to the bottom. Oh, how I wish our rhetoric alone could stop the international corporate conspirators from extorting money from the people. The big Boeing screwing of its machinists is a case in point. But the reality is that corporations have a gun to our head, and if we want our workers to have jobs, we’re going to need to join that race to the bottom for the foreseeable future — as the Machinists’ international leadership realized. Unless, of course, Sawant’s Socialist colleagues take both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2016. Since that’s not going to happen, she can best help the 99 percent by compromising and trying to get the best deal in a bad situation. Regarding the $15 minimum wage that Sawant advocates, Seattle needs to find the sweet point: The highest minimum before employers start laying off staff or moving to the suburbs. Maybe it’s $13 with an inflation escalator. Or a formula that limits the wage gap between the highest-paid and lowest-paid workers (and contractors); that might be unconstitutional, but it’s worth looking into.
3) Work with the cops. Richard Pryor, the great African-American comedian and social critic who died in 2005, told the story of a gig he performed at a prison. He said he wanted to be one with the men there, but he soon realized that, hey, these are mean dudes. They’re not nice. They committed crimes. Crime rarely affects the 1 percent behind their gated communities like Broadmoor. But the 99 percent need to be able to walk streets without fearing rape, or being accosted by a junkie, or being mugged. Sawant needs to build a rapport with the cops, who, I might add, are union workers. Work with and fund them so women can walk through Freeway Park at night without trepidation, or jog in Cal Anderson Park without being attacked. As a start, Sawant might want to consult with former Seattle City Attorney Mark Sidran, who got unfairly slammed by her friends at the Stranger for trying to address these issues. (They also hounded out of office Norm Stamper, one of the nation’s most community-minded police chiefs.)
4) Give Seattle taxpayers a break. Yes, some of them are filthy rich. But most of them are like the folks in my 35-year-old condo building: middle-class workers or retired folks for whom property-tax increases are a burden. Can Sawant persuade her fellow council members, the mayor, and county officials to ditch the regressive property tax for progressive city and county income taxes? She’s already pissed off many officials, so until they come around, she should remember that property taxes hurt the 99 percent.
5) Help individuals, not just “the people.” Individuals will bring their problems to Sawant. She needs to deal with them on the personal, not ideological, level. She must hire staff who understand that constituent service might not be as fun as advocating for the masses or berating the city bureaucrats, but it’s just as important. Certainly, the few socialist congressmen we’ve had—including Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Rep. Ron Dellums—have understood that.
6) Ease up on arterial bike lanes. Our former mayor, Mayor McSchwinn, insisted on putting bike lanes on arterials. This mostly benefited young, white, male commuters who are able to pass automobiles and trucks during rush hour. Who it didn’t benefit are workers who drive trucks to and from container terminals, union members trying to deliver I-bar to construction sites, and office workers who find their commuting routes squeezed to one lane. Bike lanes are needed, but never considering the unintended consequences of them on all workers is elitist.
7) Kill the arena. Sawant probably agrees that the still-breathing proposed arena will make it harder for the Port of Seattle, which provides family-wage jobs, to compete with places like Tacoma and Prince Rupert, B.C. (Our Canadian friends love to name things after royalty, although the official opposition is socialist.) While the rich people who live in Magnolia and Laurelhurst will end up with quite a tax bill due to the arena’s hidden costs, that bill also will hurt the workers. I’m sure she's seen the studies that show no net positive economic impact from such arenas. If a hedge fund manager wants to build an arena, let him do it without taxpayer money and without leaving the people an expensive white elephant called Key Arena. (Isn’t it ironic that I’m defending a bank-sponsored facility against a hedge fund-sponsored facility?)
8) Crack a joke. Our new Socialist councilmember should remember Mao’s apocryphal words: “Beware the revolutionary without a twinkle in his eye.” She needs to learn how to address serious issues without being humorless. Otherwise, she’s just a left-wing version of pseudo-libertarian Rand Paul. Let’s see Sawant say “Power to the people” with some self-deprecation.