The problem with Seattle's progressive chattering class

Political advocacy organizations could learn from our city’s long tradition of organizing and occupation.

protest march

Hundreds of demonstrators march through downtown Seattle, Wash., on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, to call for racial justice, Black liberation, the protection of all people, and for all votes in the 2020 Election to be counted. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

For much of this year, city politics have been inescapable. As with residents of “liberal” cities all over the country, more and more Seattleites are confronting the disparities between the stories we have told ourselves about what we value in our city and the entrenched power structures that shape our day-to-day lives.

We can’t dance around the discomfort anymore: The status quo is unacceptable. A heightened awareness means nothing without the accompanying work to fashion today’s opportunity into a better reality — to align what we do with what we believe.

For this, we can turn to the oft-overlooked history of what has worked to bring about transformation in Seattle while also acknowledging that political advocacy organizations that have grown out of that transformation — the engines of the day-to-day, unseen work of politics and policymaking — must do better.  

From City Hall to scrappy political non-profits, slick think tanks to philanthropic institutions, calls for justice and equity have to be met, too, with a different, more imaginative kind of politics. Organizations that believe themselves to be on the side of the public good (and receive the subsequent tax benefit) can sway the course of city history like never before. However, this will require addressing the moment frankly, reckoning with everyone’s respective roles in how we got here.

Today, political advocacy organizations represent the chattering class. They’re socially concerned, well-educated, and predominantly white-led. They hold substantial political power, and, as the industry of advocacy, fill the ever-widening chasm between the mayor’s office and people on the street demanding justice. This network holds enormous influence in deciding what policies are taken up for consideration, and it is fundraising off “this moment,” making shrewd considerations about how to leverage collective unrest to generate revenue. These organizations exist precisely because racial injustice exists. To reckon with racial injustice for a progressive nonprofit, think tank or philanthropic organization is to reckon with rendering itself obsolete.

The resistance is institutionalized

In the late 1960s and ‘70s, a swirl of civil rights and anti-war movements converged to dramatically shape Seattle’s politics. Unlike today, there wasn’t a glut of non-profit organizations that had professionalized advocacy and policy-making, so community leaders took up direct action — organizing occupations and demonstrations of militant resistance against the city.

There’s a direct line from Seattle’s first civil rights sit-in in 1963 to this summer’s Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, (and its continued salvos of militant resistance). It runs parallel to Seattle’s history of Black, Indigenous and activists of color demanding Seattle live up to its progressive values. From the City’s Human Rights Commission and the University of Washington’s African-American Studies Department to El Centro de la Raza and the Northwest African American Museum, so many features of our city’s landscape have been shaped by activist militant resistance overcoming institutional conservatism masquerading as liberal politics. This model of occupation and negotiation was typified by the Gang of Four — Bob Santos, Roberto Maestas, Bernie Whitebear, and Larry Gossett — and proved wildly successful.

Just one example: Bernie Whitebear and 100 others occupied the former military base Fort Lawton, which had been granted to the city for free and would become Discovery Park, thanks to a bill introduced by Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. Activists demanded that treaties from 1865 be observed and the land returned to its original owners. Though an early opponent, Sen. Jackson (in part because of his own presidential ambitions) pressured Mayor Wes Uhlman, a reluctant collaborator, to negotiate with occupiers. After nearly six months of negotiations, protestors emerged with a signed renewable 99-year lease for the 20 acres that we know today as the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center.

The road to redemption for elected officials is rarely pure. Mayor Wes Uhlman found himself on the wrong side of the Gang of Four for nearly a decade, yet he signed the leases for Daybreak and El Centro de la Raza, doubled the city’s minority workforce, established the Office of Woman’s Rights, and is still regarded as one of the city’s most successful mayors.

Today’s mayor has been uncompromising when it comes to working with activists. The next mayor will have to start their term adopting the posture of collaboration, forgiveness and grace. 2020 has shown clear examples of this: the King County Executive assented to the oft-maligned, underappreciated #NoNewYouthJail organizers, promising to shut down the Youth Jail by 2025 (an unsatisfactory timeline, but a victory nonetheless). Earlier this summer, when Seattle Council President and prospective mayoral candidate Lorena Gonzalez met with King County Equity Now leaders in a public forum, she took responsibility for her part in building a policing model that harms Black and brown people, calling to “zero out those budget and to reimage, rebuild, and build something from a community-led, community-driven perspective.”

Direct exchanges between the people and the city led to substantive change, and more importantly, enable city leaders to rethink their positions. Albeit after increased pressure and scrutiny, electeds acknowledged they were wrong and made amends through policy. After they won their street fights, activists like the Gang of Four institutionalized their activism, became executive directors and built organizations out of this era’s success, thanks in part to grassroots energy and occupation tactics.

As organizations institutionalize and accumulate power, they become more conservative — no matter how radical their origin story. Seattle’s political non-profits have, over time, transformed from a force of militant resistance to an often unexamined part of the status quo political machinery. Contemporary political advocacy organizations exist to advocate but not to fundamentally solve the problems they continue to build power around. The key word here is fundamentally. A policy or electoral win every cycle does not structural change make. And by not planning for their own obsolescence, they unintentionally reinforce status quo power structures. The very existence of progressive organizations relies on the fact of racial injustice. The realization of many intuitions’ missions — never mind a just and equitable world — requires a ceding of power accompanied by systemic changes to the way that power flows.

How it doesn’t work

My first job in politics was with the Washington State Democratic Party during the 2012 campaign. Having just returned home to Yakima from college, I walked into the field office to volunteer for then-President Barack Obama’s re-election, thinking if I couldn’t vote, I could at least try to persuade other people to cast a ballot for my preferred candidate. A week later, I became a field organizer — one of the few working their home turf. Thus began my professional interest in building political will in communities traditionally left out of the process. I came to this work believing in the gospel of participation; what I found instead were organizations whose real and political capital depended, unwittingly or not, on the continuation of systemic racial inequities. No issue area — no matter how niche — is exempt from this basic fact.

Seattle is home to some of the most successful gun violence prevention advocacy organizations in the country. I worked for one, and, on the whole, I’m proud of the work I did. Because of the work I did I know more guns lead to less safe communities, yet many organizations remain silent in the fight to divest from a hypermilitarized police force. It makes great political sense. Cops make good messengers and political allies, so the conventional wisdom goes. In politics, conventional wisdom means it works for white folks. After all, the entire Democratic campaign apparatus is built on targeting persuadable (read: sometimes vote for Republicans) suburban white women. Now, it’s not necessarily the job of campaigns to challenge that – their mandate is to win. But it should be the job of the organizations that stand up campaigns and will be around the day after an election. This last cycle’s voter-approved charter amendments to radically change the King County Sheriff’s office, as well as the election of the most diverse and progressive state legislature to date, are strong headwinds for where campaigns should be headed.

A couple years ago, while working with an organization focused on expanding access to major arts and science museums for low-income students, I learned it was my responsibility to find a Black arts teacher to feature in our ads. Despite every major arts and science institution being at the table, none had a close enough relationship with a Black arts teacher to make a call. The issue isn’t only that they didn’t know any Black arts teachers that would help market their policy; it’s that Black arts teachers weren’t the ones making the policy in the first place. If your policy-making process does not begin with communities of color, it’s not progressive nor is it anti-racist. Odds are it’s status quo, which is pretty racist. This isn’t a radical notion. Politicos of color have been saying this for years. Progressive institutions have been promising this for even longer. That this isn’t standard operating procedure for progressive nonprofits is exhibit A in how unwilling many are to cede control of their agenda.

This mutual dependence on racial injustice permeates everything about political nonprofit culture. Some of the most stunning racism I’ve ever faced has been in white-led progressive organizations and campaigns. Often the first or only person of color on staff, I’ve been asked to pick up donuts or conduct outreach to communities of color despite being hired for my political and corporate communications experience. I’ve been on staff where executive directors casually ask if anyone’s ever been arrested as a “fun” check-in question. In interviews, I’ve been asked how I’d reconcile my more “radical” positions with the organization’s “more practical approach.”

If you’re a politico of color, all this sounds eerily familiar. In a one-party town, relationships matter. Power is outsized, and if you don’t have it, you stay quiet because future employment or the passage of priority legislation will depend on how those with power feel about you. It’s no surprise uprisings past and current are led by communities of color, making tables of their own because politely asking for a seat isn’t getting us where we need to be fast enough.

Seattle’s political scene is in desperate need of a culture shift. As a nation and as a city, we’re in a moment of reckoning — one that requires every individual and organization to examine not if but what role they have played in upholding white supremacy and structural racism. In so doing, one has to name their failures and do it out loud. This is the first and crucial step towards accountability. This is leadership. Culture change requires us to move beyond performative allyship, to cede power in the hopes of real, sustained racial justice, to build the world so often described in grant applications and the “about us” section of organizational websites.

One of the many things that Seattle’s history of organizing and occupation can teach us is a politics of redemption. The institutions that remain and the services they provide are a testament to the power of elected officials following through when they said, “We were wrong for that one. You were right. Please lead the way.” Yet, our city and county’s elected officials — buoyed by the ecosystem of political nonprofits — have become so accustomed to zero-sum politics, we’ve forgotten how to say, I’m sorry. Even as white-led institutions continue to be consumed by the game of power, people keep marching in the streets. No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace. It’s time to try something else. Asking for and doing the work that merits grace and forgiveness are as good a place to start as any.

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