Should City Council members encourage law breaking?

This afternoon in the Energy and Environment Committee meeting, the climate-action group 350 Seattle presented their plans for their Break Free PNW “mass action event” involving civil disobedience in Anacortes, May 13-15. Committee chair Kshama Sawant, who invited them to present, closed the session by saying “We will try to promote the protest action as much as possible.”  And that presents a problem, because the participants in Break Free PNW fully intend to break the law.

Council member Kshama Sawant
Council member Kshama Sawant

I should say up-front that this is not a critique of 350 Seattle. In fact, there is much to admire about the group.  They are very clear about their goals, and they have been vocal and unabashed in calling out the fossil fuel industry for their lies, malevolence, and damage to the environment. They have also (with help from Council member Sawant) pointed out that the oil industry’s hollow claims that they support jobs and the economy, given the industry’s awful safety record (including locally). And they organize protests and acts of civil disobedience to raise attention to the evils of fossil fuels and the industry that profits from them.

We can also admire their approach to organizing people for acts of civil disobedience. They are very clear up-front that participation in some of their activities risks arrest and prosecution, while participation in others don’t. They respect people who are not in a situation where they can risk arrest, for whatever their personal reason may be, and they happily recruit those people for support activities and other work that do not carry that risk. 350 Seattle is fully committed to nonviolent protest, and that commitment to nonviolence extends towards property as well as people. They even run training sessions to teach their participants techniques for nonviolent civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience is by its nature controversial, and has been debated widely for centuries (if not millennia). At its heart is this question: is there a moral imperative that compels an individual to violate an unjust law for a greater good?   This is a tricky space to maneuver, because there is no clear threshold; on one end of the spectrum is a principle that “all laws must be obeyed at all times” which is clearly false, and at the other end is the equally false notion that “all laws are optional.” Somewhere in the middle (and hopefully well towards the “all laws must be obeyed” end) is a line of demarcation that moral judgments cause us to cross. Of course there are other factors at play here too, such as whether the laws were adopted through a free and democratic process, or by officials elected through a free and democratic process; we all have laws we disagree with, but we give greater deference to those that a majority of our fellow citizens freely voted for.

Some of 350 Seattle’s members have been pushed over the line, and they are taking action in response. Even if we intellectually disagree with them on the fossil fuel industry, we can respect their thoughtful and informed response to a moral quandary.

But what happens when city government gets involved in support of a group like 350 Seattle? Kshama Sawant is one of Seattle’s nine legislators; her job is to write and pass laws. Is it acceptable for a lawmaker, acting in her official capacity, to advocate for people to break the law? In doing so, did Sawant violate her oath of office, in which she vowed to support the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Washington, and the charters and ordinances of the City of Seattle?

Further, is it acceptable for city resources to be used to advocate for lawbreaking? Sawant is of course a private citizen as well and has the right to privately support whatever organizations she wants to, but this happened in Council chambers in an official Council committee meeting that she chaired and in which she invited 350 Seattle — knowing full well that they are organizing people to break the law. And she wasn’t neutral to them; she committed to promoting their protest action “as much as we can.” (I wonder who the “we” is in that statement)

Is it better or worse that she is promoting lawbreaking that will happen outside the City of Seattle? Probably a bit of both; it means she isn’t conspiring to break Seattle’s laws, but it speaks very poorly of her respect for neighboring cities and their respective governments. We wouldn’t be happy if Anacortes encouraged lawlessness in Seattle.

I chose the word “conspiring” above carefully; it’s loaded with legal weight, but properly so here. 350 Seattle is organizing an agreement among people to break the law.  By providing publicity and support for them, Sawant herself is dangerously close to being a co-conspirator; and by doing so in her official capacity, implicating the City of Seattle in the act as well.

As an aside, this is not the first time Sawant has given 350 Seattle a forum in her committee; she did so back in February with regard to their “Delta 5” protest. At that meeting, Council member and noted kayaktivist Mike O’Brien commented on his own personal struggle with his dual role as lawmaker and activist.

Civil disobedience is not something new for Sawant; she has been arrested before, and I am sure it will happen again. I respect her for having the courage of her convictions. But this is the first time where her involvement in lawbreaking is unambiguously as a City Council member. That is deeply troubling.