Sawant crosses the line

Council member Kshama Sawant, her staff, her Socialist Alternative party, and their partner organizations have done some incredible work over the past several weeks in organizing rallies and protests to give voice to opposition to President Trump’s most abhorrent executive orders and policies. But last week she turned the rhetoric knob to 11, and in so doing argued for some actions that are not just ill-conceived but illegal, dangerous to public safety, and a threat to one of the most important foundations of our democracy. And that places her in clear and direct violation of her duties and responsibilities as a City Council member.

I’ve criticized Sawant before for using her Council committee meeting to throw support behind an organization, 350 Seattle, that arranges acts of civil disobedience. Peaceful or not, civil disobedience is still breaking the law. Many protests are legal; civil disobedience is not. Grassroots civil disobedience has an important role to play in our society, and I have a great deal of respect for 350 Seattle for advocating for environmental causes using civil disobedience as a tool when they feel it is appropriate. I also respect them so for being up-front about the risk of arrest and for understanding those who feel strongly about the cause but, for whatever reason, can’t take that risk. But there is an inherent conflict when a lawmaker is the one advocating for civil disobedience. What does it mean when one of the nine people in Seattle with the authority to write laws is encouraging people not to obey the city’s laws?

Last month, after the protest of Trump’s Muslim ban at Sea-Tac Airport, at which Seattle Police Department officers gave assistance but officers from other jurisdictions used questionable methods (such as pepper spray) on the protesters, Sawant demanded that the City of Seattle prohibit its police officers from being deployed to anti-Trump protests.

Last Friday, she took it to the next level by making three controversial statements. First, she said that the anti-Trump movement needed to organize “mass nonviolent civil disobedience” that she further described as “militant, combative, peaceful actions” (a phrase that I will admit to have some difficulty parsing).  Second, she reiterated her demand that SPD officers not be deployed to anti-Trump protests. Third, she added a new demand: that SPD be ordered to block federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from taking undocumented immigrants into custody within the city limits.

Here’s the video (jump to the 1:00 mark).

“As you know, the only way we won against Trump’s egregious Muslim ban was because we shut down the airports, we carried out mass, nonviolent civil disobedience. That is the kind of militant, combative, peaceful actions we need to fight against ICE raids as well. And I’m urging Mayor Murray, if this is a sanctuary city, do not use Seattle police against peaceful protesters. Furthermore, deploy Seattle police to block ICE from seizing immigrants.”

Lest you think that she misspoke, again at 2:45 she says:

“If we are to fight against Trump and win against his right-wing agenda and against his bigotry, against his billionaire backed agenda, we have to build nonviolent but combative and militant movements to fight against him.”

And at 5:10:

“The time is not just for platitudes, the time is for action. So I would really urge Mayor Murray: do not deploy Seattle police against peaceful anti-Trump protesters. Instead use Seattle police to block ICE from seizing our community members.”

This mirrors the comments that Sawant made at the January 30th Council Briefing (video here) after the Sea-Tac Airport protest:

At 1:06:20:

“I was at the lead of it, the Socialist Alternative, my organization, was at the lead of it.”


“It was clear that, I mean, the discipline with which we operated it, it shows that we can have large, nonviolent civil disobedience actions, which we need to, we need to shut down business as usual, otherwise we’re not going to be able to fight Trump and the billionaire class… “


“If Seattle is a sanctuary city, our mayor has no business allowing our police force to be deployed to an anti-Trump protest. What does it mean to be a sanctuary city? We can’t just be a sanctuary city on paper; we have to actually enact it… We have to join together in absolutely insisting that none of our forces should be used to repress anti-Trump protests again.”

Further, Sawant has announced that she is working with the National Lawyers Guild to draft legislation that enacts her desired prohibition. Perhaps it hasn’t dawned on her yet that because of the inherent conflict of interest in regulating police enforcement of her own anti-Trump acts of civil disobedience, she would be required to recuse herself from voting on her own bill.

Individually, each of these things is awful. But taken together, it’s far worse.  Here’s what it boils down to:

  • She is advocating for and personally organizing mass civil disobedience that is, in her own words, “militant,” “combative,” and “nonviolent.” And illegal.
  • She is using the authority of her office to try to prevent the Seattle Police Department from being deployed to the law-breaking events that she is personally organizing.
  • She is using the authority of her office to advocate for a local police force to be deployed to prevent a national law-enforcement organization (ICE) from enforcing national immigration laws — laws which the Seattle Police Department are not authorized to enforce and by a recently-passed city ordinance are barred from entering an agreement to gain authorization to enforce.

The first one is illegal. The second is both illegal and wholly unethical — dare I say corrupt. The third is an attempted insurrection: using the local police force to overthrow the constitutionally-granted powers of the federal government.

Further, what Sawant is arguing for undermines the most important principle of our nation’s government: the rule of law. She contends that SPD should be deployed based upon political views, not upon blind, nonpartisan application of the rule of law.  If you think Sawant isn’t aware of this, jump to 1:24:53 in the Council Briefing video:

“I just wanted to state that when the police are deployed against a peaceful protest, that’s a political agenda. So it’s always a political agenda, it’s just a question of which political agenda you want to support as an elected official. So if you choose to not deploy a police force against a peaceful anti-Trump protest, yes, that is a political act. But it’s also a political act when you deploy the police force to go and repress an anti-Trump protest. Either way, you just have to pick a side and you know which side is being picked so far.”

Now in reading and listening to all of Sawant’s statements, it’s important to point out that she is twice deliberately blurring the lines between distinct concepts. The first instance is between “peaceful” and “legal.” A sit-in at the airport that blocks exits and shuts down some part of the airport’s regular operations can be perfectly peaceful and nonviolent, but it is still illegal — just like white-collar crime is usually peaceful and nonviolent, but illegal. Just because it’s peaceful and nonviolent doesn’t mean we should necessarily look the other way.

The second instance of intentional blurring is between “deploying police to a protest” and “police repressing a protest” — or alternatively “deploying police against a protest.” Sawant may believe that the mere presence of police at a protest is an act of repression, but the police do, in fact, need to be present at mass actions which Sawant herself admits are large-scale, sometimes illegal, “militant” and “combative.” There are important limits on the use of police force — which have certainly been exceeded at times, a problem that is partly driving the city’s current police reform efforts — but if the mere presence of police officers constitutes repression, then police officers can never be deployed anywhere. In either case, she has stated on the record (and on video) that she wants to prohibit SPD from being deployed at all to anti-Trump protests, so regardless of how often she switches up her vocabulary, her goal is clear.

A side note: by undermining the rule of law, Sawant is playing directly into Trump’s hand. She is giving him the perfect excuse to send federal law enforcement in to Seattle, as he has already threatened to do in Chicago. Seattle is already one of the most verbally defiant cities in the United States when it comes to Trump’s executive orders and policies; he would love to be able to declare an open insurrection in Seattle and “send in the feds.”

Here’s the bottom line: In doing these things, Sawant has violated her oath of office, in which she swore to support the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of the State of Washington, and the charter and laws of the City of Seattle. She has breached the ethical boundaries that we place on our elected officials, and she has argued for armed insurrection against the United States Government.

I fully support Sawant, as a private citizen, deciding to organize mass civil disobedience actions to demonstrate against Trump and his atrocious actions. I have respect for her passion, and for having the courage of her convictions. But she is not a private citizen; she is an elected official with powers and authority not held by ordinary citizens, and as such her actions are unacceptable.

The power of grassroots protest is considerable. But at the end of the day, what will truly save us from Trump is the rule of law; just ask State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Sawant is now undermining not just the rule of law but also the credibility of our local government and institutions. We cannot let that happen in the name of creating a stronger protest movement. Today most of us believe the protesters are on the side of virtue, but if we undermine the rule of law to give these protesters a boost, we will surely pay for it the day we disagree with the people who choose to stage acts of civil disobedience in our city.

KING5 reported yesterday that an online petition to recall Sawant is gaining momentum. This time, they have a strong argument (though online petitions are legally meaningless, and this one in particular is because it’s not even restricted to Seattle voters, let alone those in her district). The City Attorney might have one too.

UPDATE 2/22/17:  Sawant is doubling down.


  1. You had me until you referenced the KING-5 story about the online petition. You could do readers a service by helping them understand that online recall petitions are nothing more than a way for the masses to vent frustration. They have no legal impact or standing. Same goes for KING-5…why do they promote this petition story (which originally aired in November) when they should know it is legally toothless?

    A recall election in Washington must follow a specific process as laid out in RCW 29A.56.110 to .270. Online petitions are not mentioned there. And the challenge with trying to recall Sawant is that the only citizens who can vote in a recall election are those in the elected official’s jurisdiction, or in this case City Council District 3. It’s not as if the voters in District 3 didn’t know what kind of decision they were making when they re-elected Sawant in 2016. My impression is that those who zealously back her are fully supportive of the national spotlight she has garnered, and agree with her approach without inspection. It’s a long shot to think that anyone could gather enough District 3 signatures in a valid, court approved recall campaign.

    The more interesting part of your post here is that you make a good case for the fact that Sawant has indeed committed an offense that could justify impeachment. So Dan Satterberg’s (or Bob Ferguson’s) office would be a good place to start applying pressure.

    RCW 9.92.120 Conviction of public officer forfeits trust.
    The conviction of a public officer of any felony or malfeasance in office shall entail, in addition to such other penalty as may be imposed, the forfeiture of his or her office, and shall disqualify him or her from ever afterward holding any public office in this state.

  2. I have to chuckle at Sawant’s implication that she’s the one who stopped Trump. To the extent that Trump’s immigration ban was stopped at all, it was stopped not by Sawant but by Atty General Rob Ferguson and Justice Robart of the 9th Circuit.

    I’m also surprised, frankly, that Sawant doesn’t give more props to the President. For all her invective, it would seem they’re using the same playbook. Here’s how it goes:

    First, create a larger-than-life persona for yourself
    Next, gather a bunch of angry followers
    Assure your follower there’s a national or global crisis
    Offer yourself as the solution to that crisis

    1. We have to give the protesters credit: they got some people out of ICE detention at airports by bringing attention to what was happening and by getting elected officials involved. That was good and important work. But they aren’t the ones who got several courts to place an injunction on Trump’s executive order.

  3. I, too, admire her activism, but I am against her ‘request’ concerning the Seattle police and anti-Trump rallies…surely she must know that is against the law. Our police force are there to be apolitical, and serve the public…even those that are FOR Trump. There are people in Seattle and in Washington State as a whole that are in fact for Trump, she has to know that. I am for peaceful protest and in certain cases for civil disobedience, like the Pipeline protests. But to try to ask that our police officers try to prevent other enforcement officers (like ICE) from doing their job is just WRONG. Protests are one thing, breaking the law should never be an elected official’s ‘go to’ stance. Thanks for bringing this out in the light of day.

  4. I’m curious now what you think about the push to open “safe injection” sites — which would be contrary to federal law. The same could be said about the city recognizing marijuana retail stores as businesses and taxing them — when they are selling a product that is illegal under federal law.

    Whether or not it would be a wise move, it doesn’t seem particularly strange for Sawant point out that allowing SPD officers to be sent OUTSIDE of their jurisdiction for the express purpose of assisting other forces that may not share our values might not be the best thing.

    I also don’t see why it’s a terrible thing for her to point out that it’s really easy to proclaim a “sanctuary city” status at rallies and marches when it doesn’t mean a thing on paper but earns plenty of progressive political points. It’s much harder to consider whether we are actually willing to put City resources on the line in fighting for those values — and, yes, that could include deployment of SPD officers INSIDE the city.

    Don’t get me wrong… I don’t necessarily disagree with your criticisms of Sawant above. I’m simply questioning whether or not her comments seem as out of line as you suggest they are. I’m also reminding you that she doesn’t give up her civil rights just because she’s elected to office. And I’m wondering if you are equally willing to criticize useless political fluff statements made by far too many electeds around here — for example, this morning’s very political speech being placed in a mosque by the Mayor’s Office (which I happen to personally think is awesome).

    1. Those are good questions.

      On the marijuana businesses: the state negotiated an arrangement with the feds before it got rolled out. That might not have been wise without a commitment for future administrations (like Trump’s) to honor it, but nonetheless they didn’t just plunge ahead without making sure they weren’t instantly going to run afoul of federal law enforcement.

      On safe consumption sites: two points: first, whether they are in violation of federal law is in the details of how they are set up and operated and exactly what they choose to do and not do, to the best of my knowledge (I could be wrong about that — haven’t looked deeply at the federal laws on this). SEcond, and a larger point, I really hate the current controversy about safe consumption sites because it distracts from the main focus of the heroin/opioid task force’s recommendations: prevention and treatment. The task force made 12 recommendations; safe consumption sites is #12. No one is talking about the other 11, and people keep referring to #12 as if it (and it alone) is supposed to be our answer to the heroin crisis. We desperately need to provide funding for prevention and treatment programs. That said, there is solid research and evidence that shows that safe consumption sites are effective at preventing overdose deaths and don’t encourage drug use.

      I wrote a whole separate post on mutual aid agreements; it is definitely a complicated issue, and several council members are appropriately raising that as an issue worthy of further deliberation. But that’s broader than the issue with Sawant: she is arguing that SPD should not deploy to police anti-Trump protests within Seattle city limits, including ones that she herself is organizing and that involve mass civil disobedience.

    2. Mickeymse said: “It’s much harder to consider whether we are actually willing to put City resources on the line in fighting for those values — and, yes, that could include deployment of SPD officers INSIDE the city.”

      –If you’re talking about having SPD actively obstructing ICE agents, that’s a non-starter. It would be a profound act of rebellion against federal law and would be met with a much more vigorous response than the other things you describe (legalizing marijuana, creating drug-taking sites). First off, I expect that many SPD officers would simply ignore the Mayor’s decree and cooperate with ICE anyway, leaving the Mayor looking like a fool. But let’s set that aside for a moment and look at this from a rule-of-law perspective. If a Mayor were allowed to decide which laws he’ll obey and which he won’t based solely on ideology, then what implications does that have for other Mayors? What implications does it have for citizens? Am I free not to pay taxes for things I don’t approve of? (Answer: no.)

      Legal marijuana was a relatively low-stakes gamble and the State appears to be on the winning side on that one. Injection sites are a higher-stakes gamble, but they too are limited in scope and have a rational health-related basis, so the feds might eventually be won over. But systemic civil disobedience of the kind Sawant is advocating for is a whole other animal. That is an essentially revolutionary program. Does she really think that America is ready to get behind her on this? Does she think all those Trump-supporting red states will just roll over and go, “Gee, Kshama. Guess you were right and we were wrong? Do whatever you feel like in Seattle.”

      Strange as it sounds, I’m afraid that Sawant really DOES believe that. Which is why she really needs to go.

      1. Like I said, I don’t necessarily agree with her… I just think it may be a bit hyperbolic to talk about her “crossing some line.”

        As for the SPD cooperation with ICE, despite Sawant’s typical playing for the cameras, I don’t know that anyone is actually suggesting they get into some battle with federal agents. And no one is saying that everyone is free to just pick and choose what laws to follow. What I do think would be an interesting discussion is whether an overwhelming majority of Seattle’s residents think — as it seems most of our electeds do — that supporting detentions and deportations of otherwise law-abiding residents is just morally wrong. If so, how should we respond with use of City resources paid for by taxpayer dollars.

        Would it be reasonable not to participate in any mutual aid agreements should the feds come and create an immigration taskforce of some sort here — even if just a temporary one? Would it be reasonable to say that no police officer would be disciplined or fired if s/he was willing to stand at the door of a religious institution that asked for sanctuary status and was holding families within its building(s) and refused entry to federal agents?

        There are quite healthy debates to be had about whether or not standing against immoral laws is a just thing or not. Is it unreasonable to stand up against a law that one believes to be unconstitutional?

        These are, unfortunately, the sorts of questions we clearly are going to have to face under this Republican administration. Sawant is often over the top and overtly political in her statements and actions; and plenty of us dislike it when she acts that way. But does that make the core of what she is advocating a violation of her oath? And do you really think she is calling for armed insurrection? Or is she just asking us to determine where the truth of what she swore an oath to is?

  5. Why allow heroin in Seattle? It is so destructive on so many levels. Allowing safe places for this behavior does the city wrong.

    1. No one is “allowing heroin in Seattle.” It’s already here. And there is research that shows that some of the people who are addicted to it will be addicted to opioids for the rest of their life — they can’t “detox” from it. There is ample research and evidence that shows that safe consumption centers don’t encourage drug use, but do prevent overdose deaths. Tjey also reduce spread of diseases like HepC and HIV, and they give outreach workers a chance to work with addicts to intervene when the moment is right and get them into treatment programs.

  6. So let me ask this question about safe injection sites. IF a heroin user was to overdose and for at one of these sites. Wouldn’t the city of Seattle be liable. Could the family of the now deceased user sue the City of Seattle? I could and will happen.

    1. a) heroin users OD at the safe consumption site in Vancouver all the time, and they have medical personnel there. My understanding is that they have not had a single death from heroin overdose at the facility because they can respond so quickly and they have naloxone there, ready to go. b) I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know the legal liability for the city. Can family members sue? Sure. Would they win? I dunno, but I doubt it. The city isn’t giving them the heroin. I’m sure the city’s lawyers have studied that issue to death; you could send an email to the city attorney’s office and ask.

  7. I just read CM Sawants 2/21/17 article in Jacobin online.

    “Last week, the Seattle Education Association passed a resolution for the Washington Education Association, the National Education Association, and other AFL-CIO unions to call on their affiliates for a one-day nationwide strike on May 1.”

    I called the Seattle Education Association and asked if they passed a resolution to call for a nation wide strike on May 1st. The person I spoke with seemed skeptical and said it was news to him.

    I emailed them a link to the article.

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