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:
“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.