Political Pulpit: Seattle Activist Had 51 Days In Power

by Dae Shik Kim Hawkins Jr

What happens when someone from the outside, a local grassroots activist, submits her application to become interim city councilmember and is pushed through the selection process by community grassroots efforts? Politicians from both sides have never been more distrusted by the movement in our country, but could this be different? Can Councilmember Kirsten Harris-Talley’s 51-day appointment be the model of how we need to fight moving forward?

I sat down with Harris-Talley, a Hillman City resident, to reflect on her time as an interim Seattle City Councilmember.


 

DSKHJ: 51 days later, are you more or less encouraged by the system?

KHT: It’s interesting. I’ve always been politically mindful of the ills in the system that we fight against. We have to be really intentional about how we fight because the system was built to function the way it functions. Inequities are not a symptom of something wrong with the system, but a symptom of the system working on all cylinders. I’m encouraged by democracy though. In its initial setup, it had a lot of promise. Folks showing up and telling exactly what they need and why they need it are the mechanisms of change. And, folks were doing that practically every day through the budget process. In that regard, I do trust the system. We’ve proven in the city that pulling those levers takes time, but those levers do get pulled. There are parts of the system that are unfortunately corrosive and hard to change. Those came up as well. I think the HOMES tax defeat felt a bit like that.

DSKHJ: At what moment did you know the HOMES tax wasn’t going to pass?

KHT: I had anticipated going in that it might not pass. I did another interview recently and the reporter told me that I seemed like an optimist. But I feel every activist is an optimist. You wouldn’t fight if you weren’t. [laughter]

DSKHJ: Yeah, you wouldn’t get up in the morning without hope.

KHT: And you wouldn’t fight against a system this large and against problems that many would say are insurmountable if you weren’t an optimist. But I think when Councilmember Lorena González started speaking I knew it was over. I was really hoping that she would align with her values there. That was the moment when I was realized this isn’t gonna happen.

DSKHJ: You sat on the dais and listened as activists named dozens of houseless people who have died just in the month of October. You’ve been that activist before, shouting at city council.  What’s going through your mind as you hear this?

KHT: That’s the hard thing. I mean the other place which I think I have optimism is that I do believe that we need to have our folks on the inside of that system. I don’t think that means then we don’t need the outside force pressing on the levers. But to me, there are separate entities that have to be running on all cylinders to create the change that we need. When I’m sitting on the dais, I have the same thoughts as when I’m sitting in the audience and my comrades are talking and chanting, and that’s like: yes. Speak truth to power. That’s what I’m thinking when I’m sitting up there.

DSKHJ: I think we take for granted that the people sitting on the dias are just human beings and that powerful public comments can change people’s views on certain issues.

KHT: Absolutely.

DSKHJ: For a lot of activists, the failed political system causes a heartbreak that is often too much for them to reconcile. What do you tell those people that have completely lost hope in the political process?

KHT: They’ve made some really logical decisions and it frustrates me when folks are like,  it’s apathy. It’s not apathy, it’s tyranny. Tyranny is what’s killing our democracy. The only logical conclusion for this generation is to not engage. It’s a logical conclusion for me to make too. My grandmother did not have the right and access to the vote for the majority of her life. This was my grandmother,  not my “great-great someone” or a relative I never met, my grandmother. The voting rights act did not come into play until 1964. What we’ve seen in that active, aggressive exploitation is a system that shoots down as many black voices as possible. That is the voting system in our country. So, yes. It’s a logical conclusion; you don’t want us to vote, so we’re not gonna vote. And even if we voted, the system would find another way to block our voices. But I do have an optimism that the system can still work for us and that actual things are changing. We hadn’t seen the civil rights stuff tip over until white folks were walking up to and getting on board, and that’s now what we’re seeing with Black Lives Matter as well. I was just at a middle school talking to youth and they were already learning about gerrymandering.  That gives me hope when someone is not old enough to vote yet but still is learning about things that need to stop happening in our broken system.

DSKHJ: While I believe Seattle should be proud to have a majority women of color city council, It’s pretty clear that each WOC’s method of governance is vastly different. But no matter where each of them land on the radical spectrum, it does seem like WOC in general are held to a higher standard than the white men on council in terms of progressive values. Am I crazy?

KHT: No, you’re not crazy.

DSKHJ: How do you explain that?

KHT: I’d say a few different things. We have a president who is completely inadequate for the position he’s in. The combination of his race, his gender, and his access to generational wealth was able to elevate him into some sort of esteem. I don’t think that’s the same particular dynamic I would refer to any of my colleagues on city council, but I’m just setting a tone for the context of what’s happening in this country and what history has left us in this moment. The other thing I would say is women of color have always been put in a position of having to be the consciousness of this country and you see it in the legacy of Maya Angelou, one of our most beloved women. She was able to eloquently and beautifully speaks truth to power. And in many ways, women of color are the Jiminy Cricket in the Pinocchio story. Pinocchio was the “do whatever you wanted to do” character. Literally lie, cheat, and steal, it didn’t matter. He does whatever he wants. But Jiminy is always like, dude! this isn’t gonna work out and I’m telling you right now at any given time Pinocchio could still just disappear and do whatever the hell he wanted. That’s society too and it’ll always take women of color, sitting on society’s shoulder, warning him of potential dangers.

DSKHJ: How valid are the fears around newly elected Mayor Jenny Durkan?

KHT: My biggest concern with her run was the 3/4 of a million corporate dollars given to her campaign throughout the election.

DSKHJ: I actually think it’s gonna hit a million.

KHT: I was disappointed to see so many in the city literally say we can buy elections for a mayor. In my mind, anyone who voted for Durkan does not see this as a problem.

DSKHJ: But people view her as a radical anti-Trump mayor.

KHT: We’ll see what radical means. A photo of Obama does not equal radical action. That’s my biggest concern. What does it look like to have corporate backing? She has said over and over again that they will not have influence over her governance. So we’ll see what that looks like.

DSKHJ: But there’s a fear that we elected Amazon to be our mayor.

KHT: Let me be clear. When I was talking through the HOMES tax, I talked to businesses. Many of my colleagues said they wanted business at the table. I’m like fine, I’m here, and I’ll talk to businesses. I spoke to George Bartell from Bartell Drugs who made an open letter about his concerns about the HOMES tax. I spoke to Shang for the Derschang Group who runs restaurants, nightclubs, and bars. I spoke to Darigold. I spoke to many of the Georgetown businesses. The fact is, the chamber is allowed to represent a whole spectrum of businesses but it seems to have a real focus on a really specific part of the spectrum one business in particular.

The chamber is not actually representing the most vulnerable businesses. They don’t talk to the business down the street that’s been run by an immigrant family for 20 years has recently had their rent doubled. Many businesses like that are trying to decide whether or not they can actually stay in business or even have a legacy for the next generation in their family. Those are the businesses we should worry about. We saw what it was to have a mono-mega business like Boeing. In Boeing’s heyday our city literally had signs that read “last one to leave Seattle turn off the lights.” People were trying to buy homes here and couldn’t get a bank to give them a home loan because they really thought we were going to the direction of destroy and industrialize. We’ve already been down this path.

DSKHJ: You’ll be back on the other side soon. Fighting with the people.

KHT: I’m excited. The underdog side is my favorite side.

DSKHJ: Rumors are you’re not gonna stay on that side forever. Possible future run for City Council District 2?

KHT: We’ll see. There’s not really another opportunity on the city level until 2019.  I don’t think any of us know what the landscape is gonna look like in 2019. I’ve heard rumors; it has not been confirmed as far as I know. I don’t think any announcements have been made but folks like Tammy Morales have run before.

DSKHJ: That’d be an interesting rivalry.

KHT: We’ll see if she runs again. I think a lot of us in the South End saw Nikkita as a beacon of light and what I know is folks move towards that light. We might have folks we don’t even know about right now who are thinking about running in 2019. I have been advocating with some fierce young leaders of color and non-conforming folks who would be amazing candidates to run. It’s hard to know now, two years is a long time in political terms. I think the other consideration is that when a candidate runs, their whole family runs. Jason and I have been together 17 years and the reason it works is because we are each other’s fiercest champion. 2019 might be a really exciting election year and I am never someone to close down opportunities. I’m not gonna be modest with my answer. I think I did a really good job in the 51 days I had at City Hall. I was a really respectful, engaged, competent councilmember that pushed forward a progressive agenda. If folks vote for me as their representative, I would be honored.

DSKHJ: Going back again to October 6th as you were getting sworn in, if you had the opportunity to choose a swearing-in song as your anthem to play over the speakers, what would it be?

KHT: [Laughter] This is the hardest question you’ve asked me this whole time. Is it Ain’t No Mountain High Enough? That’s a good one. There’s no mountain high enough to keep from climbing, there’s no valley low enough to stop me from getting there; I like that.


DAE SHIK KIM HAWKINS JR. currently lives in Seattle WA and is a member of the Seattle Peoples Party. He is involved with many advocacy coalitions and grassroots community organizing groups. Dae Shik is a freelance writer that covers topics around religion, race, justice, and politics. Some publications that have published his work include Sojourners, Inheritance Magazine, The Establishment, and The Nation. Dae’s column, The Political Pulpit, can be read on the South Seattle Emerald every other Sunday. Follow him on Twitter @daedaejr

Featured image courtesy of Seattle City Council

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy or position of the South Seattle Emerald.

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