Photo depicting Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales at an election night party at Taco City Taqueria's outdoor patio.

OPINION: Second-Guessing ‘Woke City’

by Glenn Nelson

On a recent morning in Woke City, I had to perform a double take while swallowing guffaws between lumps of oat bran. Yes, I can be quite the multitasker that way.

“People were sick of the status quo and they wanted change,” Sara Nelson said on election night.

I was confused. Nelson (absolutely no relation) ran against Nikkita Oliver, who was the biggest change agent on anyone’s ballot that day. 

Then — snap — I thought, were we the status quo she was talking about? And by we, I mean folks who want to reform the police, have compassion for the homeless, and take a jackhammer to income inequality. And by folks, I mean mainly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who are the most impacted by that Bermuda Triangle of social inequity.

I also mean those whose interests had been represented by a city council that outlets like The Seattle Establishment Times characterized as “reckless,” as if a bunch of duly elected officials had suddenly lost their minds for daring to start reimagining such insidious tools of capitalism as police departments that are the very definition of status-quo retention.

If you want to know what true status quo looks like, have a gander at the 2021 election results. This is where, like Nelson, Woke City got this progressive thing all twisted.

A place that fancies itself as progressive or liberal or left-leaning, or whatever other moniker that fits, abandoned the troika of issues that define the liberal agenda. It’s like Woke City, which is largely white but purports to like BIPOC people, drew the line for, say, anti-racism at dating their daughters. You know what I’m saying. And it desperately wanted that one Black friend to enable its continued virtue signaling.

I hate to say this about another Japanese American, a contemporary, and someone I like personally, but Bruce Harrell has just been enlisted as Woke City’s one Black friend. I hope people understand what I’m getting at here: In a mayoral contest between BIPOC finalists, the city had to pick one, and it chose the clear Establishment candidate.

I have no doubt that Harrell will advance BIPOC people and communities on many levels — just not the three that matter most. He absolutely is not defunding the police, a stance upon which he banked this election. He’s poised to sweep away homeless encampments that elitists believe sully their precious public spaces, and he’s certainly not going to bite the business hands that fed his rise to power.

Woke City just played what I like to call the Intersectionality Shell Game. Yes, it elected a Black and Asian American mayor, but it still elected an older male who’d attracted accusations of employing toxic masculine attitudes and tactics. In her bid to become the city’s first Latinx mayor, M. Lorena González badly misplayed that card, mixing positive messaging about honoring the word and experience of sex abuse survivors with an old, racist trope. Her greenlighting an ad that used an unrelated, white female rape survivor to sully her Black male adversary was a severe lapse in judgment that rightly helped cost her the election.

As González demonstrated so spectacularly, we on the left often struggle to stay out of our own way. We show up, to the ballot box or even into office, with laundry lists that are hopelessly too unwieldy. We believe in change and believe that so much change is essential that we want to change everything at once. This made us frustrated even with Barack Obama, who “only” delivered health-care reform and not wish-list items such as a post-racial society. We want people to change their attitudes and actions and keep their language straight at all times. This kind of liberal pile-on can be a form of self-cancellation.

The right keeps it simple in a way that we cannot: It focuses on retaining its wealth, which means it also retains its power. It therefore positions itself to accuse the left of being greedy because it wants too much. The irony is what actually is “too much.”

It feels like the big casualty in 2021 is going to be the opportunity to dismantle police culture. That, by the way, is what we’re really talking about. The progressive marketeer who dreamed up “defund the police” is fired. The same with “police reform.” We have a problem that cannot merely be reformed. Yet it seems like what we’re talking about — vanishing budget and personnel — is, as usual, too much, too soon. Such verbiage derails the conversation before it even begins.

The complete eradication of police culture may be too much, too soon, but it’s not too much, given time. I used to agree with so many others that climate change is our existential challenge, that not dealing with its impacts renders all other issues insignificant. But I’ve come around. How many millions of BIPOC people have died because of racism during the past three centuries? We need to live longer and prosper so society at large has all hands to cope with the impacts of climate change, which strike BIPOC communities first and disproportionately anyway.

In other words, let’s first save the people who can help save our planet.

Police violence isn’t the root cause of mass BIPOC extermination, but it certainly is strongly symbolic of the forces arrayed against us. The killing, especially, of young Black men is tantamount to open warfare on the streets. It continues to take place so blatantly, even with the whole world watching for it. This is cultural and systemic, and focusing on changing people is absurd, no matter how many implicit bias trainings or gunless officers that politicians like Bruce Harrell decree.

The culture of police violence is ingrained and persistent. Minneapolis has been among the most progressive U.S. cities in changing the way it polices, yet it still produced the murder of George Floyd, and it just voted down “defunding” for the second time. The Seattle Police Department had been under U.S. Department of Justice monitoring since 2012 and still killed Charleena Lyles, a pregnant Black mother of four, in 2017 and used tear gas, batons, and other forms of violence against its own citizens protesting the Floyd murder in 2020. A chilling study of traffic stops published by The New York Times last week reinforced the link of police killings to a culture of violence and overreaction, plus an association — not exclusive to white officers — of Black and Brown skin color to risk.

Quick-fix gambits have been self-sabotaging. Emptying coffers forces cuts of junior personnel in union shops, resulting in the loss of meticulously and recently recruited diversity. And the “defund” verbiage is just too simplistic and off-putting for even reasonably sophisticated masses. Furthermore, it prompts the mighty police unions to flex.

The long play would be laser-like focus on a critical first step such as income inequality, which looms as a formidable barrier to dismantling police culture because it blocks access to the power required to enact such fundamental change. Ten years ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement seemed like a good start to taking on income inequality. However, in typical leftist fashion, it splintered to incorporate corollary interests and has not made enough inroads.

Republicans can maintain discipline for decades. They work on retaining control of state legislatures so that every 10 years they can gerrymander legislative districts and keep themselves in power. After a while, the effort becomes self-sustaining, something we’d even consider systemic. The left must stop considering itself above such one-issue obsession.

All elections are pendulums. The trick is to keep a favorable swing going long enough to generate traction for meaningful change. The reaction to Donald J. Trump and the Jan. 6 capitol insurrection probably had the galvanizing effect that many hoped for during the giddy days of the summer of 2020. But it wasn’t for the durability of a societal commitment to racial justice and equity that so many had wrongly assumed. Rather, it was the tightening resolve of the status quo to remain the status quo, which never goes quickly or quietly.

Woke City’s status quo hides behind illusory liberalism and contradictory allyship, the kind wrapped up in our constantly flipping coliseum, which Amazon paid to call Climate Pledge Arena while it continued to bust unions and keep women, Black, and Latinx workers from its best-paying jobs. The joint’s main tenant is hailed as professional hockey’s most enlightened team but plays in a league that cannot adequately resolve its own sexual abuse issues.

This is the status quo that circled its wagons against González and Oliver in citywide races. It will come next month in a recall election for Kshama Sawant. We are under siege here.

If we were to plant a flag in South Seattle, to which BIPOC and other marginalized communities have been banished by the kind of gentrification-in-overdrive that racially rototilled Harrell’s old neighborhood, the Central District, our greatest natural resource would be bright, forward-thinking leadership from Women of Color. The ranks include the likes of Oliver, the venerable Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, City Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda, state legislators Kirsten Harris-Talley and Rebecca Saldaña, and creative influencer Ijeoma Oluo, plus neighborhood adjacents González and Sawant. The list doesn’t stop there.

Under their guidance, we must first make like the Bee Gees and keep, ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. That means holding Woke City government and the po-po accountable. That means ensuring the elites and big business pay their fair share while we stave off mental and physical annihilation, which includes being driven from shelter and historic neighborhoods, which, by the way, deserve equitable investment in infrastructure, businesses, housing, and a cessation in treatment as a dumping ground for every form of pollutant and manufacturing byproduct imaginable. 

We’re not the region’s ashtray. Let us all breathe easy — or easier, at least.

In the meantime, we can keep chipping away at the power dynamic with the hope of eventually breaking through to perform something as profound as dismantling police culture. Oliver just modeled a path to further campaign reform, with an old-school focus on truth telling, door-to-door canvassing, and keeping unmonitored political action committee money where it belongs, which, for starters, is out of local politics. The other stuff — the racism and dirty tricks and erasure by legacy media — we can neutralize with other old-school ideals: community and participation.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 11/09/2021 to rectify a typographical error.

Glenn Nelson, a contributing columnist, is a Japanese American journalist and lifetime South Seattle resident who founded The Trail Posse and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race. Follow him @TrailPosse on Twitter or @TheTrailPosse on Instagram.

📸 Featured Image: A Nov. 3, 2021, election night gathering at Taco City Taqueria in South Seattle. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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