by Nura Ahmed
It was election day, Nov. 2, 2019. Hope and anticipation filled the air and Seattle’s communities of color were restless and agitated, facing an unknown future. It was pouring down rain as final results rolled in. Shaun Scott was running on a democratic-socialist platform, alongside many other progressive candidates looking to make a change in our city, county, and state.
I started organizing for progressive candidates that same year. I believed in our electoral system, that politics was the means for achieving liberation. But what I learned instead was that our electoral system has a lot more to do with money than liberation. It was heartbreaking to see grounded-in-community progressives lose because it showed where our power structure’s real interest lies.
It was never in the community. It has always been in protecting corporate interests. It was disheartening and it made me realize that our electoral system was never created for us. The election in 2019 only showed us that City Council elections can be bought.
Then summer 2020 hit. Moments after George Floyd got murdered, thousands of people were in the streets. Abolition and socialism were trending in Seattle’s leftist community. More and more people began identifying themselves as abolitionists and socialists. The “Defund the Police” movement kicked off that summer. There was a massive community effort to hold our political leaders accountable and challenge how our City politics have worked for years. There was an effort to reallocate police/City funds into community hands and we gained some wins when, in 2020, the City Council approved cutting $2.5 million from the Seattle Police Department’s budget. That Summer of 2020, more and more people were seeing the impacts of harmful policies enacted by our local government. Protestors were being arrested, people were being killed, and force was being used against protestors — at the behest of Mayor Dukan and the Chief of Police. Kristen Harris Talley became Washington State’s first-ever abolitionist elected to public office. I had renewed hope that a better future was on the horizon — that accountable political leadership was possible.
However, the backlash came in the form of our most recent elections — a power struggle between the middle-higher income, white communities that live in the north end represented by candidates such as Sara Nelson and Ann Davison and the lower-middle-income, BIPOC communities that live in the Central District and the South End, represented by candidates like Nicole Thomas-Kennedy (aka “NTK”) and Nikkita Oliver. This backlash to a real progressive movement in Seattle is committed to protecting harmful power structures.
Seattle is named to be a progressive city, in some neighborhoods and among some populations. Seattle is also a city where former President Trump claimed that the city has been taken over by the “radical left” and claimed it to be an “anarchist city.” The Seattle Times has noted that the city is trending more and more progressive. However, our electoral system begs to differ. After a year of advocating for leadership that our cities deserved, Seattle has still voted for a beer lobbyist for City Council (Sara Nelson), a Trump Republican for city attorney (Ann Davison), and a corporate ally for its mayoral seat (Bruce Harrell). This is after a year of movement work organizing towards changing our political systems further and further left.
Despite the progressive cred, Seattle is also home to some of our country’s richest billionaires and richest corporations — Starbucks and Amazon being only the most obvious examples. Corporations have the city in a chokehold and most of the policies that the City Council and the mayor’s office have pushed are backed by corporate interests. When you live in a city that is beholden to the worst kind of capitalism, it creates a power imbalance that prioritizes serving the political elite over communities of color every time.
In good news, however, 40% of the city voted for abolition and socialism, which is much higher than in recent years. It means that 40% of the city wants progressive change. But unfortunately, people under the age of 30 only came out to vote by 5.5% which meant that about 95% of the election outcome was in the hands of people who understood the impacts of our power structures. People who probably have time to check their mails, who have time to go to PTA meetings, who have time to go to community meetings. This, however, is a matter of disenfranchisement because this system was never created for us. If a system centers people who have time to get involved in our political system, it will always center them. As a result, our political leadership reflects them.
Our current political leadership has always reinforced systemic problems that impact our most vulnerable populations. When you have a billionaire such as Jeff Bezos who could have solved Seattle’s homelessness problem a thousand times over, chooses not to, and then keeps influencing Seattle’s electoral system, we know exactly who our electoral system has always benefitted. It has benefitted the folks who never had to worry about being homeless, who never had to worry about losing their jobs and their healthcare, who never had to fall through the cracks. Both NTK and Nikkita built campaigns where mutual aid, community listening sessions, and campaign initiatives were used as tools to bring the community together. Supporters of NTK and Oliver took care of each other by spending their weekends building their mutual aid efforts such as creating mutual aid packages for our impacted communities, organizing community listening sessions, and more.
What Oliver and NTK were advocating for is an accountable political leadership that is rooted in the humanity of everyone. They are advocating for equality in our systems to make sure that not one person feels the backlash of the harmful policies enacted by our local leadership. They are advocating to make sure we all get a voice at the table and not just a chosen few. They are advocating to put the power back where it should have been all along: in the community’s hands.
All in all, it is the organizing done during summer 2020 that made way for the 40% of the city to vote for platforms like abolition, socialism, affordable housing, and related issues. It is the work many people did during 2020 that has made candidates like Oliver and NTK step up and demand accountable political leadership. The fact is, a new reality is possible. Having accountable political leadership is possible and the numbers don’t lie. Just because our electoral system has failed us doesn’t mean the movement will. The work for an abolitionist reality will continue. The work to invest in community-based solutions that is healing, transformative, and accountable will continue.
But that starts with us. Getting involved in the local neighborhood mutual aid efforts, joining an organization that does work in addressing the societal problems of your neighborhood, investing in local BIPOC-owned businesses are all ways to make change. We can’t depend on a system to serve us when it has failed us every single time. We can only depend on each other, and only through community can we truly achieve true liberation. True freedom comes from us — not from systems that were never created for us. We have the power to create systems that will work for us and by us. But only if we invest in the movement and not into a harmful system.
It starts with us. Every. Single. Time.
Nura Ahmed is an organizer, writer, and artist based in Seattle and South King County.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by GAS-photo/Shutterstock.com.
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