At 5 p.m., on Sept. 23, at a protest planning meeting at NewHolly, a Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) mixed-income neighborhood, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant and her staff looked pretty disorganized. An SHA informational meeting about Stepping Forward, a proposed program that would significantly raise rents on thousands of SHA tenants, would soon begin, and Sawant’s team had forgotten markers to make signs. They had even forgotten tape to hang up the signs. The protest planning meeting was sparsely attended: five SHA tenants, five Socialist Alternative members, a representative of Radical Women, a union organizer, one unaffiliated guy, an interested passerby and Sawant. Fifteen people.
There were stacks of leaflets in five languages: Somali, Tigrinya (Eritrea), Amharic (Ethiopia), Spanish and English. Sawant’s staff had printed up hundreds of signs with one of three slogans: “Tax the Rich,” “Stepping Backwards” or “No Rent Increase.” There were also small “chant sheets” with suggested slogans to shout out during the meeting.
“We can’t count on city government,” Sawant told the 14 protesters. “Let’s work together and take our protest to the next level.”
Sawant asked for volunteers to be chant leaders inside the SHA meeting that would begin in an hour. They would raise signs over their heads, shake the signs and shout out the slogans.
“Now let’s practice,” said Sawant.
One SHA tenant, a young Somali -American woman, volunteered. She was tentative and giggled before she read off her chant sheet: “Rent hikes?” and everyone else answered “No!” She gained confidence and shouted, “When we fight,” and the others answered “We win!”
After an hour Sawant told the protesters, “It starts here today. Loud chants! We can go to the next level.”
Shy, until the struggle begins
Sawant, 42, has a husky voice, a warm, empathetic personal manner and fierce militant politics. She grew up in Mumbai, India, where she earned an engineering degree. In 1996, she immigrated to the United States, worked as a software engineer and earned her Ph.D. in economics at North Carolina State University. In 2006, she moved to Seattle and, two years later, joined Socialist Alternative, a political party inspired by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
After being involved in the Occupy Seattle movement in 2012, Sawant ran for state representative from the 43rd District (Capitol Hill, University District) but lost to State House Speaker and Democrat Frank Chopp. In 2013, she ran for Seattle City Council against 16-year City Councilmember Richard Conlin — and surprised media commentators and political experts by winning.
Sawant describs herself as basically shy. She said, “My nightmare scenario is if I go to a party and people ask me to mingle.” Yet she overcomes her hesitancy, she explained, when she’s in the midst of political struggle. “I feel solidarity with those who are marginalized and oppressed. It makes me able to build relationships even though I am an introvert.”
Fall protest fueled by summer action
Sawant’s decision to protest SHA’s Stepping Forward Program grew out of a decision made months ago.
In June, after her historic victory on the $15-an-hour minimum-wage law, Sawant was planning to launch her next issue campaign: affordable housing. Her platform would be rent control and a tax on the super wealthy “to fund a massive citywide publicly owned housing program that guarantees an affordable home for all.”
It was an ambitious, far reaching agenda that would require radical changes in city and state law: The Washington State Legislature would have to remove its ban on rent control, which would open the door for Seattle to enact its own rent-control legislation. As for the tax on wealthy people, it would likely necessitate an amendment to the state constitution, which requires approval by two-thirds of the legislature. Then a simple majority of state voters must ratify that decision.
While Sawant and her colleagues in Socialist Alternative had been planning a mid-September town hall on affordable housing, SHA proposed Stepping Forward in late June. The largest provider of low-income housing in the state, SHA serves 29,000 low-income Seattleites.
Under Stepping Forward, the rent for close to 4,600 households living in SHA’s public housing would start out low and increase significantly every couple of years. For example, under the draft proposal, a four-bedroom apartment would start out at $180 a month and, six years later, would reach $1,060 a month. Eventually the SHA tenants, some of the poorest people in Seattle, would be paying much more for their housing.
If approved by SHA’s seven-member board of commissioners after Jan. 1, 2015, the program would go into effect one year later.
SHA hopes that Stepping Forward will increase the agency’s income in the face of declining federal funding and encourage tenants to get job training and better paying employment. The housing authority planned to gather resident feedback on the program at a series of informational hearings held throughout the fall.
But when the housing authority announced the program in the summer, it unwittingly handed Sawant a new plank for her affordable housing platform: “No to the Seattle Housing Authority’s low-income rent increases.”
Recalling that moment, Sawant said, “We have to stand in solidarity with the community on a current threat. It was a coincidence that SHA announced their proposal [before my town hall], but it’s just showing how this city works. Policies like Stepping Forward have been put forward for decades. There is now a spirit of ‘fight back.’”
Bringing ‘fight back’ back to the people
As soon as the Sept. 23 practice chanting session ended, Sawant and Socialist Alternative activists staffed a table near the side door of the NewHolly Gathering Hall. Their table seemed out of the way. It turned out, however, that nearly everyone came through that entrance. As soon as they did, Sawant and her allies steered them over to her sign-up sheets, gave them a protest sign and handed them a chant sheet.
The camaraderie between Sawant and her constituents was palpable. There was lots of laughing and hugging. Happy greetings were exchanged. Somali-American women made up the majority of the meeting attendees and were vocally opposed to Stepping Forward. One older white guy walked around shouting, “Kshama Sawant for President in 2017!”
Once everyone was inside the hall, SHA Executive Director Andrew Lofton delivered a lengthy address that referred to concepts like “area median income.” The audience interrupted him five times by protesting and shaking a sea of signs in the air. The chanting drowned Lofton out.
After Lofton, Workforce Development Council’s Marlena Sessions took the stage to explain the proposed program’s job training aspect. SHA tenant Fadumo Isaq, a middle-aged Somali-American woman, wearing a black skull cap under an orange headscarf, flowing red robe and white sneakers, thundered out, “Where are the jobs?” The crowd took up the chant as one. Their fury filled the room.
The next day, Sawant said the protest was an example of ordinary working people discovering their own power. “Wasn’t that incredible? SHA lost complete control of the meeting. When people take charge, they win social change.”
Not everyone agreed that organizing successful protests will be enough to change the housing authority’s policy.
“[Sawant and her allies] may be underestimating how SHA can remain aloof from pressure,” said John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. Fox and his coalition have been battling SHA since the late 1970s and have won some victories over SHA, but he was cautious about defeating Stepping Forward. “Unless the city council and the mayor take stronger action, SHA is going ahead. I’d be surprised if even 400 people protesting will dissuade them.”
Sawant said Fox’s ideas were welcome, but she didn’t put much faith in her fellow politicians. “Will the mayor and the city council choose to publically stand against Stepping Forward? That is not going to happen. The real voice of the movement does not lie inside city hall but outside it.”
This article won Second Place in the Personality Features category at the 2014 Washington Press Association Awards