Kshama Sawant on why Seattle needs an independent investigation into the Charleena Lyles shooting

Kshama Sawant on why Seattle needs an independent investigation into the Charleena Lyles shooting
Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant speaks at a celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day.
Source: Elaine Thompson/AP
Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant speaks at a celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day.
Source: Elaine Thompson/AP

There's never been a better time to familiarize yourself with Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, a socialist pushing some of the most progressive policies championed by the American left.

In June 2014, thanks in large part to Sawant's organizing, Seattle made history by becoming the first U.S. to begin the process of raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour. That proposal, which was passed unanimously by the city council, sparked a nationwide movement to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Now, even mainstream Democratic leadership has embraced the so-called "Fight for $15" — a fight that, at least from a legislative perspective, began with Sawant.

On June 20, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to pass Sawant's bill requiring landlords to provide tenants with voter registration forms upon move-in, a move Sawant said would fight voter disenfranchisement.

Later that same week, in the wake of public outcry over two Seattle police officers fatally shooting Charleena Lyles, a pregnant black mother of four, Sawant drafted a petition calling on the city council to appoint an independent community-led committee to investigate possible police wrongdoing.

"We, the undersigned, have no confidence that an internal police investigation will find justice for Charleena," reads Sawant's petition, which she said garnered about 1,200 signatures as of Monday night.

In a Monday night interview covering a wide range of topics, Mic spoke to Sawant about why she believes the city needs her proposal.

Sawant also talked to Mic about her recent legislation requiring landlords to give tenants voter registration forms, why Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to Donald Trump and why she dismisses the study that found Seattle's $15 minimum-wage hike may actually be hurting the city's low-wage workers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mic: You have a petition out urging the city of Seattle to appoint an independent community-based committee to investigate the fatal police shooting of Charleena Lyles. Tell us a little more about the goal of that committee.

Kshama Sawant: As you know, Charleena Lyles' killing at the hands of Seattle police is unfortunately not an isolated occurrence. It’s happening nationwide, this systematic problem of police killings happening with impunity.

Two days before Charleena was killed, the officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted.

I think it's very clear — not just to me and to the black and brown community — but to working people in Seattle and in other cities that the process of police investigating themselves for wrongdoing just isn't working.

That's why we are demanding the mayor and city council appoint an independent community-based investigative committee to look into the Lyles shooting. The committee should have access to witnesses, evidence and everything that is necessary to conduct its investigation.

This is the first step toward democratically elected community oversight bodies that will have full power over the police departments.

Who are the right people to serve on that committee?

KS: We've had a community police commission, which has made quite a remarkable shift in demanding accountability. They are people who have experience as public defenders, and who genuinely and passionately care about racial and social justice.

For starters, we could have some of the members from the community police commission be included in the committee, but I have no doubts that we can go well beyond that. The city council should begin serious deliberations to start appointing individual members. The appointment process itself should be public and transparent. I don't think it will be complicated to find community members who have a proven track record of fighting for black and brown people.

What's missing right now isn't a lack of clarity on who can be part of this committee; what's missing right now is the political will on the part of the city council to actually hold the police accountable. And really, this begs the question not only of police accountability, but of the accountability of elected officials themselves.

The city council is the highest legislative elected body of the city. If they don't hold the police accountable, then they are failing in their own accountability to the voters.

Last week, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed your proposal requiring landlords to provide tenants with voter registration forms when they move in. Why this focus on tenants?

KS: If you look at nationwide statistics, you'll see people who face greater housing instability are less likely to vote. There was a survey that showed that people who didn't move in the last five years were twice as likely to vote as people who had moved.

If you are moving within King County, the elections board does not require you to re-register to vote, but you do need to get your ballot in your new address. So reminding renters that they need to update their address is a very good idea.

Right now in Seattle, rents are skyrocketing and so are home prices. So, the situation being faced by working-class and middle-class people — which is the vast majority of working people in this city — is that buying a home or getting a mortgage is so completely beyond the realm of possibility. Even if you just want to rent, it's getting harder and harder and families are getting displaced every single day.

What else can Seattle — and other cities across America — do to help disenfranchised people vote?

KS: Paramount in the question of disenfranchisement is: Who are the candidates? What are the campaigns? Which are the parties fighting for working people?

When you look at last year's presidential election, a big part of why the outcome was the way it was was because people didn't feel like there was anything worth voting for — not because they didn't see a difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I think people were clear about the difference, and there is a fundamental difference between the two.

But in reality, as long as the Democratic Party remains tied to a pro-corporate agenda, they're going to find it very hard to mobilize working-class people. Look at the race in Georgia, where Jon Ossoff lost to Karen Handel, and this was despite the fact that Dems spent $25 million on his race — the most expensive [House] race in ... history.

And the reason Republicans have made such gains even despite the liability of Donald Trump, why they don't seem to be shaken, is because as long as you don't have politics representing the interests of working people, it will be hard for Democrats to mobilize voters.

As a contrast, I'd offer what happened in Britain recently. When Prime Minister Teresa May announced a snap election, the Tories made that decision because they were so sure they were going to win in a landslide. At that time, the Labour party was 26 percentage points behind the Tories. But after the Labour manifesto was leaked, and after people were able to see what Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership stood for — which is the needs of working people — it completely transformed. Labour's gain was an earth-shattering outcome.

This shows you that if we have politics worth voting for, people will be motivated to vote. It is not simply urging people to vote that brings social change. You have to fight for a different kind of politics.

A recent University of Washington study found that Seattle's minimum-wage hike may actually be hurting the city's low-wage workers. Did you have a chance to look at that?

KS: Yes, I did look at that study and I also looked at the study from the University of California-Berkeley that reached a different conclusion, where they found that the minimum-wage law has resulted in increased pay for the city's lowest-paid workers — but it has done so without any negative impact on employment.

Speaking as an economist, the University of Washington study has several flaws in its methodology. It excluded multisite businesses, like chain restaurants and chain stores. That's a glaring omission because that industry accounts for 48% of workers who are paid less than $13 an hour.

In other words, that industry accounts for 48% of the minimum-wage hike's target workforce — so I don't see how you can deem the results of that study reliable based on such a flawed methodology.

What's next on your agenda? What are your big priorities?

KS: Socialist Alternative is launching a campaign called Affordable Seattle, and we are demanding of every private housing building in Seattle that 25% of all units built should be made affordable to renters and cost no more than 30% of the income of its residents. That's a step toward winning citywide rent control, which is so urgently necessary at this point.

My primary task in Seattle as a member of [the] city council is to fight to build movements, to use my position to push for policies that raise the standard of living. But I think this is part of the larger picture of what's happening in the nation and the strife taking place inside the Democratic party, which tells you that the establishment of the Democratic party is out of touch with the consciousness of the base of the party, the millions of working people who support the Democratic party.

Of these millions of people, hundreds of thousands of them are starting to question: What is the way forward? Donald Trump ended up winning the election. This is not working out the way we were told.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Anthony Smith

Anthony Smith is Senior Staff Writer for Mic covering... whatever this world is becoming. He was previously Director of Social Media and Analytics and Digital Strategist for Newsweek and the International Business Times. He attended Wesleyan University and lives in Brooklyn.

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