The moment when Marissa Johnson took the microphone away from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders may well mark the moment when change became possible in Seattle; it could be the singular event that exposed Seattle's dominant lefty progressive culture for what it is, a largely entitled, well housed, comfortable, and white group, intolerant of changes to the set program. Perhaps now that we’ve seen the hostility in plain sight, other voices will be listened to and needed reforms will be made to make Seattle a diverse city.
Johnson’s actions and the largely white crowd’s emotional—and some would argue racist (“Tase them!”)—response rent the veil that has enabled white progressives to maddeningly align themselves with social justice and equality, but who are deeply hostile to much-needed reform in the city’s approach to how we grow our population and economy in the years ahead.
I’ve seen this hostility before and experienced it up close. Thinking back to the efforts to get appropriate zoning for transit-oriented development in Roosevelt, I can remember a hot evening at Roosevelt High School four years ago where hundreds of mostly white and angry residents shouted, booed, yelled, and indulged in hyperbole about how “those renters” would ruin their neighborhood and how new housing would block the view of Roosevelt High School when neighbors walked their dogs.
The unforgettable moment in that meeting was when a young and very pregnant woman in the crowd stood up to express her support for the zoning changes; she was booed and heckled mercilessly throughout and called names not worth repeating here. It wasn’t long after that display that I stood up in the front row of the “meeting” and shouted to then council member Sally Clark to get the meeting under control. She never did and I walked out, telling her aide outside that it was an embarrassing lack of leadership by the chair of the land use committee.
In the primary election last week, Tony Provine, who had been part of the crowd booing and hooting at speakers for more housing in Roosevelt, was crushed running as a neighborhood activist, having failed to translate the rage in the theater seats at that high school into some kind of electoral mandate.
The two crowds, the ones calling on the young black women to be tased and the one hurling invective at the young pregnant woman, are, for purposes of demographics, the same. They voted for Obama, legalized pot, and marriage equality. They likely write checks to charitable and service organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and Planned Parenthood. They may even by kayaktivists. They are, in their own view, friends of the animals, poor, renters, and of course, black people and other minorities.
But what Johnson’s gutsy move did was to reveal that more than anything, white liberals in Seattle and the politicians who represent them really are possessed, in the worst sense, with what Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America as noblesse oblige, something just one click below “white guilt.” It’s a profound sense that “I am entitled to hear Bernie speak because I am a liberal and I support Black Lives Matter. Get off the stage and let the man speak!” The crowd could have just chanted, “We gave at the office!”
In the end, whether Seattle can make big changes to its liberal status quo—like the startling single family zoning amendments originally proposed by the mayor’s HALA committee to rebalance housing options in Seattle so that zoning rules jibe with growth and diversity rather than exclusion—depends on new voices barging onto the stage, and even being “obnoxious.”
Johnson’s gutsy moves remind me of Emmeline Pankhurst, an early leader in the women’s suffrage movement who stunned English liberals when she organized a window-smashing campaign after liberal men in parliament failed to follow through with support for legalizing the women's vote.
She said: "You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under, if you are really going to get your reform realized."
Named as one of Seattle Met's "15 People Who Should Really Run Seattle" back in January, Roger Valdez is an obnoxious developer lobbyist. The Seattle Times profiled him this weekend as a "sharp-tongued philosopher and provocateur for urban density."