Kshama Sawant stands at a podium inside All Pilgrims Christian Church in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, surrounded by brightly colored posters with messages that range from Stop the Violence to No Homophobes No Transphobes No Assholes No Excuses. She is speaking to a standing-room-only crowd, calling for the neighborhood to take “collective responsibility” for fixing its problems. “As an immigrant, as a woman, and as a person of color,” she tells them, “I know from firsthand experience what it means to even have verbal slurs directed at you. It never leaves you.”
Sawant has called the meeting alongside the Gender Justice League to discuss a spike in violence, particularly against transgender women, in the rapidly gentrifying, historically gay neighborhood. She is asking the audience to suggest “neighborhood-based solutions” that she can advocate for. She’s the Seattle City Council’s newest member, elected in November 2013, and the Council’s only socialist—in fact, the only declared socialist in the legislature of a major US city.
The crowd includes young gay, lesbian, and transgender people who live on the street, middle-aged career activists, and even Seattle’s mayor, Ed Murray, who briefly takes the podium to talk of his own activist history in that very church and neighborhood. Mostly, though, the elected officials listen as a group of activists speak. It quickly becomes clear that this event will not call for increased policing and stronger hate-crime laws; instead, speakers point out that hate violence often comes from the police. More than one speaker references the Black Lives Matter movement. Jackie Sandberg of Peace for the Streets by Kids From the Streets brings the crowd to its feet with a passionate call for an LGBTQ youth shelter. And speaker after speaker talks about the changes in the formerly queer-friendly Capitol Hill as it has become a trendy neighborhood for Seattle transplants. A few call for rent control.
When Sawant rises to conclude the event, it is this call for rent control that she focuses on, along with Sandberg’s demand for a youth shelter. Sawant, who rode a wave of energy around the $15-an-hour minimum wage into office, is aware that fighting for her LGBTQ constituents goes beyond celebrating marriage equality. It includes, she says, tackling the problem of housing. “We hear it from people in the community, ‘We need to fight for LGBTQ rights, but, hey, listen, I’m a queer person and the housing unaffordability is hitting me hard—and who’s going to fight for me?’” she says a few days after the meeting.
David Goldstein, a former staff writer at The Stranger newspaper who is now helping Sawant write her memoir, points out that most politicians treat their queer constituents as “a one-issue group,” but Sawant realized early in her campaign that her demand for rent control and higher wages resonated with a community that still faces housing and job discrimination. It has been part of her appeal to the working people of Seattle: that she understands their struggles to pay the rent and bills, that she realizes that the oppression faced by immigrants like her or transgender homeless youth intersects with the issues faced by a growing number of people in today’s economy, and that she is unwilling to subscribe to the conventional wisdom about what is politically possible. It is what made a liberal West Coast city already dominated by progressive Democrats vote to elect a socialist from an organization that calls for putting the top 500 corporations under public ownership. And it has helped to keep her popular despite complaints from business owners, mainstream media, and occasionally her own City Council colleagues that she is too divisive.