There’s something good happening in Seattle. It’s a place with a radical history (general strike 1919, strong waterfront unions, anti-World Trade Organisation protests 1999). Now it’s in the vanguard of an emergent radicalism that’s challenging – and weakening – the neoliberal, corporate grip on US politics. Last night I went to a rally of about 700 people determined to re-elect the city’s Socialist councillor, Kshama Sawant
It was an impressive event. Speakers from a wide-range of organisations including unions, civil rights, environmentalist and LGBTQ groups all spoke eloquently and with passion about the need to re-elect a local politician who championed the successful campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage and actively opposes racism, sexism, police violence, homophobia and the perpetual criminalisation of young black Americans. At the core of the campaign is the call for more affordable housing in a city above which 80 cranes currently signify a tidal wave of luxury private apartments.
As one of the speakers said ‘What happens in Seattle doesn’t stay in Seattle’. The demand for $15 has already spread down the coast to California and could be taken up by Presidential candidates. The Democratic/Republican establishment and its corporate sponsors are getting worried. Serious money is being pledged by big business to defeat Sawant and the movement she represents.
There was an internationalist dimension too, with loud applause and whooping for speakers from Syreza and anti-austerity campaigns in Ireland. I couldn’t help being struck by the complete absence of any reference to similar progressive forces in the UK. The mood of unity, determination and optimism here felt more like a million than 6,000 miles from the left I’ll go home to in a few weeks.
I get uncomfortable with personality-driven politics (although Ms Savant came across as very humble and modest), but last night was a reminder that the left needs standard bearers. Almost all of the speakers referred not for the need to win ‘her’ council seat, but ‘ours’. Politicians with the courage to stand up and speak out can have a power beyond their numbers and although what’s going on in Seattle needs to be kept in perspective, it shouldn’t be dismissed as ‘just one councillor’. I’m seeing a similar rising tide of discontent with the status quo from one side of America to the other.
With all this in mind (and without making too many direct comparisons) it’s really important both that Kshama Sawant is re-elected in the autumn and that Rabina Khan is elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets on Thursday.