This summer’s justified protests have mutated in a disturbing way with activists marching on the homes of elected city officials. This bullying maneuver seeks their submission on the question of cutting the Seattle Police Department budget in half.
Bright lights, bullhorns late in the evening, profanity scrawled on windows and in front of the homes is intimidation not just of the council members but of their families. It is bad for democracy. Especially disappointing is the condoning — in at least one case, supporting — role some council members play in these often menacing and profane incursions.
The first affront was when Councilmember Kshama Sawant betrayed Mayor Jenny Durkan’s safety by joining, rather than deterring, a June march to the mayor’s home. The mayor’s address is protected because she is a former U.S. attorney, as Sawant knew. And this in a city where assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Wales was murdered in his home, no less.
The next was the targeting of two council members who have urged colleagues to be cautious in the rush to cut police funding in half. Seven other members, a veto-proof majority, already had signaled their support. Yet, even the slightest dissent has provoked an intimidating response.
Every elected official in Seattle ought to denounce this undemocratic effort to silence elected officials and the constituents they represent.
People have marched across Seattle and much of America this summer for noble causes, including horrid instances of police violence and President Donald Trump’s deployment of federal agents against protesters. Constitutionally protected peaceful protest has been a powerful righteous force across the nation’s history.
But scrawling expletives on a city council member’s door is not marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Bringing dozens, some with bullhorns, to a residential yard after dark is not the March on Washington. It is a pure power move, a crowd targeting an individual. It demonstrates that a home is not the sanctuary that any resident — alone or with family, renter or owner, comfortable or underprivileged — deserves.
The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that right:
“A special benefit of the privacy all citizens enjoy within their own walls, which the state may legislate to protect, is an ability to avoid intrusions. Thus, we have repeatedly held that individuals are not required to welcome unwanted speech into their own homes and that the government may protect this freedom,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for a 6-3 majority in Frisby v Schultz in 1988. Conservative Antonin Scalia and liberal Harry Blackmun were among that ideologically diverse majority.
Yet in Seattle decades later, nighttime marches to council members’ homes have been a staple of protests for weeks. The two most centrist members of the strongly liberal council — members Debora Juarez and Alex Pedersen — found hostile messages stuck to their windows, written on their walls and spray-painted on the outside streets: “F*** you,” “Get out,” “Don’t be racist trash” and “corporate bootlicker,” among other vile vituperations. The two are being pressed to make the “defund police” vote unanimous.
An intolerance for dissenting voices is downright Trumpian. In every functioning democracy, the minority has a right to speak and vote freely.
Sadly, only some council members publicly oppose this state of affairs. Moments after council President M. Lorena González labeled the hostility unacceptable Monday, Sawant defended the trip she and hundreds of protesters paid to the mayor’s home.
“I don’t believe that was a wrong action,” Sawant said. “That action was absolutely on the right side of history.”
It is deeply unsettling to witness a public official proclaim that the end justifies the means, but there it is.
Tribal leaders have been unafraid to denounce these intimidations for chilling public debate. So have state Reps. Javier Valdez and Gerry Pollet, Democrats who represent the 46th district where Juarez and Pedersen live. “Political discourse is replaced by deliberate use of psychological fear” by the home protests, they wrote in a joint letter.
The council must show as a body that it believes the same.
The paths to civil engagement are plentiful: Vote. Run for office. Speak at a city council meeting. Write a letter to the editor. Protest in public spaces. Shout dissent in the streets. Join a peaceful rally.
And respect disagreeing voices. Democracy depends on tolerance.