Rock Musician Challenges Progressive Seattle’s Quiet Racism In Run For City Council

CREDIT: KELLY O
CREDIT: KELLY O

With its vibrant international cuisine, multitude of languages audible on the street, and legacy as home to both Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, it’s hard not to think of Seattle as one of the signature examples of the liberal dream version of society.

When the city ranked among America’s whitest on raw population figures in the most recent census, it was headline news. The city’s “progressive mystique” seemed at risk of unraveling. The reality of Seattle’s diversity is more complicated than raw Census figures indicate, of course. But the segregation revealed at the neighborhood level has potent effects on the city’s politics and development.

It’s primary season for the Seattle City Council, and an unlikely candidate for one of the two all-city seats on the 9-member body is aiming to make sure Seattle doesn’t lose track of its cultural legacy — or allow itself to think that outspoken support for diversity is the same thing as taking the policy steps that create it.

A few decades ago, you’d have gotten very long odds betting that John Roderick would run for a Seattle city council seat in 2015. Roderick is best known as the frontman for the band The Long Winters and co-host of the podcast Roderick on the Line. But this spring, after years dabbling as a columnist in local papers and a stint on a local arts commission, the musician and raconteur decided to run for a City Council seat.

Musicians channeling artistic conviction into political ambition isn’t new, and history suggests a very wide range of possible outcomes. Sonny Bono was a U.S. Congressman by the time he died. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys ran an intentionally absurd campaign for San Francisco mayor that was more performance-art mockery of the system than thoughtful bid to influence his city’s future.

Roderick, by contrast, is serious — and about topics that seem far afield from art. A life in rock-n-roll informs his candidacy and fuels his name recognition, but his first two campaign priorities are fighting the calicified and abusive culture of the Seattle Police Department and trying to convince liberal Seattlites of privilege that their self-serving attitudes about urban policy help to feed the social and racial injustices they decry at dinner parties.

“Seattle is a classic example of how a liberal well-meaning do-gooder culture can still be incredibly racist in practice,” Roderick said. “The status quo is among the most progressive and liberal of any city in America, and yet it’s still a struggle to get people here to understand the lived experience of people of color. They don’t have the exposure to it. You can teach in schools a progressive agenda but if people aren’t having the lived experience of it, it just becomes this sort of doctrine without heart.”

A white man who’s lived primarily in the city’s communities of color, Roderick has witnessed disparities in police behavior first-hand. “I have actually been homeless on the streets of Seattle. I have been addicted to drugs and alcohol on the streets of Seattle,” said Roderick, who has been clean and sober for 20 years despite continuing to be an active rock-and-roll scenester. “The cops would roll up on five of us sitting on a park bench,” he said, and “the cops would really focus on the black guys. Even at 22, it was obvious that I had a kind of privilege even as a homeless kid.”

A liberal well-meaning do-gooder culture can still be incredibly racist.

Almost a quarter-century later, Roderick is carrying that set of experiences with him into meetings with the various gatekeepers of Seattle’s political process. His simple, evidence-supported ideas about treating homelessness with compassion and service workers rather than handcuffs sometimes get blank stares in those rooms.

“In most cases, the people charged with solving these problems cannot empathize with the people who are suffering. They cannot put themselves in the shoes of people they perceive to be criminals,” he said. “I have circulated on that side of what people imagine to be a wall, spent many years on that side of the wall.”

Not all his meetings are with well-heeled businessmen. Many involve listening to the city’s minority communities, where the disconnect between Seattle’s gleaming liberal beacon image and the far messier reality becomes plain.

Roderick said he is well aware of the risks inherent in touting the concerns of Seattle’s minority communities. “People are fighting proxy battles on behalf of people of color that they don’t have any firsthand knowledge of. Then you see communities of color saying ‘What are you talking about? Why are you speaking for us?’” The key to balancing things, he said, is constantly monitoring his own open-mindedness — and remembering when to simply shut his mouth and listen.

What Roderick hears from Seattle’s African-American community doesn’t dovetail easily with the city’s public image as a northwestern oasis of progress and harmony. He recently met a young black woman whose parents rented a house in the Central District during the years when redlining by banks and segregationist activism by citizens prevented black folks from living almost anywhere else.

“Now she owns her parents’ home, and she said in the last week she’s been walking across the street in her own neighborhood, and she’s been stop-and-frisked by Seattle PD two times. Just walking across the street in the neighborhood she grew up in, because she was wearing a hoodie and she’s a black girl,” Roderick said.

“They don’t arrest her, there’s no charge, no civilian videotapes it on her phone. It’s just a solitary experience that this woman has and she has to carry that with her into her business day.”

Seattle’s police force has had its share of notoriety. But while the rest of America has awoken in the past year to a sharp and vital debate over armed public servants mistreating and killing brown-skinned members of the communities they ostensibly serve, Seattle’s most prominent police abuses have had a very different character. Violence during the World Trade Organization conference there in 1999 caught global news attention, and the police force’s brutal crackdown on protesters inspired a star-laden Hollywood vehicle years later.

High-profile mishandling of environmentalists and anarchists is rare. But Seattle’s black community suffers more pedestrian indignities at the hands of the police on a routine basis without drawing the same mass-media attention. A 2011 Department of Justice investigation “found that SPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force” and maintains policies that “could result in discriminatory policing.” The federal scrutiny brought a legal settlement known as a consent decree that is supposed to trigger significant overhaul in the force.

Yet city officials have implemented few of the 55 separate reforms recommended unanimously by a board of citizens and police that was formed in response to the DOJ’s findings, Roderick said, and the force’s internal culture has resisted real change. The suggestions ranged from simple things like retaining holding cell videos for 90 days instead of 60 to more complex ideas like a full overhaul of the disciplinary appeals process for officers.

“None of the recommendations were rejected. There were just no hearings on them at all,” Roderick said. “What happened is the mayor’s office sorta cherry-picked some things that were easy to implement, and through executive action just put them in play without enacting them into law.”

The Seattle Policeman’s Guild is very powerful and has blocked a lot of reform.

Mayor Ed Murray (D) has simultaneously acknowledged that the reform process is harder than he anticipated and defended his attempts to put the commission’s recommendations into effect. But the official auditor of the city’s reform effort wrote earlier this year that progress has been too slow, too patchwork, and too meek to address an internal culture that enables abusive impulses in junior officers and academy recruits.

Murray has promised to act on 40 of the 55 recommendations, though legislation to do so hasn’t yet come to the council. The other 15 require the city to negotiate with the police officers’ union.

“The Seattle Policeman’s Guild is very powerful and has blocked a lot of reform. And Seattle is also traditionally a very labor town, a pro-union town,” Roderick said, calling the police union’s obstinacy “the major issue” preventing reform. Trying to get tough-minded accountability measures and training overhauls through the guild’s negotiators sets up a conflict between Seattle’s labor-friendly political culture and the brutal reality that cop unions stymie reform and protect even the worst officers from discipline.

“For auto workers to organize to speak with a collective voice and advocate for better conditions for themselves is the soul of organizing,” he said. “But for police officers to have a guild which prohibits due process, which circles the wagons, which creates a situation where over the course of decades of police shootings, let alone other abuses, the number of officers that have ever been held accountable can be counted with a few fingers? You are building a culture of complete mistrust, and that culture is self-reinforcing.”

The racial makeup of Seattle’s police force resembles the city’s own demographics more closely than is often the case. But despite the department’s diversity, “there’s still that sort of jock-y, vicious culture there,” Roderick said. “Not one of those people would describe themselves as racist. But the culture of the department just recapitulates racism in its policies.”

That disconnect between individual self-conception and collective institutional action isn’t limited to the police. Progressive social ideals and anger toward segregation and neglect are de rigeur among Seattle’s young, white, liberal majority. But in pursuing their own immediate self-interests on housing, transportation, and vagrancy, those same voters erect and enforce borders — between black and white, rich and poor, sheltered and homeless — that subtly maintain an illiberal status quo.

Roderick has been in the Pacific Northwest long enough to be intimately familiar with Seattle’s quietly hypocritical urban politics. His parents moved from Seattle to Alaska when he was three, and he didn’t return permanently until he was 19. Save for stints backpacking around Europe and time out on the road as a touring musician, he’s lived there ever since. He dabbled with college, held a sequence of odd jobs, and eventually found his way into the band that would eventually become the Western State Hurricanes. That band apexed as the opening act for a Death Cab for Cutie tour in 1999, then broke up. A couple years later, with Death Cab’s Chris Walla and Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson, Roderick recorded the first The Long Winters record. It found critical acclaim and, more importantly for Roderick’s stability and rent-paying, an audience.

From the perch that success afforded him, Roderick has watched Seattle grow and develop, and witnessed the unintended consequences of the city’s ambitions. He’s seen flashy public works projects go up and once-thriving city neighborhoods go dormant in their shadow, all without any whisper of intentional segregation. “The status quo marginalizes urban culture without even having to try,” he said.

Transit nerds are always going to build the arteries. We need the capillaries.

The city’s light rail line between downtown and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac) is a prime example of a popular, high-profile project that exacerbates economic inequality and speeds gentrification. The line runs through neighborhoods on the southern edge of town that have long been among Seattle’s most diverse and least wealthy. But rather than serving to connect that community to the city core, the train has inflated property values in places like Rainier Valley, accelerating gentrification in one of the last redoubts for Seattle’s people of color.

“The train moved in there and it was a cool, novel thing, and all of a sudden the houses that were near the station were worth more money, and people who worked downtown in tech suddenly felt like they could live down there and get a nice house for cheap,” Roderick said calling the train an “agent of displacement.”

Roderick’s solution is a system of neighborhood trolleys designed for residents rather than commuters. “It’s not the arteries, it’s the capillaries of a transportation system,” Roderick said. “The transit nerds are always going to build the arteries. But what you have to do from a social justice standpoint is say, we need the capillaries. That’s how the blood gets where it needs to go.”

In housing, too, the conflict between the city’s harmonious image and it’s discordant reality is plain. The real estate market exhibits the same tension between what individual Seattlites want and what the city collectively needs if it’s going to be the dense, diverse, culturally thriving metropolis many aspire to.

“What Seattle needs to do long-term is to undertake a building project that effectively builds what we’re missing,” which is dense multi-family housing, Roderick said. Instead of the compact, affordable family units that east-coast cities built early in their history, Seattle is “bungalows, bungalows, bungalows, for mile after mile in every direction.”

But in order to build dense, non-luxury housing for families that will prevent sprawl and slow the economic displacement of the city’s lower-income communities, the city has to take on the homeowners who benefit from the status quo. “They have a powerful disincentive to have apartment buildings constructed in their neighborhood. And that’s where their liberalism is really put to the test,” Roderick said.

Persuasion, not force, is the key to successfully challenging the “Not In My Back Yard” attitude common among the entrenched, he said. “Take that story out and convince people. Listen, single-family homeowners, we need your buy-in on this, and it requires that you work against your own naked self-interest a little bit. We need density, and what we’re gonna provide in return for it is better transportation for you around the city.”

“You’re gonna benefit from that too. But the downside is, you don’t get to be a NIMBY,” Roderick said. “It’s the hardest thing to convince the public of: their own quiet and accidental complicity in recapitulating the problems of bias and lack of access and exclusivity and exclusionary development, often stemming from well-intentioned attempts at policy.”

For an especially telling — and personally resonant — example of that pattern, Roderick points to the city’s treatment of homeless people. A recent law makes it a crime to smoke cigarettes in city parks, and Roderick expects it will be selectively enforced just like its precursor laws banning sitting on downtown sidewalks.

“It’s just another crime to add to the ‘Move Along’ docket,” he said. “No stock brokers are ever going to get busted for smoking cigarettes in a downtown park. It’s another way to say, these guys that we don’t want hanging out in this park, we now have another way to move them along or to charge them with a $50 fine which they’re not gonna pay.” The unpaid fine becomes a failure to appear warrant, which brings a jail term.

“Very few people are reflecting on the fact that these laws aren’t meant for them. It’s not nanny-statism to prevent hipsters from having some Winston’s, and it’s not about protecting kids from inconsiderate smokers,” Roderick said. “It’s precisely to corral undesirable people and have a reason to either move them along, fine them, or introduce them into the system.”

No one defecates on a public sidewalk because that’s their first choice.

The downtown business community’s enthusiastic endorsement of treating homeless people like criminals isn’t news to Roderick. Before the campaign, he heard it from nightclub owners. Now, he confronts it in meetings with city power-brokers curious to hear what the guitar player with the greying beard thinks he’s doing running an electoral campaign.

“The frustrating part for me is listening to people talk who have real authority and who have resources, and they cannot get their minds around the idea that no one defecates on a public sidewalk because that’s their first choice. No one leaves the comfort of their apartment and goes down and defecates on the sidewalk because they just wanna make other people’s lives hard,” he said.

Roderick favors the Housing First model of homelessness policy, which saves cities gobs of money as compared to leaving people on the street to be handled by hospitals and cops. But again, it’s sometimes difficult to persuade people that giving an unsheltered person a real, permanent home they won’t pay for is a good idea.

“There’s this idea that the poor deserve it somehow, and the expectation that if they want services they should be expected to perform for us. There’s this punitive nature in our hearts somehow, that we want to punish them even as we help them,” he said. “That ideology is woven in with religion, and it’s woven in with the American cult of bootstrapping. People are very unwilling to get down into that little bottom part of their heart and figure out why they’re so resistant to the idea of truly helping the neediest.”

Seattle’s economy has evolved from being dependent on blue-collar trades and manufacturing to a new reliance on firms like Amazon and Microsoft. But the shift from an economy driven by sweat to one driven by data hasn’t made it any easier to get past the gut-level suspicion of Housing First ideas, even though there is a growing heap of hard evidence of the approach’s efficacy.

“In tech, there’s a very deep and broad stripe of libertarianism,” Roderick said. “Tech libertarianism is both fashionable and also, within the closed system of tech, it appears to demonstrate its validity over and over again. All these guys can convincingly tell a story about themselves that they started with nothing. One little coffee shop, one little app, ‘Someone had an idea and that idea spawned a billion-dollar company.’”

As those stories of individual triumph got louder, the collective investment and effort that went into the interstate highways and all manner of other large-scale physical building projects has faded from memory. “Nobody alive right now remembers when we were still building the roads, or building systems to deliver actual fresh water to our cities,” Roderick said. The young urbanites he’s asking to vote for him “have not seen any kind of big change in our cities that resulted from big government projects or big public works, where people banded together to improve the lot of everyone.”

The hero-worshipping libertarian bent Roderick sees in his city runs directly counter to some of the biggest political developments of the past few years. Across the country, low-wage service workers are striking and pressuring corporate leaders and politicians alike to raise their economic floor. Years of demonstrations and the election of a hard-left socialist named Kshama Sawant to the city council helped make Seattle itself the first place to set a $15 minimum wage. Similarly, mass protests and civil unrest have started to make the militarization and autonomy of American police departments untenable.

Those campaigns may yet provide the kind of lived example of collective action as a model for progress that Roderick worries might otherwise be lost to history.

“There’s this idea that the big progress happened because of a few really bright people, as opposed to because everyone banded together to make the world better,” he said.

“I think we’re about to have a big switch in that kind of thinking.”