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Jeff Bezos 1, Seattle Homeless 0. Now What?

Advocates are regrouping after city officials knuckled under to pressure from Amazon and repealed a tax on big employers.

"Amazon issued their now-infamous threat, and fear seemed to shift public opinion overnight." (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Cities around the United States are facing unprecedented crises of homelessness and housing insecurity, as escalating housing costs collide with stagnant wages and decades of cuts to social safety net programs.
In the wake of the repeal vote, many of us felt not just deep disappointment but anger and a sense of betrayal – how could our progressive allies on the city council, who stood with us and worked with us over the past nine months, cave so suddenly and so completely?

At least three of the councilmembers who voted to repeal the legislation – Lisa Herbold, Mike O’Brien, and Lorena González – did not do so because they changed their minds about it being good policy or the right thing to do. They did so because they knew that the big business-funded referendum push had gathered enough signatures to make the ballot; and they saw ahead five more brutal months of a multi-million-dollar propaganda war ending, they believed, almost inevitably in defeat.

Over the past nine months, big business lobby groups like the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association have offered no solutions. Instead they poured their vast resources into a media campaign to discredit the city council in the eyes of the public, and spread misinformation about the tax and the homelessness crisis. They cynically manipulated many Seattleites’ legitimate concerns about rising property taxes and the impact of homelessness on their neighborhoods, to inflame prejudice and weasel out of making a modest contribution toward real solutions. They made Seattle an uglier place.

They know very well that new resources are needed to address homelessness – and yet they have had no qualms about denying this again and again. They have drowned out facts with well-funded lies. They succeeded, it seems, in turning the tide of “public opinion” – at least among likely voters. Seeing this, councilmembers chose to cut their losses and start over.

Whether we call their choice cowardly or sensible, we have to admit this outcome reflects the real power dynamics in our city. We – the Transit Riders Union and our allies – have built up enough people-power to push groundbreaking legislation through the city council. That’s no small accomplishment. But we don’t yet have the power to back it up. We simply weren’t able to counter the influence of big money on public opinion. We don’t yet have the ability to reach enough of our neighbors, to have enough conversations that change hearts and minds, to effectively counter the destructive and petty narratives that divide us rather than unite us.

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Katie Wilson

Katie Wilson is the General Secretary of the Seattle Transit Riders Union and a coordinator of the Housing For All Coalition.

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