File this one under creative uses of hysteria. Council Bill 188794 stands little to no chance of returning for consideration until after the city budget process is completed. So, for at least a month, organizing for sweeps protocol reform has been put on ice.
A short month ago, when Mike O’Brien introduced the legislation and the Seattle City Council voted to override Sally Bagshaw’s efforts to keep the bill off her Human Services Committee calendar, a sense of great urgency was expressed in City Hall to act in time for the upcoming budget.
Winter is upon us, they noted. Unsheltered homelessness is only growing, and the present protocols have failed miserably for more than a decade.
Expensive and inhumane sweeps of homeless encampments have been disorganized, disruptive and unconstitutional. A lot of time, energy and expense has delivered little in the way of lasting results.
While councilmembers acknowledged that a 30-day timeline to pass new sweeps guidance legislation would be challenging, they were ready to try.
So, what happened? Instead of working to find a middle way with advocates, businesses, parks and councilmembers, Bagshaw delayed the process with a useless show committee.
Her calculated and dilatory maneuvers in City Hall opened space for an inflamed public to bully the Council into indecision.
Meanwhile, Councilmember Tim Burgess stoked the flames with straw man concerns that, in fact, no longer existed.
The more groups — Real Change, the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness and the Defenders Association — worked to find middle ground with moderates interested in real solutions, the more Bagshaw, Burgess and Murray traded in fearful and universally opposed scenarios, such as unregulated camping in park football field end zones and tents and trash littering public sidewalks.
Doomsday visions of hypodermic needles destined to stick our children brought a flood of outraged emails and a Human Services committee meeting stacked with the angry, privileged and white.
Our friends at Seattlish captured the tone of the meeting nicely:
“LET US TALK!” they shouted. “YOU’RE A LIAR!” they hollered. “RECALL MIKE O’BRIEN!” one man yelled. “YOU’RE GRANDSTANDING!” another exclaimed every time Kshama Sawant spoke.
If politics is the art of the possible — finding a way to compromise that leaves no one thrilled but leads to higher ground — this was the opposite of that.
This was the politics of the irrational. Grounded in fear and distortion. Disinterested in compromise. Sadly, this sort of politics has become more usual in our polarized electorate than not.
The question is this: When council takes this up again in another month or so, what will drive the debate?
Will it be facts? Negotiation? The spirit of compromise designed to reach prudent middle ground? Or will City Council follow the lead of those who offer visions of imperiled public safety to generate misinformed hysteria?
Over the next month, as we await the City Council’s return to this issue, we have the opportunity to reclaim the high ground. To have a calmer discussion, based on facts. To reveal the impact and waste of a deeply flawed status quo. To meet real concerns about public health and constitutional rights in ways that lessen the harm to those who struggle in public to survive.
To ensure that those voices are clear and present to the mayor and Council, and that these be heard at least as loudly as the angry homeowners.
The result won’t be perfect, but it will make us a better city.
It will be a courageous, evolving attempt by Seattle to be the city that doesn’t fear the outsider.
To be unlike other cities. To be more reasoning than fearful. To put the politics and the need to win aside, and finally get this right.