Around a small outdoor dining table at the Starbucks near Green Lake, there sat three PSLs: One was a pumpkin spice latte ordered by a Real Change reporter; the other two were founding members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. The popular fall beverage predates the founding of the political party, which was named so the acronym would be the same in Spanish — El Partido Socialismo y Liberación — as it is in English.
With the seasonal drink back on menus and the city elections just around the corner, it seemed appropriate to get coffee and talk politics with the Party for Socialism Liberation whose radical sentiment has recently become more and more mainstream. As it turns out, despite being a political party, an election of mostly Democrats is not their priority.
“When you live in Seattle, politics is a little bit of a bubble,” PSL founding member and Seattleite Jane Cutter said. “Regardless of who’s sitting in office, the system is still there. Some people totally dismiss electoral politics and others get dazzled by the B.S. of it all.”
The Party for Socialism and Liberation is a national communist party founded in 2004 against the backdrop of anti-war movements. At the time, socialism had not yet been so radically popularized by Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, but Cutter and Andrew Freeman, another founding member, were convinced folks would come around.
“We were pretty confident that capitalism would popularize socialism for us eventually,” Freeman said.
Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Cutter and Freeman said their party has been growing rapidly, with an extra push prompted by last summer’s surge of activism around Black Lives Matter. According to a 2020 survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, young people, a low voter turnout demographic, took to the streets: 27% of 18- to 24-year-olds reported participating in protests that year, an 11-point jump from 2018.
Socialist sentiment is strong in Seattle. An open, unyielding socialist, Councilmember Kshama Sawant, won three elections and her loyal supporters are on defense against a recall funded by a throng of right-wing millionaires.
Despite the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, Freeman said 2020 was the easiest petitioning he’s ever done. The Party for Socialism and Liberation was running Gloria La Riva, socialist candidate for president — they don’t make a habit of throwing support behind liberals, and definitely not conservatives — and people in Seattle were receptive. PSL had to collect signatures to get La Riva on the ballot in each state. She ended up on the ballot for 15 and with official write-in status in 13 others. According to Freeman, when they collected signatures around Green Lake, the idea of a socialist candidate for president had Seattlites jumping off their blankets to sign. It looked like, just as they had hoped in 2004, socialism was finally in vogue.
For the coming local elections, there are candidates left of liberalism: Nikkita Oliver, a more radical candidate and founding member of the Seattle People’s Party, won the primary for a citywide council seat; Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, a prosecutor whose abolitionist ideology has her more inclined not to prosecute, is a frontrunner for city attorney. Cutter says any genuinely progressive voter in Seattle would want these candidates to win their elections.
However, neither of the candidates for the highest seat in the city, the mayor of Seattle, are socialists. While Sanders gave City Council President Lorena Gonzalez, the more progressive of the two candidates for mayor, his stamp of approval with Rep. Pramila Jayapal as cosigner, the two socialists at Starbucks were less eager to champion her.
“Whether Gonzalez or (Bruce) Harrell end up sitting in the mayoral office, we’re still gonna be in this struggle,” Cutter said.
Cutter added, “You have to understand what elections can do and what they can’t do. For us, we’re focused on extending the eviction moratorium.”
In response to the pandemic’s adverse effects on the economy, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on evictions at the onset of the crisis. Initially, the moratorium was set to end April 17, 2020, but was extended many times as the pandemic waged on.
Housing justice advocates have followed the moratorium closely, calling for its extension each time the clock appears to be running out.
“This is something Inslee and the Democratic Party can’t even propose unless there’s a movement demanding it,” Freeman said. “That’s what we see our role to be.”
Inslee implemented the moratorium bridge July 1 to smooth the transition into the new housing stability programs passed by the state Legislature. Now time is running out on that program, a compromise many activists weren’t thrilled about to begin with. While California has already promised to pay the rental and utility debt, activists are still urging Inslee to do the same in order to avoid what many fear will be an exacerbating force on the current homelessness crisis.
The eviction moratorium and rent cancellation has become a priority for many Seattle socialists. Socialist groups like Seattle Democratic Socialists of America and PSL came together at the Cancel the Rent rally at Othello Park in the beginning of June. Sawant and her office also routinely organize rallies demanding rent be canceled.
“Socialists can’t always agree on everything but we can agree that housing is a human right,” Cutter said.
The founders of PSL did most of the talking at the Starbucks by Green Lake. The only finished drink was the journalist’s pumpkin spice latte with oat milk — Seattle’s Marxists, often a quiet hum under the city’s liberal philosophy, had a lot to say.
“We’re pushing this,” said Freeman as he tapped a flyer they brought to coffee which demands a stop to evictions. Cutter’s drip coffee with cream gave the paper a ring of condensation. “But maybe if we have progressives in office, we won’t have to push so hard.”
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2021 issue.