A Call to Local Action

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Facing unprecedented crisis, we need a people power movement for justice and sustainability based in the places we live.

A call to local action in Seattle

SUMMARY: The results of last November's election, turning over the federal government to the worst forces and leaving state government deadlocked, make action at a local level even more crucial. The election is a challenge to build a place-based people power movement with a transformational vision. The seeds already exist in movements rising in specific communities and places, from $15 Now and Black Lives Matter to the climate direct action movement.

 

In our own city, we are at a crossroads with rapidly rising housing costs driving people away from the urban center to outer areas not well served by transit. And while the city is an energy leader, it is not meeting its own climate plan goals. With action stalled at higher levels, it is crucial we do all we can at the local level to reduce carbon emissions. A combined challenge to social equity and climate justice is rising. We need to move a vision for our city that includes:

  • Preserving housing affordability through community ownership and control, particularly in areas well served by transit and close to jobs and schools
  • Broadening transit access and making it free, with a priority for low-income, senior, youth and disabled riders
  • Building energy resilience with mass energy efficiency retrofits and community solar
  • Creating a funding base from local climate and equity action with a tax on high earners

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Never before has building people-powered movements for justice at local and regional levels been more visibly important. The November election has placed the federal government in the hands of the worst forces in our nation. It also left our state government divided, with significant legislative action blocked by Republican control of the Senate. The levers of power to which we have greatest access are here in our communities. We must regard this election as a challenge to build a place-
based people power movement with a transformational vision for a just and habitable world.

While the election results have come as a shock to many, in reality they are a culmination of trends under way for several decades – the systemic denial and repression of democracy, and the seizure of the public sphere by predatory elites. The voice of the people has been increasingly drowned out by the powers of corporations and the ultra-wealthy. The election of a narcissistic billionaire by a minority of voters is the capstone to this long process. If there is any redeeming value in this terrible outcome, it is clarity. There is no longer any room for denial or complacency. People are aroused as they have not been for a long time. This is the groundwork for a new movement.

The roots of that movement have been sprouting up in recent years. In 2011,Occupy was one the first visible outcroppings, and the meme of the 1% and the 99% an enduring legacy. But that is not the only legacy. Though Occupy is sometimes judged to be a failure because it quickly faded, it was more like a plant that blossoms and casts its seeds broadly. The $15 Now movement that emerged in Seattle and has spread across the nation clearly grew from those seeds.

Around the same time, a climate movement frustrated by the fossil fuel industry’s lock on government took to the streets with direct action. From the White House, to the train tracks of the Northwest, and to the stirring, indigenous-led actions at Standing Rock in North Dakota, the wave of climate direct action has only grown, and will continue to do so.

And, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement has burst onto the scene, insisting on an end to the legalized brutalization and murder of African-American people. This movement will no longer allow the majority white population to ignore the hundreds of years of oppression suffered by African-Americans, from slavery, to segregation and sharecropping, to the new Jim Crow of mass imprisonment. The movement insists on justice for African-Americans and other people of color and deserves full support.

Each of these movements reflects national trends and concerns, but each is also very much based in communities and places, whether it is building economic equity and fighting police brutality in specific cities, or defending local waters and regional lands from fossil fuel depredations. This is the most important insight we can take away from all this. Facing oppressions that are global and national in scope, the place to build the power of people is where we live. Ultimately, a network of locally-
based people power movements, linked by deep communications and a moral sense of commonality, will reverse the decades-long trend to oligarchy that has brought us to this moment of crisis.

We, as groups devoted to mobilizing for climate and social justice on a local scale in Seattle, believe now is the time to join together to press forward for transformational change. This is not the time to huddle in a defensive crouch, but instead to regard the critical national situation as a call to rise for the kind of changes we want in our community and in society in general. It is the time to join the broad popular forces that have emerged and are emerging, for justice and sustainability, and to create unified, place-based movements that build the power we need to transform our communities, our nation and our world. Movements based in cities and metropolitan areas, where most people live and where political and economic power is centered, will be particularly important.

Seattle itself is at a crossroads. The trends toward income inequality that ground so much of the crisis are as extreme here as almost anywhere in the world. Over the next few years, we must decide whether our city will become an enclave for the upscale while rising costs drive ordinary people out, or whether will we embody values of justice and sustainability that build a model for what urban life can be.

We urgently need to address the issue of housing affordability, creating a large base of community-owned and controlled housing not governed by market and profit considerations. In particular, we must ensure that dense, transit-oriented neighborhoods are developed with abundant and genuinely affordable housing. Because low-to-moderate income people are being pushed out of the city, particularly communities of color, to sprawling suburbs where people have to drive more, this is a climate as well as social justice issue.

We must provide viable alternatives to automobile use, especially accessible and affordable public transit. Increasing congestion and pollution that destroys both human health and the climate demand this. While our region ranks among the better in the U.S. for public transit, we must ask – compared to what? Climate and social justice call for transit systems that more resemble those of European and Asian cities, with frequent service that directly connects neighborhoods with each other. Speed and reliability are also essential to getting people out of their cars; grade separation, dedicated lanes, and signal priority are needed so that trains, buses and streetcars do not get stuck in traffic.

Affordability is crucial. Exploding fares over recent years have stressed the lower income riders who most depend on transit. Reduced fares enacted fordisadvantaged groups are a step in the right direction, but not enough. We must make transit free for youth, seniors, disabled and low-income people, and ultimately all of us. No form of transportation has been more subsidized than single-occupancy vehicles. Free public transit is a necessary balancing for social and environmental sustainability.

We need to step up our climate game and build the resiliency of our energy system. Seattle has one of the nation’s most ambitious climate plans, with a goal to reduce core emissions 58% from 2008 levels by 2030, and zero them out by 2050. But from 2008-2014, the most recent carbon inventory, emissions were only cut 6%. With action stalled at the state level and being reversed at the federal level, we at the local level need to do all that we can for climate. Since 70% of the world’s climate-twisting pollution emerges from cities, local action is an effective response.

Fossil fuels are the largest source of climate disruption, and while Seattle claims clean electricity, we could do far more to contribute to the carbon neutrality of our region. If we used less energy in the city, and generated more renewable power locally, we could import less from the grid, and transmit more clean power to our neighbors. Though Seattle is comparatively an energy efficiency leader, major gaps exist in retrofitting small commercial buildings and residences, particularly those occupied by renters. We need comprehensive retrofit programs to fill these gaps, first targeting housing occupied by low-to-moderate income people, as a way to build social resilience. We also need to produce more renewable power to fuel the shift to electric vehicles. An especially viable option for climate and social justice is community solar, installations that provide electricity to multiple buildings and which allow people to buy in for low cost.

Finally, we need equitable ways to pay for this all. Reliance on sales taxes makes our state the most regressive in the country, hitting low-income people hardest. A unified, people-powered movement must demand tax equity, and push to reclaim control of public capital. We must capture some of the immense wealth that is being created in this city to ensure a just and sustainable future. One option is a tax on high earners. The election saw such a measure only narrowly defeated in Olympia. An agenda for affordable housing, accessible transit and energy resilience could win a local high earner tax initiative in Seattle. The city council has the power to enact one. A carbon tax could also pay for climate justice measures in these areas. Public banking could take city accounts out of big banks, and make our capital work for our city rather than their bottom lines. People power can win these gains, if we mobilize around them.

We face an unprecedented crisis. Climate disruption is moving to new levels. Democracy is being rolled back, and democratic institutions are under attack. Predatory interests are circling to strip the public sphere for all the wealth they can steal. Our political system is breaking down. The balances won by the movements of previous generations, which have provided whatever equity and social justice we have, are being stripped away. Our only hope is to unite the grounded movements that have emerged over recent years, and to leverage the clarity and public arousal of the moment to build people-powered movements based in places and communities. We must take this moment as a call to action, beginning where we live, and join together in a vision and action for justice and a habitable world. It’s up us. The time is now. The place is here.

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