An Open Letter to Seattle City Council Member Debora Juarez

I would hope it goes without saying that Donald Trump’s is not the side of history that you would like to be on. And yet this is precisely what you communicated to a roomful of people yesterday, whether you meant to or not.

#BlockTheBunker activists take the mic at a Seattle City Council meeting

[Introduction for readers new to the topic: The Seattle City Council is in the process of approving funding to build the most expensive police precinct in North America—for a police department which is currently under federal scrutiny for excessive use of force. This development is strongly opposed by a growing coalition of citizens who have been turning out to city council meetings in record numbers as #BlockTheBunker. For more information, please follow the links at the end of this post.]

Dear Councilmember Juarez,

You don’t know me, but you might recognize my face. I’ve been to three city council meetings in the past two weeks, and as long as the #BlockTheBunker movement is in force, I’ll likely be at many more.

I’m sure you realize what a sacrifice it is for working professionals and other community members to spend so much time at City Hall. Not everyone can afford to do this, but the fact that that so many people are doing what it takes to be there, week in and week out, is a testament to the importance of this movement, both for the future of Seattle and in the larger context of conversations around police militarization around the country.

While we disagree on this issue, I would personally like to state for the record that I am not your enemy. I am opposed to the building of this bunker on principle and in practice, but I also respect you a great deal.

Not only do I respect you as a human being, I respect what you have achieved in your career, both as a woman and as a member of the Blackfeet Nation elected to public office.

I respect that you stood up to powerful interests by voting down a proposed sports arena earlier this year, and I really respect the way you handled the misogynistic harassment you received in the aftermath of this decision.

In spite of all the respect I have for you as a woman of color, a civil servant, and a fellow human being undoubtedly concerned with the greater good, I was part of that crowd that booed you twice yesterday, and based on your response, it would appear that you have interpreted both the outrage expressed during your statement, and the booing that followed, as a lack of respect.

In reality, I think you’ll find a great deal of respect for you and your accomplishments in that room, but you will also find a disconnect between your insistence that this project is “just a building” and a growing segment of your constituency.

I believe that disconnect is rooted in the same kind of cultural divide that makes a $150 million police fortress seem reasonable to some people, and oppressive to others.

We can’t afford not to talk about this divide.

People are dying because of this divide.

This statement is not a hyperbole. I wish it was.

It is for this reason that I am going to attempt to explain exactly what was being booed and why, in hopes that it might provide some context for behavior you are experiencing as disrespect.

It’s not you. But it was a couple of things you said, and here’s why:

[Full video of the City Council meeting linked below; Juarez’s comments in question begin around 2:33]

1. “I wasn’t raised the way you apparently were raised.”

There were all kinds of people present in that room yesterday. Some of us were raised in middle-class, two-parent families; others were raised in poverty. Some are wealthy, some are homeless.

All politics and disagreements about the allocation of public funds aside, a statement like this is bound to draw boos because it is an appeal to respectability politics.

What are respectability politics? As writer Aurin Squire has put it,

“black respectability says that systemic oppression can be overcome if we’re clean, mild, moderate, and economically successful enough.”

And as Veronica Y. Womack writes,

“Black Americans have long been told that there is a “right” way to act in order to secure racial equality and individual promotion in the United States. Often, these recommendations are made by other black Americans attempting to mute certain cultural aesthetics in order to make white Americans feel comfortable in their presence.”

In social justice conversations, respectability politics are often considered a calling card of anti-Black racism because they put the onus for removing oppression on the person experiencing oppression.

Respectability politics say, “maybe the oppression will stop if you are more polite and docile,” not realizing that the command to code one’s behavior to be more respectable is, in and of itself, anti-Black.

Last week, I watched a Black woman call you out during public comment for invoking your identity as a Native woman to make statements deemed to be oppressive and anti-Black.

I think there is a way to disagree on politics without resorting to oppressive tactics that aim to further marginalize the marginalized people who oppose you. I have personally learned a lot from people in intersectional feminist circles who have helped me discover how pervasive the anti-Black sentiments of respectability politics are in our culture (and how much of this anti-Blackness I have absorbed as a result) and this is something I am personally making an ongoing effort to try to unlearn.

This essay by Ijeoma Oluo has been instrumental in my own understanding of the privilege of “civilized discourse,” and I hope you find the time to read it as well.

2. “I never thought that this was something against anybody. I thought it was about doing my job and not sacrificing [my career] to political correctness, or political expediency.”

[statement made around 2:37:40 in video linked above.]

Oh no. No no no no no.

I know that sometimes intense things one doesn’t mean get said in the heat of the moment, but this is quite possibly the single most tone-deaf statement to come out of this whole tone-deaf fiasco, and it is no surprise that the entire room erupted in response.

Have you been watching any footage of Donald Trump’s rallies and speeches? Every other statement to come out of his mouth contains the words “political correctness.”

“If there is one uniting principle the defines Donald Trump’s campaign for president,” writes Aaron Blake in the Washington Post, “it is that political correctness is bad.”

Concerned citizens who don’t want all Muslims profiled as potential terrorists are accused of “political correctness.” Women who don’t want to be called “fat pigs” or “dogs” by a man seeking the highest office in our country are accused of “political correctness.” And to Trump, apparently the desire to not be murdered by the people hired to protect and serve makes #BlackLivesMatter activists represent the ultimate in “political correctness.” (In the last instance linked to, Trump also intimated that in the old days, before “political correctness,” a Black protestor would have been beaten for speaking up at his rally. This was one of the most overtly fascist moments of his campaign…right up until he started joking about killing his opponent.)

The idea of “political correctness” grew out of the culture wars of the 80s and was popularized in the 90s by people like Rush Limbaugh as a way to push back against an academic climate becoming increasingly critical of its own subconscious racist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic tendencies. What started as an ivory tower critique has now reached the masses, and in Trump’s America, “political correctness” is a war cry to shout down anyone who doesn’t want to be discriminated against, or who doesn’t appreciate being the butt of callous, dehumanizing humor.

In the early days of his campaign, Trump’s constant “anti-PC” rhetoric helped him draw supporters, but today it is something that nearly all reasonable people are increasingly critical of in some form or fashion, from CNN and Time Magazine to this thoughtful essay by Peter Weber for The Week.

I would hope it goes without saying that Donald Trump’s is not the side of history that you would like to be on, Ms. Juarez. And yet this is precisely what you communicated to a roomful of people yesterday, whether you meant to or not.

Yesterday I watched you treat people who would dare to raise concerns about something that directly impacts the safety of our community—and Black people in our community in particular—the way Donald Trump treats women and people of color.

I want to believe that this dismissive, inflammatory choice of words was an misstep on your part, and not a reflection of your deepest values.

All of that said, I still respect you a great deal, and it is from this place of respect that I am reaching out to you now. Just as you and Councilmember González would hope that everyone in that audience went home and took some time to fully understand the resolution you voted for yesterday, I hope you will also take some time to reflect on the context of the response some of your comments provoked.

As you might have guessed, #BlockTheBunker is far from over. As concerned citizens, we are going to continue to advocate for what we believe is right as long as there is any possibility that our voices can have an impact. Which means we’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other.

I want to keep the criticism of the proposed bunker on the subject at hand. The last thing I want to see is for criticism of you and your position to devolve into the sort of misogynistic harassment you experienced from the dejected sports fans whose stadium you voted down.

I want to see respect from all sides on this issue, but you are the person in the position of power here, and right now the deficit of respect I’m seeing is from you.

We don’t have to agree, but please respect us. All of us. Which means no more respectability politics. No more invoking Trump’s cudgel of “political correctness.”

You’re better than that.

We are all better than that.

Thank you for taking the time to read my concerns. See you at the next City Council meeting!

Respectfully Yours,

Emily Ann Pothast

Seattle, WA