How Conservative Anti-Homeless Groups Are Rebranding To Recruit New Members

On January 5, 2017, David Preston and Harley Lever, the founders of the anti-homeless group, Safe Seattle, joined together with Elisabeth James, a Safe Seattle contributor, to form Speak Out Seattle. The group is a self-described “coalition of individuals, business people and neighborhood groups” aimed at pressuring local leaders into adopting new solutions to the city’s homelessness crisis. A few days after forming the group, Safe Seattle shared the news on their Facebook page in a post signed by all three founders. A couple weeks later, Harley Lever gave a lengthy interview to Westside Seattle News in which he detailed the goals of Speak Out Seattle, and was described by the author as a founder of the group. And yet two years later, as Speak Out Seattle gears up to host several public forums for the upcoming city council election, the group is now denying any connections to Safe Seattle, its founders, or their history working directly with them to accomplish their shared policy goals.

Last week, after the old posts resurfaced and people began raising questions about the links between the groups, Speak Out Seattle put out a blog post titled, “Addressing The Rumors.” In the post, Speak Out Seattle attempts to reframe itself as a group of concerned citizens, separate from Safe Seattle and other neighborhood groups, just a simple Facebook group where people can debate the issues in a civil fashion. This is nonsense, easily disproved by a mountain of evidence, including the original post signed by the founders, the news article citing Lever as a founder, and the fact that Speak Out Seattle’s own Facebook page still defines the group as a “coalition” of neighborhood groups (they have updated the group description on their website to remove the “coalition” language, but someone forgot to change the Facebook info). Add to that the number of times Safe Seattle has posted content from Speak Out Seattle over the last two years, including this post in which one of their members uses it as an opportunity to threaten to “beat the shit out of junkies.”

But let’s imagine we take Speak Out Seattle at their word, that they are indeed a nonpartisan group not associated with any neighborhood groups, especially not Safe Seattle. In that case, let’s look at their priorities, as highlighted on their own website:

  • No increase in budget for combating homelessness
  • No expanded homeless camping
  • No safe injection sites
  • No vehicle dwelling
  • Repeal of Seattle’s employee head tax

These priorities are not just antithetical to their claims of being a nonpartisan group, they are the exact same conservative priorities being pushed by Safe Seattle. When viewed together, all of this evidence makes it clear that Speak Out Seattle is misleading voters and candidates about how their organization came to be, and lying about the conservative, anti-homeless nature of the group itself.

In a similar move, these same people came together last year to form a group called, Unified Seattle. Comprised of neighborhood groups like Safe Seattle and Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Unified Seattle was founded to produce anti-homeless video ads. The group has raised and spent thousands of dollars, boosting and promoting the videos across social media in a particularly cynical and cyclical strategy, in which they produce documentary-style films and then interview themselves as if they are experts. The most widely-distributed film they produced includes interviews with David Preston (Safe Seattle), Gretchen Taylor (Neighborhood Safety Alliance), and Cindy Pierce (Neighborhood Safety Alliance), all arguing against tiny home villages.

David Preston, interviewing himself, I guess?

This type of shell game, where conservative groups rebrand to make themselves appear acceptable to a more moderate audience, is not just happening locally. In fact, the broader conservative movement is piggybacking on the work of these neighborhood groups, giving Safe Seattle access to outside funding and representation, and giving the conservative movement access to new recruits on the local level. This is how Safe Seattle ended up being represented by Freedom Foundation’s Richard Stephens (who also represents Respect Washington, an anti-immigrant group, defined by SPLC as a hate-group), and how Safe Seattle candidates appear on programs like Tucker Carlson and NRA TV. This insidious cycle is used to radicalize otherwise well-intentioned people who have valid concerns about how their local government is addressing issues of poverty, mental health, and addiction. Aided by propaganda films like those produced by Unified Seattle, and last week’s Sinclair-produced KOMO piece, “Seattle Is Dying”, these groups poison our political debate and prevent us from meaningfully addressing these problems. At the bare minimum, it is time we start accurately describing these groups and their intentions in our community.

EDIT 3.21.2019 @ 1:00pm: The cycle never stops. Here’s an article from less than a year ago that shows Speak Out Seattle was actually one of the original backers of Unified Seattle. It’s all just one big circle.

EDIT 3.20.2019 @ 7:50pm: Since publishing I have been sent yet another article from two years ago which clearly cites both Safe Seattle and Neighborhood Safety Alliance as founding members of the Speak Out Seattle Coalition. I’ve also been sent a bunch of denials from Speak Out Seattle members.

EDIT 4.09.2019 @ 10:00am: In the past few months, Speak Out Seattle members have donated more than $6,000 to Safe Seattle candidate, Ari Hoffman.

EDIT 4.13.2019 @ 9:30pm: Alycia Ramirez just stumbled on yet another facebook page from the same month Speak Out Seattle was founded, again explicitly calling out Safe Seattle as a founding member of the coalition.

EDIT 4.19.2019 @ 8:15pm: And last but not least, here is David Preston, founder of Safe Seattle, explicitly acknowledging that not only were they an original member of the Speak Out Seattle coalition, they only dissociated when people started putting pressure on SOS. For their part, Speak Out Seattle is still denying their years-old connection.