By every measure, Olympia voters should have passed Initiative 1. I won’t rehash the data, but all signs pointed to a fairly easy victory. But as we now know, this wasn’t a normal election. Our country, county, and even city, took turns to the right. Emboldened now are voices that progressives like myself have been actively fighting for some time. Also emboldened are those who tow the status quo, who look for reasons NOT to be agents of change. They will likely use this election as leverage toward a new set of community values, a little colder and less compassionate than before. When they’ve done this in the past they’ve invoked representative democracy to justify their actions, but they no longer have to claim they’re representing a “silent majority” because they have an election to point to now.
Before I jump into the politics, I’ll give you an example.
Public bathrooms in Downtown Olympia is an issue the community has been talking about for a long time. I’ve personally been involved in probably a hundred hours of meetings on this one issue in just the last five years. I personally advocated for two different solutions, to two different problems.
First: people who are experiencing homelessness don’t have a place to take care of basic needs that most of us take for granted; bathroom stuff, showering, laundry, etc. My solution is one that is proven to work and has been replicated: We need to bring an Urban Rest Stop to Olympia. This is a real no-brainer and the only thing standing in the way is political will (I’ll get to that).
Second: all kinds of people hang out downtown at night. No matter where they live, they need to use the bathroom. 24 hour bathrooms are common in most cities I’ve been to. One example, and the solution I pushed for in my years of work on this issue is The Portland Loo. It’s practical and affordable and the only thing standing in our way has been political will (I’ll get to that).
So why do we consistently fail to move the needle toward solutions? Why do so many years go by without any tangible progress? Both of these solutions are proved, replicated, and can be plugged in, no setup required, just fund it and they will come.
I think the reason is that we haven’t been electing people who feel compelled to do something, whether it’s because they’re not affected by the lack of these amenities, or haven’t developed a sense of sympathy toward the people who are suffering in the cold, without a bathroom, shower, or place to warm up.
Let’s look at the language used when our officials talk about the public restroom issue.
“One of the cons is, do you want to draw street-dependent people to the Harbor House and playground?” – Olympia City Manager Steve Hall
I don’t think you have to be nearly as experienced in social justice advocacy as I am to see what’s wrong with that. I’ll break it down:
“street-dependent people” – this language puts their condition before their humanity, making “street-dependency” (a term that flummoxes me) their defining characteristic, and all of the stigma and stereotypes that go with it.
It’s also implied that “the Harbor House and playground” are for “regular” people, this suggests that people who are “street-dependent” are the “other”. This “otherizing” makes it a whole lot easier to ignore their needs.
“do you want to draw…” – his language here tacitly suggests that these human beings are vermin or pests that we don’t want to attract.
Finally, there is an overarching implication in this quote that all “street-dependent” people are the kind of people that we don’t want near playgrounds. This is the perpetuation of another stereotype that has consistently been used to fight any increase in services for people in need in our community. Remember The People’s House, when opponents screamed about sex offenders, then the House’s organizers said they’d screen out sex offenders, and opponents screamed, “yeah, but… sex offenders…” The truth is, as of census data from a few years back, the average person experiencing homelessness in Thurston County was a single mom in her 20’s with children from 3-5 years of age.
“I’m not sold on the Artesian Commons as the best location for a public restroom. That action would reinforce that site as a street-dependent facility. The future of that park is actually better when viewed as something that’s available to the general public.” Olympia Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones
As is his style, Jones is softer and more careful with his words. His language here, if we look closely, transmits a similar message to Hall’s.
“street-dependent facility” He doesn’t even refer to “people” here, just “street dependent”. That language removes their humanity altogether, sort of objectifying them – and like I said above, that makes it easier to oppose anything that might help the people.
“…general public.” His language here has identified two kinds of people; “street dependent” and “general public.” So the implication is that if you are “street dependent” you are not a part of the “general public.”
I don’t want to belabor the point, just highlight that we see this sort of language used, both aggressively and passively, quite often in our public discourse.
[Disclaimer: I know Nathaniel pretty well, campaigned for him twice, and I know he’s got a lot of compassion and wants to do the right thing when he can. So by calling his language out, I’m not calling him an evil, or bad person. We all learn how to be better because people call us out when our words or actions aren’t up to snuff. Radical honesty is a root of love and respect.]
These quotes are representative of the marginalization of vulnerable people that has become the status quo. These perceptions and words, and the actions they provoke, are the greatest enemy to egalitarianism.
Let’s remember that language matters and whenever issues relating to homelessness are being discussed by our city leaders, these kind of quotes end up in the paper AND we see an increase in hate crimes against people who are homeless.
When time and time again good solutions to easy problems are rejected the obvious common denominator becomes political will. I have experience managing program budgets, I’ve also been a Planning Commissioner and delved into our City’s budget. The thing I’ve learned is that (within reason) where there is a will, there is a way. A Portland Loo is not expensive, and neither is an Urban Rest Stop. We could have had them years ago. We’ve never had a city council that would support them. Let’s do something about that.
In Olympia, progressives have the opportunity to secure a fourth progressive vote, joining Jessica Bateman, Jim Cooper, and Clark Gilman. This would give us a solid progressive majority for the first time in the 14 years I’ve been paying attention. We could do a lot of great work if we can secure that fourth vote.
Our port commission is at an even greater threat right now. E.J. Zita, who has been a champion of progressive values, will most certainly draw a big money opponent this year. We’ll need to muster all we can to help her keep her job on the Port Commission, and to secure a majority there as well. Losing Zita would mean no one standing up to fracking equipment moving through our port and our city, for a sustainable budget, or for a transition to a locally focused economy.
I’m inspired by the work of the Thurston County Progressives. I think the organizing they’re doing is exactly what we need right now. If my schedule didn’t conflict, I’d be at their meetings and getting more active with that group. I urge you to get involved with them if you’re not already.
So… maybe this is a rallying cry, or maybe I’m once again tilting at windmills.
I am committed to helping us elect a fourth progressive to the Olympia City Council, to getting Zita reelected, to being a part of grassroots organizing that is inclusive of everyone and inspires disenfranchised voters to get engaged in the process, and ultimately, do the groundwork to take back our County Commission before too much damage is done to the progress we’ve made on social and environmental issues. I think we owe it to those who have worked so hard for us, people like Sandra Romero, Cathy Wolfe, and Karen Fraser [EDIT: I forgot Karen Valenzuela], to take the baton and keep on pushing. There’s really no time to rest.