The North Seattle Town Hall on the Progressive Tax on Business for Homelessness and Housing Affordability at Trinity United Methodist Church was supposed to begin at 6 p.m ., and it seemed like it would have when Pastor Webber addressed the crowd and delivered some words of wisdom about civil discourse and the importance of treating others in compassion. But a large contingent of attendees against the proposed tax (and against Councilmember O’Brien in particular) had other plans.
When Councilmember O’Brien took the mic to introduce the agenda for the evening—which included a 30-minute presentation about the progressive tax proposal followed by an hour of Q&A—he was immediately shouted down by calls of “Liar!” and “Open mic!” These calls escalated to the point where O’Brien’s voice was drowned out, and he eventually stopped speaking and gave the mic to Task Force member Katie Wilson.
Wilson, too, was pummeled with yells and shouts as she courageously plowed through an informational portion of the evening that contextualized Seattle’s current housing crisis with facts about decreases in government funding and increases in tax cuts for wealthy corporations. Wilson cited statistics about the number of homeless people in Seattle and King County and asked “So why do we see so many people living outdoors?”. The audience had a reply:
“Because of the council!” This reply started a firestorm of comments:
“YOU BROUGHT A HOMELESS CAMP TO MY NEIGHBORHOOD!”
“OPEN MIC! OPEN MIC!”
I sat on the right side of the church, shuddering from the noise (it’s a church so the acoustics are pretty good) near a group from the Nickelsville Tiny Home community. In line with the traditions of wedding seating, it was clear that the attendees were split down the middle: those in the right pews in support of the progressive tax, and those in the left pews in opposition to the tax and to Mike O’Brien. Soon enough the right side of the church began chanting in response to the anti-Council contingent, “WE LIKE MIKE! WE LIKE MIKE!”
The elderly man next to me muttered, “This is like an internet comments section come to life.”
Kirsten Harris-Talley, another member of the Task Force, rose above the fray and addressed the dissenters: “I understand why you want folks to listen to you because you have a lot to say, and you want to go home to your families . . . I’m reading signs that say you want us to listen to you, but all we can hear is a roar. You want an opportunity to participate in this process.”
The crowd continued shouting and Harris-Talley turned away from her mic to confer with the rest of the Council, and that’s when the meeting took a turn.
“We are going to change the process in response to what you’ve been asking for,” announced Harris-Talley.
Now an open-mic format coordinated by Harris-Talley, the meeting consisted of two lines to the right and left of the altar: those with comments in support of the tax and suggestions for improvement to the right, and those with questions and concerns to the left. Each person would have two minutes to voice their opinion. Councilmember Mosqueda would keep time with her cell phone. The alarm’s buzzer sounded like a school fire drill.
This new format calmed the crowd considerably even as the attendees arranged themselves into long lines. Then the real fun began.
“We’re gonna tax that motherfucker.”
One of my favorite comments of the night came from a young man in sweatpants and a hoodie who was smirking at the NIMBYs in the left pews. “I have a few questions for some people in the audience here. What do you think is harder: living in a house and having a homeless encampment outside your door, or living in a tent? Do you think it’s harder to see someone shit on the ground, or not to have enough to eat, to have nowhere to go to the bathroom, to get the tent that’s your home ripped away by police?” His hands shook and the audience shouted him down as he continued reading from his cell phone. “Do you think Mike is lying when he says that there is no affordable housing? I can sure as hell tell you there is no affordable housing around. So, here’s how we’re going to solve this problem. We’re gonna build some houses, and that costs money. So, who are we gonna take the money from? 5 billion is how much Jeff Bezos made in 10 minutes after Amazon announced it will buy Whole Foods. We’re gonna tax that motherfucker.”
In response to the young man’s cogent summary of the homelessness crisis, Coucilmember Mosqueda reminded attendees to direct their comments to the Council.
One of the next comments directed to the Council came from a tall Australian who lives in Green Lake, across from the 5thAve camp. “My family was directly affected and my neighbors were genuinely traumatized by the campers who intimidated residents and committed property crimes daily . . . Current policies provide zero mechanisms to deal with the crimes coming out of these camps. Will you manage these camps and will you enforce the law?” His question was met with cheers and applause; followed by jeers and shouts of “No!” when Task Force Member Lisa Daugaard said, “I’d like to address this issue.” She didn’t get to address it, obviously.
Throughout the evening the crowd left Harris-Talley confused as they vacillated between wanting to hear from the Council and not wanting to hear from them; wanting to hear from other attendees and not wanting to hear from them.
A woman named Maria warned the Council not to piss off Amazon: “The city of Seattle has an incredibly booming economy and biting the hand that feeds you can turn this economy around in the blink of an eye.”
I was amazed at the crowd’s stamina up until 8 p.m. The pro-tax contingent had the energy to cheer after a lady with long white hair gathered into a ponytail disputed the NIMBY’s claims that the homeless in Seattle choose to be homeless and just suffer from drug addiction and mental illness. She told a story about how seven months ago there was a beautiful island where the people had housing and electricity and public schools (and they owed some money to banks who kind of cheated them a bit but they did that to everybody) and six months ago they were hit by a hurricane. “What happened?” the woman continued. “They still don’t have any lights, they don’t have houses, they’re having a terrible time getting food and clean water. And they are homeless. Now are they homeless because they are mentally ill or because they are drug addicts? Those seem to be the favorite choices. I think it may be something else. There are hurricanes that come into people’s lives.”
Then the buzzer went off.