The girl with the socialist tattoo: Kshama Sawant’s personal revolution

Socialist Alternative party member and Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant speaks at a rally protesting against the detention of Daniel Ramirez Medina, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Seattle, Wash., Feb. 17. 

The drama on both her political and personal battlefields have repeatedly landed Kshama Sawant in the spotlight. On Nov. 1, with a few hundred people at her side, the feisty Indian-American member of the Seattle City Council led an overnight campout at City Hall to demand an end to the city’s “brutal demolition” of unsanctioned encampments of the homeless, actions known as “sweeps.”

She launched the protest even as she readied to face one of two defamation lawsuits filed by city police. Officers Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding have charged that Sawant unjustly accused them of racial profiling, calling them “murderers” repeatedly, following the fatal shooting of a man, Che Taylor, in 2016.

The city has decided to defend Sawant against the lawsuit, although the officers are suing only Sawant, not the city. City Council President Bruce Harrell said the decision to back her is about the law, not politics. “I believe we must defend her right to say it. That is the cost of free speech,” local media quoted him as saying. An inquest jury later backed the officers’ actions. The city is also backing Sawant in a defamation lawsuit brought by landlord Carl Haglund who is challenging Sawant’s characterization of him as a “notorious slumlord.”

The night of Nov. 1, however, was business as usual for Sawant, 42, who is a member of the Socialist Alternative Party. She has led campaigns in Seattle for workers’ rights during the past few years, winning support from the poor and the working class people. At the campout, she focused on the homelessness crisis and what she called the city’s unwillingness to address the issue, attendees said.

The girl with the socialist tattoo: Kshama Sawant’s personal revolution

Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant and others march in protest the detention of Daniel Ramirez Medina, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Seattle, Washington on February 17, 2017. (Getty Images)

“Sawant spoke passionately about the crisis of homelessness and the wealth we have in the city to address those, and the unwillingness of the city to really take on this issue and to address it,” said James Kahn, one of the campout participants and one of her council staff members. During the campout, more than a dozen homeless activists staged a "die-in," lying down on the floor of City Hall’s lobby to call attention to homelessness.

Sawant and her party demand that instead of wasting money on sweeps, the city should enact a tax on big business in this year’s budget to build affordable housing and fund human services. The city budget is to be finalized in November. Nov. 2 marked the two-year anniversary of city officials declaring a state of emergency on homelessness but thousands of people still sleep outside each night, she said.

“You know, when I first arrived in the U.S. from Mumbai in 1996, I was aghast to see so much of homelessness, poverty, and exploitation, especially of the poor and the working people here in the U.S.,” Sawant told India Abroad. “I could not believe that such a thing could exist in the richest country of the world where there is no dearth of resources to address such issues.”

The girl with the socialist tattoo: Kshama Sawant’s personal revolution

Sawant is sworn-in as a Council member from Seattle’s District 3 by Seattle City Clerk Monica Simmons. Sawant was elected to a four-year term that expires in December 2019.

The issues troubled her so much that she decided to give up her job as a computer engineer in North Carolina, where she first lived when she came to the U.S., and went to study economics to understand better “the deeper and actual causes” of poverty and exploitation in the U.S. Although she received a PhD in economics from North Carolina State University, the answers that she found in academics, she said, did not satisfy her. “I realized that in the academia the economics discipline is the intellectual backbone for justifying the followers of capitalism,” she said.

Unfamiliar with Karl Marx

Sawant was born in Pune, India, to middle-class parents — her mother was a school teacher and father an engineer — and grew up in Bombay. She had been troubled since childhood by poverty and the caste system in India. “You can say I was almost obsessed with the issues of poverty, exploitation and violence against women and lower castes” and wanted answers as to why the society looked the way it did, she said.

“People around me would try to explain away such things in terms of results of one’s karma and all that, but they did not appeal to me at all. Unfortunately, at that time I had not known much about Karl Marx, nor did people around tell me how Marx had explained the reasons for inequality and exploitation in society and had answered many of my questions more than a century before I was even born,” said Sawant.

A New Chapter Begins in Seattle

Sawant, who married Seattle Socialist Alternative organizer Calvin Priest in 2016, moved to Seattle around 2007. She was convinced she was not temperamentally matched for a corporate job, commensurate with her degrees in economics and computer engineering, as she had never learned how to sell herself in a marketplace, she said.

She began teaching at Seattle Central Community College, Seattle University, but most of the time she attended meetings of various political parties, looking for answers to her question — why there was so much inequality and exploitation of people in the richest country of the world. By her own admission, she was looking for something in those meetings that she could connect to. She found herself agreeing with many of the things that people talked about in those meetings, but they did not completely give her what she was seeking, she said. That, Sawant said, is why she remained non-committal about joining any political meeting or organization at that time.

The girl with the socialist tattoo: Kshama Sawant’s personal revolution

Sawant, far left, raises a sign in protest of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton following a rally at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, Wash., March 22, 2016 (Getty Images)

The Eureka Moment

But things changed one day when Sawant went to a meeting at which a speaker from the Socialist Alternative, a movement aligned with Marxist ideology for fighting for workers’ rights and ending corporate domination in government and politics, spoke about politics and economy in the United States. The speaker analyzed what was wrong with the capitalist system.

“And that moment was a decisive moment for me,” she recalled. “I realized that this was what I was waiting for years in order to understand the root cause of inequality and exploitation. And since then, I have been a member of Socialist Alternative, and an unapologetic Left and a Marxist, whatever way you want to describe me.” She and her party believe that Leon Trotsky, the Marxist revolutionary and theorist, is as relevant today as ever.

Sawant’s evolution as an activist of the Socialist Alternative and joining electoral politics has been slow but steady. In 2013, when she won as City Council membership under Socialist Alternative Party challenging incumbent Democrat Richard Conlin, it was the first time that a Socialist got elected to the council. At that time, her grassroots level campaign issues focused on a $15 minimum wage, rent control in a city with rising rents, and a millionaires' tax to fund transportation — issues that are closer to her heart. A poll reported by the Seattle Times before the 2015 election, in which Sawant won for the second time, indicated that Sawant had the most name recognition on the City Council.

Socialist Alternative

Such success notwithstanding — and especially after the 2016 presidential election when Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, was able to galvanize the working class peoples’ interest in changing the corporate-dominated politics with his progressive agenda — the Socialist Alternative has not really taken off in terms of its sphere of influence. The party has recently put up a candidate in the Minneapolis City Council with the support of small-money donors but Sawant agreed that has yet to create a strong national political force to become a viable alternative to either the Democrats or the Republicans.

“I must admit we are still a small organization compared to the two big players at the national level, but by no means it is my belief that we cannot be at the national level to fight for workers’’ rights and issues of the poor people. But there has to be practical considerations like ability to finance a national-level campaign that costs millions of dollars unlike in local campaign,” Sawant said.

The reported expansion of Democratic Socialists of America has seemingly enthused people like Sawant about the left marking its presence in Washington sometime in future and becoming relevant in national politics.

In the past few years DSA has created new chapters across the U.S. and reaped benefits of new young generation of members by aligning itself with the Sanders movement during the presidential election.

The Socialist Alternative also supported Sanders campaign initially but developed differences with him after Sanders decided to support Clinton after he failed to get the Democratic nomination.

The girl with the socialist tattoo: Kshama Sawant’s personal revolution

Sawant endorses the Green Party ticket of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka at the Roseland Theatre in Portland, Ore., Oct. 24, 2016.

Alliance-Making

Sawant does not rule out alliances with progressive and left-minded organizations in order to advance the left’s agenda and create a nationwide movement that will facilitate capturing power in the Senate and in the White House.

She believes there is a mistaken notion that if someone wants to start a radical campaign, one can only do that at the local level because the corporate establishment would not try to scuttle it. She said that during her re-election campaign in 2015, the Democratic Party establishment and the corporate establishment went to war against her.

“I think not only is it possible that the left campaign can be launched at the national level at some point, but it should be launched and we need to make alliances and certainly there is a need for being inclusive for all of us and create unity among all Left and progressive forces,” she said.

The Future of the Left

She said that Socialist Alternative alone cannot affect many changes although there is absolute need for “social democracy under the capitalist system.” The question of the left becoming a unified, cohesive force is being raised everywhere, including Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Scholar and philosopher Noam Chomsky said in an interview recently, quoted in Salon, that the left needs to become unified and integrated because the crisis of “potential extinction” is overshadowing it.

Sawant seemed to agree as she talked about making alliances with like-minded people and movements. “In America, to win the fight against people like Trump and the billionaires, this is required. Solidarity is a prerequisite for any social movement to become successful and all of our goal should be towards that and in my role as an activist, politician and member of the Socialist Alternative, I am trying to do this in Seattle by carrying people of all color and ethnicities and affiliations with me,” Sawant said.

However, she does not favor aligning with the American Communist party or the Green party. “The Communist Party has a rich history but they're not effective vehicles to achieve things at present and we have lot of disagreement with them,” she said.

While Socialist Alternative has supported Ralph Nader and his party in the past, the way Nader functions — appearing once every five years and then disappearing — only helps take away the oxygen from a movement, she said. Despite her passion for social justice and her claim of trying to carry people of all persuasions with her, Sawant has her critics as well as many say that her “righteous rhetoric” does more harm than good and that she might be able to get more things done had she been more collaborative. But Sawant seems unfazed by such criticism and dismisses them as establishment agenda to make her look vulnerable and isolated.

Will she consider running for Congress, or her party field a candidate for president? Or will she remain focused on local politics in Seattle?

Sawant said that no meaningful social change or impact can occur if a candidate is always limited to local campaign and local issues.

“Of course there is need for running in congressional or senatorial elections and need to contest the presidential election. The question here is not whether a left candidate can win the presidential election but the example that it can set and the huge amount of succor it can provide to working class movement for social justice and people’s rights, and the tremendous momentum it can create for the left movement,” she said.

“As for whether I personally can run for the Congress or the Senate in future, that is to be decided by the people and my party Socialist Alternative. But one thing I can say: You need to raise the banner of left politics in a big way to national level.”

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