PubliCola Questions: Nikkita Oliver

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As PubliCola prepares to endorse candidates in the August 3 mayoral and council primary elections, we reached out to the leading candidates for mayor and City Council Position 9 with questions about homelessness, housing, police accountability, and economic recovery.

Their answers to these questions will help inform our endorsements, coming out next week. Endorsements will be based on each candidate’s record of action, public statements, interviews with PubliCola and other media outlets, and responses at the many candidate forums that have taken place over the summer.

Today, we’re highlighting Nikkita Oliver and Brianna Thomas, two of the leading candidates for Seattle City Council Position 9, the seat currently held by council president Lorena González, who’s running for mayor.

A third candidate for this position, Sara Nelson, is the only candidate in any race who did not respond to our questions.

Nikkita Oliver, an attorney, organizer, and performer who rose to prominence during their unsuccessful but well-publicized run for mayor in 2017, runs a nonprofit, Creative Justice, that offers arts programming as an alternative to jail for young people. As an activist, they helped lead efforts to stop King County from building a new youth jail, and were deeply involved in last year’s Black Lives Matter protests as an advocate for divesting from the police department and investing in community safety, including housing, child care, and intervention programs. They also support ending exclusionary zoning, investing in municipal broadband (one way of enabling more people to work from home), and scaling up participatory budgeting, a way of allowing people to vote on what gets funded in the city budget.

Here’s what Oliver had to say in response to the eight questions PubliCola posed to the Position 9 candidates.

When responding to people living outdoors, the city has historically focused on large or highly visible encampments, and reserved resources and enhanced shelter or hotel beds for people at encampments removed by the city. This focus on large, visible encampments tends to exclude many unhoused people of color, such as Native Americans, from access to the most desirable services. What would you do to improve equity in access to services for unsheltered people of color, particularly the Black and Native homeless populations?

We need to be creating radical accessibility throughout the city for our unhoused residents. We propose ending sweeps and utilizing those dollars for garbage pick-up, mobile hygiene stations (including showers and clothes washing), accessibility of public restrooms and water stations, and mobile clinics and supports that include dental and physical health. Where possible, we would like to see mobile units that provide haircuts, undergarments, and other hygiene needs.

More of the services we utilize need to be led by communities of color, especially Black and Native communities, so that they are culturally responsive and representative of the communities with the least accessibility to services. These services and supports, including the above radical accessibility plan, need to be low-barrier. Black and Native communities experience the highest rates of criminalization and have historically (and presently) been brutalized by the government; therein having a rightful distrust of government supports and services. When people access city-based or city-funded services, they should not fear being further criminalized or brutalized while accessing those supports or being forced to commit to things like religious services, addiction services, or other types of services while receiving basic needs supports.

Meeting the basic needs of our unhoused residents cannot be dependent upon compliance with receiving other types of services. Such requirements make it hard to build trust and rapport, especially in Black and Native communities, and often “turn people off” to receiving such support later, if needed. Having mobile units also allows the City to respond to different needs throughout the city and target our supports towards those most marginalized and vulnerable community members, such as the Black and Native communities. It also allows us to be flexible about how and where we show up, as many residents without homes may not always remain in the same place. Having the ability to be flexible and evolve with the needs of community members without homes is key to meeting these initial basic needs.

“More dollars to the Seattle Police Department will not make Seattle safer. It will only further entrench a violent and reactionary response to harm. It is also fiscally irresponsible, as increased investments in SPD continuously fail to deliver on the false promise of public safety through policing and punitive systems.”

It cannot stop there though. The racial wealth gap, exclusionary zoning and red lining, the lack of affordable housing and low-barrier shelters and supportive transitional housing, the continued rising cost of living in our region, and the lack of access to high-wage employment are all largely to blame for why so many of our unhoused resident are Black and Native. We need low-barrier permanent and transitional supportive housing that is, again, led by Black and Native communities because we are able to respond to the cultural and spiritual needs of our community members. The expertise to run these facilities well and sustainability may not exist throughout all Black and Native communities and so the City must commit to providing the technical support needed to build and sustain these spaces. For example, we could start by working with the Africatown Community Land Trust regarding the Keiro Building so that [the Africatown Land Trust] can launch culturally rooted supportive housing in the Central District.

Lastly, the Race and Social Justice Initiative requires the RSJI toolkit be employed in assessing our work and implementation as a City. We must take seriously utilizing all tools at our reach to ensure our work is actually aligning with our vision for the City as it pertains to RSJI. In this regard, we should employ full-time staff in each applicable department whose only role is to ensure that we are to our very best aligning with the principle and values outlined by RSJI.

In 2020, a majority of the city council said they supported defunding the police by at least 50 percent. Was it a mistake for them to make this commitment? What gaps in Seattle’s non-police public safety network can be filled on the shortest timeline, and which are the most pressing priorities?

No, this was not a mistake. I do not believe that we would have won the 18 percent defund without the movement pressure for 50 percent and the commitment of council to at least try. Additionally, Seattle Police Department’s budget has doubled since 2010 when John T. Williams was murdered. In the last 10 years we have seen a DOJ investigation, a consent decree (which we are still under), the murders of many more residents, the development of three offices related to the accountability legislation, the 2017 accountability legislation passing unanimously, the 2018 CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement], which prevented the accountability legislation from being fully implemented, multiple uprisings in defense of Black lives, and the 2020/21 protests where thousands of protestors were brutalized.

Some would say 50 percent was not a well thought out number. I would say, considering the above, the continued outsized growth of SPD’s budget, and the lack of true public safety for all, 50 percent is well thought out and reflective of the lack of change we have seen in SPD and public safety generally since 2010 despite much investment in SPD. More dollars to the Seattle Police Department will not make Seattle safer. It will only further entrench a violent and reactionary response to harm. It is also fiscally irresponsible, as increased investments in SPD continuously fail to deliver on the false promise of public safety through policing and punitive systems.

Big picture: The City should see as many functions as possible moved out of the hands of armed officers or from being supervised and overseen by SPD officers. With some retraining away from the culture of SPD, the parking enforcement officer (PEO) workforce could take some of these tasks as outlined below. This will likely have to be tackled in the new CBA because it would be taking aways tasks currently assigned to officers.

Defund and remove all military equipment designed for crowd control and remove SPD’s responsibility for crowd control. Crowd control is a broad category which does not just include protests. There are other groups that could be accessed to do this work. When it comes to sporting events, we could work with our partners in organized labor to have trained flaggers help people and cars move effectively around the stadiums, partner with the community safety hubs (funding in the 2020 rebalance package with $4 million), bike brigade, and trained de-escalators and peacekeepers for rallies.

Lastly, to ensure some brevity in my answer, Decriminalize Seattle, who I’ve been organizing with since 2019, in our 2020 blueprint presented to the Council a blueprint for police divestment and community investment that I think is still useful as a guiding document for this work. I will still outline a few things below that I believe can happen quickly.

“As officers continue to leave the department, new hiring should be frozen, all salary savings should be recaptured and moved into funding and scaling up non-police responses to harm and meeting basic needs.”

Civilianized 911: As of June 1, 911 was no longer housed with SPD. It is now a part of the Community Safety and Communication Center—a new, independent city department. This department should house other civilian crisis response and program safety programs. We can quickly make sure the new dispatch has new training and operating instructions so that they are sending calls to non-police responders when possible. We need to expand HealthOne so that it can receive a larger volume of calls. The city is investing $10 million in an 18-month expansion of community-based responses. We need to assess those who received funding, what kinds of calls or referrals can they receive, what is the connection between other HSD programs and supports and our new civilianized 911, and what other programs or infrastructure needs to be built (based on types of calls 911 typically receives) to provide the best supports when residents are in need or crisis. As officers continue to leave the department, new hiring should be frozen, all salary savings should be recaptured and moved into funding and scaling up non-police responses to harm and meeting basic needs.

Parking Enforcement Officers (also supposed to be transferred): PEOs were supposed to be transferred on June 1st, but there is a debate about whether they should go to CSCC (the new department) or to SDOT. The PEOs want to go to CSCC, their supervisors (and the mayor) want them to go to SDOT. This move will not happen until September while the City figures out where PEOs should go. The PEOs want to take on more work that police currently do, and they think moving to CSCC will make that possible: “SPEOG union president Nanette Toyoshima, on the other hand, wrote in a letter to council last year that parking enforcement officers could take over some duties usually handled by sworn police officers, like responding to minor car crashes and enforcing red light violations, if they were in the new CSCC, according to PubliCola.”

Local elected officials and candidates have often emphasized the need to revitalize downtown Seattle as the primary focus of post-COVID recovery. What is one specific action you would take in Seattle’s non-downtown neighborhoods to promote economic recovery and neighborhood vitality?

The Seattle City Council has already passed legislation for commercial rent control for small businesses in Seattle affected by COVID-19. This ordinance provides protections for Seattle small businesses in the form of rent control, repayment plan requirements, and prohibition on late fees, interest, and other charges. One issue with the legislation is that prohibitions outlined in the legislation only remain in effect until the civil emergency proclaimed by Mayor Jenny Durkan on March 3, 2020 is terminated. Commercial rent control in a city as expensive as Seattle is generally a good thing for small businesses; I recommend we keep this ordinance in place even after the emergency proclamation has been terminated.

Assuming Charter Amendment 29 becomes law in Seattle, what city programs would you cut or deprioritize in order to dedicate 12 percent of the city’s general-fund budget to human services, and how would you go about adding 2,000 new shelter or housing spots by the end of next year?

Funding: This is a major issue with Charter Amendment 29. It has no specified revenue source and if passed it will require taking funds from other places in order to meet the mandate. The best options will be those that do not impact other basic needs services provided by the City, promote a just transition for impacted workers, and address the ways in which the City continues to criminalize poverty rather than respond to the underlying needs and root causes of the homelessness and housing affordability crisis. Divest from the Seattle Police Department’s budget and allocate funds towards the mandate. Divest from the larger criminal punishment system such as Seattle Municipal Court, allocate funds towards the mandate, and work with PROTEC17 [one of the main city unions] to plan for a just transition of workers whose jobs may be impacted. Divest from the larger criminal punishment system, such as jail contracts with King County jail, with the understanding that many of those who are prosecuted in SMC and/or jailed in KCJ are also impacted by the housing affordability crisis and homelessness. End sweeps and allocate funds typically used for sweeps towards the mandate.

“Qualified immunity remains a major issue for the majority of lawsuits against officers for excessive use of force. Instead of waiting for issues of qualified immunity to change, we could attempt to create a path around the qualified immunity roadblock by establishing a local cause of action.”

Building Housing: This is another problem with the Charter Amendment. Building 2,000 units of housing within 1 years—1,000 of them within six months—means that much of what is developed will likely be temporary and/or emergency shelter. The best options include: Purchase a hotel and expand the JustCare program. Purchase or contract pre-existing affordable housing and rehab it for habitation and temporary and/or permanent supportive services. Expand tiny house villages. Figure out how the Jump Start funds intended to build green, social, affordable housing can also be utilized to meet the mandate of the 2000 units. But do NOT touch Jump Start funds for services. These dollars already have purposes for which they are allocated—one of those purposes includes green, social, affordable housing. I do acknowledge that this option does not necessarily get us more housing overall. It only addresses the mandate and not the larger crisis. It is also not exactly what Jump Start was intended to do. This option will also render the least amount of units in a year. Finally, one year is a tight, if not impossible, timeline for any housing project to be fully built.

How would you build upon the police accountability ordinance the city council adopted in 2017, and which of your plans could be implemented without approval from the city’s police unions?

I would like to pursue something that New York City did. I want to acknowledge I am putting this idea forward without any consultation from the City Attorney’s office, but it is something I think could have traction in Seattle when it comes to police accountability. New York City Council passed legislation that allows citizens to sue police for violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. “It is a local law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to creating a right of security against unreasonable search and search and seizure, that is enforceable by civil action and requiring the law department to post online certain information regarding the civil action.”

Qualified immunity remains a major issue for the majority of lawsuits against officers for excessive use of force. Instead of waiting for issues of qualified immunity to change, we could attempt to create a path around the qualified immunity roadblock by establishing a local cause of action. In NYC, they added a new chapter to the NYC administrative code which establishes a local right to be free from excessive force and unreasonable search and seizures. This right mirrors the Fourth Amendment and is intended to be interpreted the same way.

Additionally, it allows residents to sue police for the deprivation of that right, while explicitly providing that “qualified immunity or any other substantially equivalent immunity” will not shield officers from responsibility. Additionally, the measure holds officers AND their departments liable for violations of a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights—potentially creating two levels of accountability pathways. Again, I recognize I have not discussed this idea with our City’s legal department nor central staff. However, it is promising that another city has been able to move this ordinance forward.

Most local candidates say they support allowing more types of housing in Seattle’s exclusionary single-family areas. As a city council member, what’s the first piece of legislation you would propose to move toward the goal of eliminating or modifying single-family zoning?

I would vote to fully repeal the apartment ban. We have made small steps in this direction, but we haven’t completely lifted the apartment ban. Our development needs to be thoughtful—density must be shared across the City, we must stop urban sprawl, improve public transportation access and equity, make more areas of the City walkable, improve access to key amenities and services for all Seattleites, and we must have in place anti-displacement and anti-gentrification policies as well as opportunities for BIPOC families to generate equity. Many BIPOC families have been historically and presently excluded from wealth building opportunities.

“We also need co-ops and community land trusts in order to increase the opportunity for homeownership and equity for all Seattleites (especially those who have been presently and historically excluded from such wealth building opportunities).”

Density should be shared across the city. Priority areas for urban villages and urban enclaves are areas where we know there is or will be robust public transportation. This will help us to achieve our climate goals, build targeted transportation infrastructure, and make more of the City walkable. The more people can live in the areas where they work, go to school, grocery shop, access childcare and healthcare services the less people will drive and the more accessible our city will become by public transportation, bike, or on foot.

The above being said, we should also consider an “urban infill strategy” similar to Portland in order to develop key “missing middle” housing for workers. We also need co-ops and community land trusts in order to increase the opportunity for homeownership and equity for all Seattleites (especially those who have been presently and historically excluded from such wealth building opportunities).

What is one specific transportation project you will propose funding to enhance racial and social equity in the city?

The City of Seattle must fund increased bus service in South End/South King County communities that have been displaced or are at risk of displacement. While we focus on comprehensive transit improvements throughout the city, the fact remains that many of our poorest workers and everyday residents commute long distances into the city because of high rates of displacement in Black, brown, and other predominantly working-class communities. We have the power to change that—to wrest control of transit funding from erratic state-level funding by investing in new transit pathways that alleviate the commutes of residents in South Seattle and surrounding areas like Federal Way, Renton, and Auburn. We could pay for these transit improvements by implementing a tax on luxury vehicles and/or a tax on large/luxury homes in the city.

According to the latest Point in Time Count of the county’s homeless population, about half the unsheltered people in King County live in their vehicles. Yet there are very few programs or resources available to vehicular residents, and little public awareness of the size and circumstances of this population. Name one action you would take to specifically address the needs of vehicular residents in Seattle.

Expand the availability of parking lot programs throughout the entire city. Providing safe places for people to park with electricity, water, and City services will create safer spaces for us to be able to build rapport, have a better idea of how many people are living in their vehicles, and gain a deeper understand of what supports, services, and housing options people living in their vehicles actually want and need.

2 thoughts on “PubliCola Questions: Nikkita Oliver”

  1. “Seattle Police Department’s budget has doubled since 2010 when John T. Williams was murdered.”

    Wait, what? Why has no one framed the issue in these terms, that a 50% reduction would take us back to 2010? Many of us can remember 2010 and obviously we are no “safer” or whatever we pay for than we were then.

  2. There you go again Nikkita…. more free stuff for people on a bad plan. Giving away free stuff for nothing only results in more people doing nothing. It’s a guaranteed failure. Please win. Focus on the word “Mayor” and someday soon we can do this together! With your vision and my commentary, Seattle could really achieve your dream of a hilarious third-world shit-hole. It would be just like Detroit in 2010-12. Making fun of you when homelessness explodes will be so entertaining for those who know how to create real value in a community. Steve Willie.

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