Lessons from the I-97 Seattle divestment initiative

Dave Jette, The Electronic Intifada, 6 March 2009

“This is a farce!” Washington state senator Adam Kline could barely control his rage. It was a sunny August Friday in Seattle, and he had been standing outside the Madrona neighborhood farmers market waiting for the volunteers who showed up regularly, collecting signatures for Seattle ballot initiative 97. He would pass out a single sheet of paper listing truths, half-truths and outright fabrications, in an attempt to keep voters from signing the ballot initiative.

What was in I-97 that had gotten this liberal Democrat from a diverse neighborhood of a progressive city so enraged? Seattle ballot initiative 97, known locally as the Seattle Divest from War Initiative, if adopted by voters, would have required the Seattle Employees’ Retirement Fund to divest its funds from companies who are directly involved in illegal wars and occupations in the Middle East.

Of course, this would have covered Halliburton and other military contractors in Iraq. But I-97 didn’t stop there. It had the audacity to apply the same standards to companies involved in all illegal wars and occupations in the Middle East, including the apartheid wall in the West Bank, Israeli settlements in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights, as well as a possible Israeli attack on Iran — all of them illegal under international law.

Campaign volunteers had six months to collect almost 18,000 signatures from Seattle voters — equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the last mayor’s race. Not surprisingly, they started at the anti-war events. But the days when the local anti-war movement could mobilize tens of thousands of people are long gone. The crowds were very supportive, but small.

The campaign had been timed to coincide with summer activities — farmers markets, street fairs, gay pride parade, even Seattle Hempfest all fell within the signature gathering window. By September, the campaign had more than 18,000 signatures, with a month to go, and the possibility of a three-week extension after that.

The 36th state legislative district in Washington encompasses some of the most progressive neighborhoods in Seattle. And for years, the 36th District Democrats have been known for their “leftist fringe” politics. However, insisting that the Israeli government and military be held to the same standards as the US government and military proved too much for this bastion of radicalism within the Democratic Party. A resolution in support of I-97 was voted down in a voice vote at the group’s July meeting amid accusations of “singling out” Israel, talk of Green Party conspiracies to hurt Barack Obama’s presidency chances (Green Party of Seattle had endorsed I-97) and angry diatribes by the vice-chair of the 36th District Democrats.

The campaign initially caught its opponents by surprise. Media coverage was generally positive, as the only sources quoted were campaign press releases and spokespersons. Furthermore, practically every anti-war organization in town agreed to endorse the campaign with very little debate.

The opposition’s campaign

But it didn’t take long for opponents to mobilize. A “No on I-97” campaign was launched and it immediately hired one of the best-connected public-relations firms in Seattle, one that had as its clients Wal-Mart of Washington State and the logging company Weyerhaeuser. Surprisingly, the public media onslaught that the campaign had braced itself for never materialized. It became clear very quickly that the opposition was limiting its publicity to its base of supporters in the mainstream Jewish media that could be counted on to stand up for Israel no matter the facts. Apparently they had realized that any attack on I-97 in the general media will only bring public attention to the issues raised by the ballot initiative — exactly what the campaign wanted.

The “No on I-97” campaign also recruited a small number of people to tail campaign volunteers, and try to discourage voters from signing the ballot initiative by handing out a so-called “fact sheet” that included many half-truths and lies. While somewhat effective at reducing the signature rate, this turned out to be a very inefficient use of the opponents’ time, because signature gatherers would simply move around the block or go to a different site in order to avoid the hassle. And once the campaign stopped publicizing its signature gathering locations on its website, this tactic’s effectiveness fell even further.

The opponents did succeed in getting many high-power elected officials, including many liberal Democrats, to sign a letter against I-97. These included the mayor and many state senators and state representatives. At a meeting with their supporters, they even claimed that both US senators from Washington were ready to publicly oppose I-97, once it was on the ballot. Once again, this was of little use to the opposition because of their unwillingness to launch a public campaign against I-97. The list of prominent opponents was included in the “decline to sign” handout that opponents used in their attempt to keep Seattle voters from signing the initiative, and was posted to the “No on I-97” website, but didn’t go farther than that.

In addition to their high-powered PR firm, the opposition also hired one of the most prestigious legal firms in Seattle to represent them in their lawsuit against I-97. Initially the plaintiffs tried to change the summary language on the signature form — written by the city attorney’s office — claiming that the language was biased. Of course, the judge rejected the truly biased language that they tried to insert on the form.

In the second phase of their legal challenge, the plaintiffs claimed that the subject matter of I-97 is not appropriate for a ballot initiative. Citing legal challenges to ballot initiatives in rural Washington counties, they claimed that I-97 should be enjoined from appearing on the ballot — once again, trying to remove the issue from public debate. Despite the heroic efforts of the campaign’s pro bono lawyer, the judge ruled that only the pension board can set investment policy for the retirement fund, ending the ballot initiative before the signatures were even turned in.

Interestingly, even in victory, the opponents went out of their way to keep news of I-97 out of the media. There were no press releases, no calls to the local papers or radio stations, and when the local National Public Radio affiliate ran a story about the court ruling, the sound bite came from the city attorney’s office, which had also been mobilized against the initiative.

Learning from I-97

The legal setback only ended the ballot initiative phase of the campaign. The judge did not prohibit the retirement fund from divesting from companies engaged in war and occupation. He only ruled that divestment cannot be mandated via a ballot initiative. The campaign is considering its options, including a non-binding resolution for the 2009 ballot.

Even though high-power legal and PR firms succeeded in denying Seattle voters their democratic right of oversight of a city government entity, there are many lessons that can be learned from the I-97 ballot initiative. In hindsight, it would have been better to phrase the initiative language as an advisory non-binding question. A non-binding resolution would have generated an equal amount of debate, discussion and voter education, which is the primary goal of such campaigns. After all, war profiteers will not change their behavior based on the decisions of one investment fund. In states where non-binding resolutions can be placed on the ballot, this tactic can be a powerful tool.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the I-97 campaign is derived from the opposition’s total unwillingness to engage in a public debate of the issues, except to try and interfere with signature gathering. They did everything they could to minimize media coverage of I-97, and they fought to keep it off the ballot. It shows that above all else, they were interested in minimizing public attention to issues of war and occupation — and war profiteering — in the Middle East. After all, supporters of current US policy in the Middle East are experts at manipulating levers of power, at the state, local and federal levels. Their weakness is their inability to engage and convince the general public, especially when anti-war activists succeed in framing the debate as an anti-war/anti-occupation issue, tapping into the opposition of the general public (especially in urban centers) to the warmongering that has been a key aspect of US foreign policy since September 2001.

Another lesson of the I-97 campaign was the importance of the element of surprise. On the political front, the opposition never did get its act together. It took them almost three months (half of the 180-day signature gathering window) to even begin to mount a timid and ineffective “decline to sign” campaign.

I-97 also pointed out the importance of building alliances where there is a shared goal. Neither the Iraq activists nor the Palestine solidarity community would have been able to collect 18,000 signatures in six months. But working together, they managed to do just that. At the same time, it is important to recognize the limits of coalition work. Many anti-war activists have argued — correctly — that low-income and minority communities bear a disproportionate share of the cost of the US government’s foreign wars and occupations. At the same time, many leaders in these communities have not been willing to prioritize anti-war organizing at the expense of their immediate, short-term campaigns and objectives.

A campaign similar to I-97 can be successful in other cities across the United States, especially if organizers learn some lessons from the experience in Seattle: take it to the people. If you know that you have public opinion on your side, don’t waste your time with “leaders” who have careers to protect and election campaigns to worry about. It is always possible to buy off or intimidate a handful of “representatives” who vote in public and run for reelection based on that voting record. There are many good people in positions of power — from local pension boards to the US Congress — who will refuse to do the right thing out of fear and careerist calculations. The general public, on the other hand, cannot be bought, because there are too many of them, and cannot be intimidated, because they vote in secret.

The means is the end. Yes, it is a lot of work to get an initiative on the ballot. But every signature collected represents one more person who heard about, and thought about your campaign. This is especially true if your campaign goes beyond the general consensus in your community, for example bringing Iran or Palestine or Afghanistan into the debate about war and occupation.

Know your public. It is much easier to collect signatures for a ballot initiative on an issue that the voters care deeply about or that has caused outrage among the general public. It is also easier to recruit volunteers for such an issue. Make the connections that hit the raw nerve, but be careful not to overreach. The connection must make sense to the general public, not just the activists. The connections between US policy in Iraq, Iran and Palestine were a natural fit, and the only people who opposed this were either apologists for Israel or local Democratic Party hacks.

Use the element of surprise to your advantage. A lot of work can happen behind the scenes before a grassroots campaign goes public. In Seattle, campaign organizers spent a year researching the pension fund investment policies, ballot access rules and precedents (specifically on South Africa and Darfur). They also put together a campaign calendar, including a list of public venues to do signature gathering at. When they submitted their language to the city clerk’s office, they were ready with a press release, a website, a legal campaign organization with tax ID, bank account, treasurer and satisfying all other legal requirements. In other words, they were ready to start on day one, while the opposition took three months to organize itself.

Don’t forget the legal details. Most states have strict laws governing electoral campaigns, especially around bookkeeping and financial reporting. These are different from rules governing the activities of nonprofit organizations and other grassroots groups that don’t engage in the electoral process. And many ballot initiatives, especially controversial ones, are likely to face legal challenges. So try to have a pro bono lawyer or legal team in place. Fortunately many activist lawyers are willing to help. But they need to be brought into the campaign at the early stages. (They can also help with the ballot language, to minimize risk of the ballot being thrown out on a technicality.)

Control your own schedule. Signature gathering requires spending many hours outside. In much of the country, the climate is a factor. The signature drive won’t be successful if the public is not willing to stop and talk, which will be the case in cold or wet weather. The political climate is also a factor. Are your potential volunteers working on other campaigns? Is the general public preoccupied with other controversial issues? Are the voters ready to lead, or are they still counting on their “leaders” to solve their problems? All of these factors affect not only the public’s willingness to stop and sign your ballot petition, but also your ability to recruit volunteers. Finally, know your deadlines, and keep track of your progress.

No two campaigns are the same, and no experience can be fully replicated from one city to the next. However, the experience of I-97 in Seattle has shown that it is possible to use the ballot initiative process to educate the public, keep their attention focused on issues of war and occupation in the Middle East, and mount a serious challenge, at the local level, to the foreign policies of the US government.

As anti-war activists’ honeymoon with Obama ends, many will once again look for ways to oppose their government’s policies in the Middle East. An anti-war/anti-occupation ballot initiative may be a great way to focus that energy.

Dave Jette was the campaign treasurer for the Seattle Divest from War and Occupation campaign.

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