Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Anyone out there know the title's reference? Mary Harris Jones, or Mother Jones. I first came to know her from the fantastic Ani Difranco/Utah Phillips collaboration "Fellow Workers". I highly recommend buying a copy here. Quick summary, though hearing Utah Phillips tell it is what really does the story justice: Mother Jones was a union organizer, particularly involved in helping striking coal miners. For her efforts, she was dubbed "the most dangerous woman in America" during a 1902 trial because, as the prosecuting attorney put it, "..she comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign…crooks her finger and twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out." As the story goes, Theodore Roosevelt himself referred to her this way, when she was 83 years old. 

This phrase also appeared in last week's Seattle Times front page feature on Kshama Sawant ("the K is silent, as in 'I'm knowledgeable about knives from Vermont, by Kshama Sawant'"-©The Stranger), the Socialist city council member here in Seattle. There is a brief reference made to the fact that the book she is currently writing about herself was initially titled "The Most Dangerous Woman in America." Cool, I thought, what an appropriate title…it's ironic, powerful, a nod to the history of Socialism, it speaks to the power of the people which is what government fears most! However, the next graph had this quote from Sawant: "It was news to me when I saw [the title]…for a self-authored book, it sounds too self-important. That isn't me."

The month prior, I had gotten up early on Martin Luther King Day, and made my way down to the Central District for a morning of workshops, rallies, and an afternoon march through Seattle streets, the theme being Fight for Your Rights in 2015. I was especially interested in attending a workshop on fighting for your right to affordable housing. It promised to provide info on "how to build a movement to stop rent hikes, win rent control, and massively expand affordable housing in Seattle." It advertised that 2 of the 3 speakers were leading figures of the local Socialist movement, Kshama Sawant and Jess Spear. Much to my anger and chagrin, not until after the workshop started did a legislative aide to Sawant (Adam Ziemkowski) get up, declare that Kshama was not speaking this morning, but that they had to say that she was because otherwise "people wouldn't show up." He awkwardly laughed a minute later and said "seriously though, Kshama would love to be here, but she hurt her ankle." He reeked of arrogance and, oddly enough, establishment politics. I was reminded about how many times I've heard that Sawant's star power is getting the better of her, that she's impossible to get meetings with, she's too big for her britches, etc. I had so far dismissed these whisperings as that of a scared establishment trying to undermine her agenda. But, her people are suggesting that all of us are only in that room to hear her? I was spitting mad! I dragged my ass down there because I care about the issues! Because I'm watching my neighborhood get torn to pieces, all the affordable places demolished and replaced with 750k+ town homes, and I'm seeing the apartments that are left take the opportunity to double the rent. I was there because 2 years ago, the last time I had to move, I was given 30 days notice to find a place, and I couldn't find one. I'm lucky enough to have kind friends who let me stay with them for months while I desperately searched. Here's the bleak picture of trying to find a place to live in Seattle when you make less than 25k/year: you scour the internet constantly, call listings obsessively, show up at addresses 3 hours early, find out the address of the landlord and send them flowers, your latest album, anything, let them know you're a nice person, beg them please rent to me please please please. It's humiliating, in many ways. And meanwhile, federal money from the EB-5 program is developing more than 2 billion dollars worth of luxury buildings around downtown instead of helping economically distressed areas (as intended). That's why I was in that workshop, that's why everyone else was there too. It wasn't to see a celebrity, it's because the quality of our lives depend on the issue. The workshop proceeded to be a huge waste of time. A failure. A wasted opportunity. I sensed Adam the legislative assistant understood that, but he certainly didn't have the charisma or know-how to salvage it. He had a room full of engaged interested people, and all that was offered were two under-qualified speakers (Jess Spear didn't show up either) who rambled for way too long. Next time, if you're going to admit to lying in order to dupe people into getting into the room, at least respect them enough to try and get some actual work done!

Back to The Most Dangerous Woman in America. I was disappointed that Kshama Sawant missed an opportunity to explain the reference, as opposed to claiming the title sounded too self-important. She missed the entire point, as well as a great teaching moment...though I know it's possible the Times left out her explanation. Truthfully, I feel guilty being critical of someone I have a lot of respect for, so I want to note that I voted for Sawant, and I believe she does many good things. It's unfortunate that my closest interaction with her staff was so disappointing. But the positive result of that negative experience is that the article, as well as the workshop incident, caused me to revisit that Ani Difranco/Utah Phillips album. I listened to it all morning, and it affirmed my sense of awe and respect of the power of music to educate and entertain, all at once. Look at Bob Dylan. Marvin Gaye. Blue Scholars. Nina Simone. I love all that music, deeply, and I am reminded that I want to double down and create entertaining music that can also serve as a chronicle of the goings-on of our time. MoZo is heading into the studio again at the end of May, and we'll be working on bringing you the best we have to offer. Stay tuned.

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