Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative got no time to enjoy her December victory over the billionaires and political careerists who tried to recall her. She now faces a 2018 defamation lawsuit brought by the police who shot and killed Che Taylor in 2016, sparking outrage and protests. They seek a court-ordered payout for the alleged injury to their reputations caused by statements Sawant made after Taylor’s death.
The two cops in question had previously failed twice in Federal Court to pursue their complaint against the lone socialist on the Seattle City Council. Now, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled Sawant can be sued for defamation.
Right to organize under attack. Sawant is one of millions nationwide who have demonstrated to condemn racist, deadly policing. She called publicly for a movement to bring justice for Taylor and other victims of a police system unaccountable to the public. But being an outspoken, thrice elected socialist made her a target.
This lawsuit is not directed against any crime. Its goal is to hobble organizing against such government abuses as police violence, evictions, and budget cuts to needed services. The cops’ objective? To stop public criticism of themselves and officials’ actions by burying the groups in question in expensive, time-consuming litigation. If not stopped, this attack will chill the rights of all who exercise their constitutional right to protest how government is run.
These officers also have no case. Washington defamation law requires four tenets to bring charges. They are: falsity of claims; identifiability of the claimants: publication; and “malice and intent.” This case meets none. Taylor did die in an interaction with the police. Sawant did not name any specific officers. Defamation suits usually require the defendant to have self-published the statements. Sawant was quoted by bystanders. And what’s malicious about holding police accountable for cases of wrongdoing?
Court coddles cops, allows hearsay evidence. Defamation requires that claimants must be identified. Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the 9th Circuit ruled that although Sawant didn’t name the officers, people who heard her speak knew who she was talking about. The judge’s admission of hearsay as actual evidence sets a dangerous precedent that invites police and other powerful complainants to punish anyone who publicly condemns their actions. Sawant rightly maintains that this case would give police the power to “transform their political critics into defamation defendants by relying on the conclusions of friends, families and colleagues.”
The Court bent over backwards to help the police resurrect this case. Police lawyers were allowed to file and re-file their claim. This latest appeal makes the third chance granted to come up with a valid claim.
Kailyn Nicholson, an organizer with Socialist Alternative, describes this lawsuit as a baseless attempt to stop Sawant from using her office to build actions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and an attempt to intimidate the movement itself. Nicholson maintains, “Police and big business interests have lost four tries at getting rid of her … despite voter suppression and massive corporate spending. The same police and big business interests behind the recall and lawsuits are furious about the impact of socialist politics in Seattle.”
Police intimidation tactics. This lawsuit could endanger anyone who films police behavior, who reports police by badge numbers, in fact, anyone who even threatens to report cop abuse. Police also try to avoid accountability by covering their badge numbers with tape, as happened during the most violent attacks on protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police. The goal is suppression of free speech and erosion of police accountability, either in real time or retroactively in courts that favor them. This case opens a door that invites retaliation against a public now more trained than ever to spot police abuses as they happen.
The working class and its elected representatives have every right to criticize the police. It is not a crime to tell the truth and say officers or public figures commit acts of violence or other crimes. Why should anyone speak gingerly of police misconduct or avoid hurting their feelings? Che Taylor lost his life in an encounter with the cops who say Sawant damaged their reputations. How does an extinguished life equate to the reputations of two dangerous men with badges and guns?
If Sawant loses the case, she will be required to pay damages. Her opponents clearly have time and money to spare to take an outspoken socialist down a peg, and the court is helping them. This lawsuit arose out of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the bottom line is whether working people have the right to organize in defense of their communities. This attack is on anyone who criticizes the government and the ultra-wealthy law-and-order establishment it represents. Sawant’s enemies are only starting by targeting the socialist cause, to keep outspoken radicals like her silenced. Everyone who fights against this corrupt status quo should support Sawant’s defense.
Journalism and film school graduate Austen Rioux can be reached at FSnews@socialism.com.