On a rainy Seattle Thursday, a group of politicians and activists huddled under a bright orange canopy that matched the Amazon-branded skyscraper above to protest the tech giant’s record spending on a consequential upcoming election.
The group included current Seattle City Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Kshama Sawant, and Lorena Gonzalez as well as candidates Shaun Scott and Tammy Morales. Democratic organizers and socialist activists also turned out carrying signs with slogans like “Tax Amazon” and “Defend our Democracy.”
They turned out on a characteristically wet and windy morning in Seattle because of Amazon’s $1 million contribution to a group seeking to upend the City Council in November. The donation, announced this week, brings Amazon’s total contributions to the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee to $1.45 million.
“Let’s remember what’s at stake on election night,” Sawant said. “What will be at stake is who gets to run Seattle, big business and their corporate stooges or ordinary working people and those of us who share our vision of social justice for our city.”
The group gathered in front of the Amazon Spheres, a landmark of the company’s headquarters. Their comments represented a dramatically different vision of Seattle’s current leadership than the one described by the Chamber’s PAC, the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE).
CASE Executive Director Markham McIntyre issued a statement during the press conference calling it “another example of the toxic, divisive tactics of the current Seattle City Council.” McIntyre noted that Amazon’s critics supported business when it backed Sound Transit 3, a massive expansion of the region’s public transit system paid for by increased taxes.
“However, once the business community highlighted the need for change and a functioning Seattle City Council, our contributions suddenly became an issue,” McIntrye said. “The hypocrisy is disappointing but to be expected from the status quo.”
Sawant countered, claiming the business community is only willing to get behind programs that raise revenue by taxing citizens, rather than corporations.
“It is unmitigated shamelessness on their part to use such words about divisiveness,” she said. “The very epitome of divisiveness is what Bezos did when he dropped an additional $1 million in order to buy this city’s democracy.”
O’Brien challenged the notion that the current City Council is ineffective, noting its role passing a nation-leading $15 minimum wage and other progressive policies. He said the business leaders and advocates are concerned “not that we were dysfunctional, but that we’re too functional.”
“Seattle is seen as a national leader on the quality, the type, and the amount of legislation we pass and the Chamber of Commerce and the businesses in the city, their concern is not that we’re dysfunctional, it’s that we’re actually representing the values of the people of Seattle,” O’Brien told the crowd. “Now they’re going to spend millions of dollars to try to convince the people of Seattle … that this council is misguided, that it doesn’t represent the people of Seattle.”
Several Amazon employees participated in the press conference, including Matthew Smith, a cargo handler at the company’s distribution center in Kent, Wash.
“I’m here to say that this million-dollar cash dump by Amazon to buy our City Council and swing it to the right is completely unacceptable,” he said. “Amazon workers like me, the ones here behind me, are coming together to unite against this company’s brazen attempt to corrupt our democracy.”
Gonzalez has introduced legislation that would prevent donations like the one Amazon announced this week. Her proposal would ban donations of more than $5,000 to independent expenditure political action committees in Seattle, challenging an interpretation of the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court case.
“My corporate PAC bill says no to greed and corruption,” Gonzalez said Thursday. “It says no to a democracy that is purchased. It says no, Seattle City Council is not the deal of the day, Amazon, and we are not selling our Seattle City Council and our democracy to the highest corporate bitter.”
The event had echoes of previous protests on Amazon’s campus. In 2017, Sawant led several demonstrations outside the Amazon Spheres over a short-lived “head tax” that would have raised money for housing and homelessness services by taxing big businesses like Amazon. The City Council passed, then repealed, that tax amid protest from Amazon and other companies.
Sawant led the crowd in a chant on Thursday, as she has in previous demonstrations: “When billionaires are on the attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”
The head tax fight set the stage for the battle for the Seattle City Council that is underway today. Seven of the nine seats are up for grabs, which critics of the current leadership, like Amazon, see as a big opportunity.