After an inspiring but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Seattle mayor in 2017, Nikkita Oliver thought they had run their last electoral campaign. But with Seattle’s two at-large City Council positions at stake in November’s election, community members pleaded with Oliver to reconsider.
“After a lot of conversations with community elders and grassroots organizers, running a campaign that was even more bold about abolition, aims to defund the police, and the goal of building public health and public safety strategies that actually meet the needs of residents was something that people wanted to do,” Oliver told Sojourners. “So [I] committed to running for Seattle City Council as part of hopefully a larger movement strategy for addressing a lot of the crises that our city is facing.”
The 35-year-old lawyer and activist, who won August’s primaries for one of the council’s at-large positions with 40 percent of votes, now faces Sara Nelson in the Nov. 2 election. Oliver is part of a growing number of abolitionist campaigns popping up for city-level positions across the country, including Los Angeles, New York City, and Minneapolis. Many of these candidates, like Oliver, run on platforms that prioritize social, racial, and environmental justice, and call for the diversion of funds from carceral institutions into community-based solutions.
Yasmine Pomeroy, one of several progressive candidates running for Los Angeles City Council in 2022, said she thinks the visibility of these abolitionist campaigns can be attributed to more young people getting involved in politics.
“We’re starting to realize more and more just how important it is to pay attention to local politics,” Pomeroy said. “We cannot control the federal level of politics, but we can control what’s going on in our own backyards.”
Oliver became an abolitionist, in part, because of their experiences working as a chaplain in Seattle-area youth detention centers. Oliver would pray with incarcerated youth, bring spiritual texts, and talk about life. During one visit, a 17-year-old confided in Oliver that they felt as if they’d never be able to live outside of the jail. The teen had been in and out of detention facilities since the age of 12.
“I had a very clear moment of thinking, ‘We’re doing something really bad if children at the age of 17 are having the notion that they cannot function outside of a secure facility, outside of a cage,’” Oliver said. “That’s what really propelled my journey as an abolitionist, being a chaplain within a children’s jail.”
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, who placed first in the primary race for Seattle city attorney, said that while voters have embraced more progressive ideas, she thinks moderate voters are still “freaked out” by the term abolition because of misconceptions about what it means. Her campaign was motivated in part by working as a Seattle public defender, where she saw the city “mostly prosecuting poverty and disability,” including, she said, a case where a person stole a block of cheese and a beer.
“To me, abolition is the process of building up healthy communities that don’t need cops, courts, and jails for every problem,” Thomas-Kennedy said. “So, it really is like about building up a community while things are coming down.”
For Oliver, building up Seattle has meant finding creative ways to use their campaign as a means of mobilizing the community to meet their neighbors’ needs. Oliver has leveraged their platform to run vaccine clinics, distribute food and school supply kits, and engage people who have historically been marginalized by electoral politics. They’ve also redistributed campaign funds to employ community members and support small businesses, as is within the parameters of election law.
A recent survey conducted by USA Today/Ipsos found that only 1 in 5 people in the United States supported the “defund the police” movement. However, when asked whether they support reallocating some funding from police budgets to support social services, a majority of respondents from the same survey were supportive, findings that were echoed in a similar survey from Data for Progress/Vox.
Seattle has long been considered one of the most progressive cities in the United States, but, as in many other metropolitan areas, its politics do not necessarily protect its most vulnerable residents. Black people make up just 6 percent of the population in King County, where Seattle is located, but 28 percent of the homeless population. The same disparities can be seen in health care, education, and wealth.
Rev. Bianca Davis-Lovelace, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and tri-chair of the Washington state chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, said there’s a culture in Seattle that wants to be known for being liberal and progressive, but people don’t always vote in a way that prioritizes members of the community who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
“It’s not just saying that you’re progressive because you elected someone that’s from the LGBTQ community, you show us that you’re progressive because you believe in anti-racism, you believe in making sure police brutality is not a culture in your city,” Davis-Lovelace said. “You’re actively making sure that all people are uplifted in the process of creating systems that will support collective liberation.”
For Davis-Lovelace, supporting a candidate who is unafraid to speak out and take action against injustice is also a matter of Christian faith. It’s one of the reasons she chose to personally endorse Oliver’s City Council campaign.
“I love the fact that Nikkita has reached out to the faith community,” Davis-Lovelace said. “I have seen Nikkita work with Muslim women, I have seen Nikkita work with the Jewish community. Nikkita is serious about the building of a people-centered movement that includes all people.”