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Politics

Two Seattle candidates reflect rise of abolitionism in U.S. politics

Nikkita Oliver and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy
Photos via Associated Press and Thomas-Kennedy campaign
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Nikkita Oliver, left, and Nicole Thomas-Kennedy are abolitionists running for office in Seattle. Oliver is seeking a position on the Seattle City Council while Thomas-Kennedy is running for city attorney.

On a Saturday in Genesee Park in south Seattle, elected officials, including state Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-Seattle), are talking to a group of volunteers who are ready to knock on doors. They’re on a mission for Seattle city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy.

The representative tells the crowd Thomas-Kennedy is running as an abolitionist.

“That is a transformative act. It is an act that’s standing on 400 years of work to get to this moment here in Seattle. Abolition is not about ending policing and incarceration. It's about investing in the alternatives so that we don't need them,” Harris-Talley tells the crowd.

Not one but two political candidates in Seattle on the ballot for the Nov. 2 election identify as abolitionists: Thomas-Kennedy, who after beating incumbent Pete Holmes, is running for city attorney, and Nikkita Oliver, who is running for Seattle City Council, Position 9 – a citywide seat.

Thomas-Kennedy is a 46-year-old political newcomer, a public defender born into foster care. She’s running against attorney Ann Davison, who has run for political office twice before. Thomas-Kennedy says she doesn’t shy away from identifying as an abolitionist.

“Abolition is a very inflammatory word. Like people get, they have reactions to it, and I understand that, but I like to use that word, one, because it has a historical context,” Thomas-Kennedy said in a recent interview in her campaign office.

The first abolitionists were slaves who, since its inception centuries ago, pushed for the ending of slavery and influenced others to do the same. Today we’re hearing the word “abolition” pop up again and again.

Thomas-Kennedy and Oliver are part of a growing crop of politicians who identify as abolitionists.

Kirsten Harris-Talley
Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, D-37

Congresswoman Cori Bush, the first Black woman to represent Missouri, pulled a historic upset last year by unseating a longtime incumbent. She habitually uses the word abolition. She wants to abolish private prisons. She wants to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. She wants to abolish the death penalty. Abolitionists count her as one of their own. 

"And we will meet the challenges of this moment as a movement. Side by side, arm in arm, with our fists in the air, with our fists in the air, ready to serve each other until every single one of us is free," Bush told a crowd in St. Louis after her victory last year.

There are other candidates working under an abolitionist framework running in various parts of the country, including in New York, for a seat on the city council, and a mayoral candidate in Minneapolis.  

Experts say what unites today’s abolitionists is the desire to move away from punishment and toward addressing the root causes of problems, like poverty and homelessness.

I want every neighborhood to be like the most affluent neighborhood you live near that has very low policing. Everyone has jobs. Every child has an education. Everyone has health care. You don't see folks going to jail from those communities because they've been invested in in the ways that we know make a difference,” Harris-Talley says.

Harris-Talley says she could be the only person in Washington state office who identifies as an abolitionist but that there are many others who also believe in investing in solutions rather than punishments that disproportionately impact people of color.

Oliver, for their part, a 35-year-old attorney and arts activist running for city council against Sara Nelson, cofounder of Fremont Brewing, says they first started questioning the role of prisons and police while volunteering as a chaplain.

I was a chaplain at the King County Youth Detention Center, and a young Black woman was sitting in front of me. She was 17 years old at the time and had been incarcerated off and on since the age of 12. Both of her parents were in federal penitentiaries. And she looked me dead in my eye and said, ‘Nikkita, I heard this word institutionalized. And I think I'm institutionalized. I don't think I can live outside of this jail,’” Oliver recalled in a recent interview at Washington Hall.

Oliver helped lead the fight against the building of the new King County Child and Family Justice Center. Last year, in the midst of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, King County Executive Dow Constantine did an about-face, pledging to close all 112 detention units at the facility by 2025.

Oliver also wants to continue to work toward defunding the Seattle Police Department and instead invest in a new 911 system with first responders who, Oliver says, can more appropriately address various emergencies.

Thomas-Kennedy, for her part, wants to look at prosecuting misdemeanors, like DUIs and shoplifting, with a more critical eye, if she becomes the new city attorney.

“Seattle needs to have this conversation. Seattle needs to have this choice,” Thomas-Kennedy says of her decision to run.

Some have pushed back, citing inflammatory tweets by Thomas-Kennedy that disparage the police. Thomas-Kennedy says once in office she won’t use social media platforms in the same way she did before she became a candidate.

She says voters should realize prosecution will remain an option. And that she wants to set up a victims’ compensation fund for small businesses hit by crime.

“I think, truly focusing on safety and prevention over punishment is the approach I would take,” she says.

The race has attracted national attention from both ends of the political spectrum. Across the country, a historian says activists have routinely turned to politics and the call to reform the criminal justice system isn’t anything new.

I think this notion that minor misdemeanors, instead of putting people into the criminal justice system, that we address that through more sort of reformative approaches is not radical, it's not extreme. It's commonsensical,” says Manisha Sinha, a professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition.”

Criminal justice experts say incarceration does not lead to safer outcomes and can be counterproductive. Experts have also pointed to European countries where police generally function unarmed as an example of approaching public safety differently. And states like Oregon, where social workers share responsibilities with police, have served as a model for other regions.

Whatever happens this election, plenty of progress on the abolitionist front has already been made in Washington state, even under more moderate leadership — whether most voters realize it or not. In 2018, the state Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was quote “imposed in an arbitrary and racially based manner.” Earlier this year, the Washington State Senate banned private prisons.
And the work to reimagine Seattle’s 911 system is already underway.

Updated: October 22, 2021 at 10:14 AM PDT
Clarifies Nicole Thomas-Kennedy's stance on prosecution of certain crimes.
Corrected: October 21, 2021 at 1:13 PM PDT
Corrected a misuse of Oliver's pronouns.