SeaSol, or the Seattle Solidarity Network, is a grassroots organizing group open to workers both employed and unemployed, active and retired who fight unjust treatment by employers, landlords, or other wealthy people who hold power over the lives of Seattle residents. Three former SeaSol members, Kurt, Phil, and Michael, got SLAPPed by a real estate management giant for helping a group of tenants fight for livable conditions, including apartment repairs and mold removal.
Answers edited for length and clarity. Kurt, Phil, and Michael spoke with Graham Clumper, PTP coordinator and Field Organizer at Mosquito Fleet.
Can you tell me the history of the Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol)? How it came about, why, and where it’s at today?
Kurtis: The Seattle Solidarity Network was founded by a group of members of the Seattle branch of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the idea was to adapt some of the tactics of solidarity unionism, but use them in a different, creative way that could win small but concrete, tangible gains for workers and tenants through community solidarity. All the tactics were based on direct action in a broader sense: directly affected workers and tenants, with community members that support them, taking the fight straight to their bosses and landlords. Whether it was to win back stolen wages, stolen deposits, or make repairs on apartments or whatever it is, the point is to use people power to make that change happen, rather than going through a third party.
Michael: Part of the model was for working people who slipped through the cracks. Maybe they worked at a really small workplace, with only a handful of other workers, or maybe they were renting from a small landowner or landlord, and those folks — unions aren’t really interested in them, there aren’t a lot of social services for them, but they’re still really getting cheated by landlords or exploited by bosses, and so our goal was to bring those kinds of people together and bring some collective power.
[SeaSol] was and still is a very effective vehicle for working class people to fight back against their bosses and landlords and win tangible gains that they could never win by themselves or by calling up a lawyer.
Why workers’ rights in Seattle? Why tenant organizing? Was it a reaction to a specific moment, or was it a strategic decision?
Michael: It came from a couple different places. For the members who founded it, they were looking to do solidarity actions for workers who were on strike or other people who were involved in movement work. At that time, there just weren’t people going on strike, so they had to try to find a way to build some collective power to get to that point. And then there were some collective workers and renters who were routinely getting their deposits stolen when they moved, and not getting their final paychecks, or not getting minimum wage when they worked these jobs. There was a mutual and immediate interest in getting those needs met.
Kurtis: The initial motivations were ideological. There were all sorts of ways that working class people’s lives could be better and ways that people were getting screwed over where we could push back easily and win tangible gains, but not through using the same rigid framework. We did this by picking winnable demands, bringing people together, and really thinking about strategy and power in a clear way. It became not only a vehicle for people to win better conditions for their homes and workplaces, but also became a training ground for community organizers. The day-in, day-out work of SeaSol was activism stripped down to its essence. What’s the problem? Whose fault is it? What is the power that they have? What does that power rest on? And then what power do we have? What is our potential power if we could get 10 people into an office and do X tactic? From there, we learned a lot of internal lessons and became something of a well-oiled machine. It was and still is a very effective vehicle for working class people to fight back against their bosses and landlords and win tangible gains that they could never win by themselves or by calling up a lawyer.
So you’ve done a lot of successful labor organizing and tenant organizing in the area. Tell me about what happened when you started working with the tenants who were organizing in North Seattle that led to this SLAPP suit. ?
Phil: SeaSol had started doing more targeted outreach in Spanish. We got a call from a group of tenants at an apartment building in North Seattle who were concerned about a range of issues, specifically mold and moisture in the building. We were struck by this core of three immigrant women who all had families living in the building, and who were already organized. It was SeaSol’s largest tenant fight at the time. The goal in this case was a bit more ambitious in some sense than other fights. Other fights would be about a discrete issue about a deposit or a paycheck, but this was large repairs on the building to make it liveable, which was a new demand.
Kurtis: From the beginning we’re really trying to understand the levers of power from the landlord. Is this their only building? Do they have a prominent, public-facing office? Who owns the company? Are they on the board of a nonprofit? What church do they go to? I mean everything. I think in the case of this, not only was the problem large and the demands ambitious, but it seemed winnable specifically because the particular company managed almost countless buildings across the city and the county.
Michael: To step back just a little bit, there were some pieces that were memorable to me about meeting the tenants for the first time. The conditions that they found themselves in were quite bad. Endemic mold was present in the hallways and their apartments that was destroying their furniture and their clothing, but they were also living with young children in those apartments, so they were experiencing health impacts on their kids. They took us to tour the building and there were leaky sewage pipes in the car parking lot under the building and running into the places they were having to walk to get to their cars, and it was just very bad living conditions. This group that had organized themselves already had done all the things that you’re supposed to do. They wrote to their landlords, put it in writing, sent letters, had months of text exchanges where they said “hey, this problem is getting worse,” they had the responses in writing of the property management firm saying “Ok!” or “we’ll take care of it” and then nothing happened. Part of the reason why was because the property management firm was one of the largest in the city. They were bringing in millions of dollars every month in rent and fees, so this was a massive company that we knew could be good for us because there were lots of places we could target them. But they had incredibly deep pockets, and they tried to use that against us.
What happened next?
Phil: To sketch out how the campaign escalated, the first step was going door to door to all the folks in the building to try to organize more tenants. We got a lot of signatures on a demand letter from tenants, but the core organizing group of tenants remained those three families who’d been involved from the start. After that, we did the demand delivery, which is the way all SeaSol campaigns start. We get the folks at the center of the campaign and then a whole community of supporters to all go and directly confront the person most responsible for the issues. It creates a big impression, and that whole scene was described in lurid terms in the lawsuit against us.
Michael: We always do escalation and go really slow. So we start with phone calls, letter writing, a petition, email blasts. In this campaign, we got to the point where we started doing a picket line outside their office. We would come with signs and noisemakers and be there for an hour or two and say hey, this is a bad landlord.
Who’s the target of the emails and letter blasts?
Phil: We started with the property manager for that building, and then eventually the owner of the building, and then the owners of the property management company.
Michael: People usually come to us after they’ve exhausted everything else they can think of, like contacting the media, writing to the owner, or going to small claims court. We’re usually the last resort and we try to drag out the pressure on the landlord or boss.
Kurtis: There was extensive postering at their other buildings, so when other people would come in to see the building, they’d see big, ugly green posters surrounding the whole neighborhood and the property of these buildings. We were just getting started. When we started doing pickets, we started intentionally: the first picket will be smaller and they’d grow in size. We call more people on our list. Eventually, someone came up behind me and said, “are you Kurtis Dengler?” and I said yes, and they said, “you’ve been served.”
Can you talk about what it was like getting served?
Kurtis: I was just confused at first, I didn’t even know how that worked. I was pretty young and green and pretty fired up about the campaign, maybe more so than I should admit. I was definitely blindsided. But it took a while for it to sink in, to realize that this could actually have some teeth and they could be taking me to court.
Phil: Defamation sounds really bad. I was also really fired up about the case, but it was stressful. The process servers showed up at my parents’ house. I had to tell my parents what was going on, and said “I’m doing this work and I think it’s important and honest and good work, but this is why this is happening.” I remember having this conversation with my girlfriend at the time, who I had just started dating. It’s also really important to name that we weren’t the only ones involved. One of the tenants who signed the original demand letter was evicted from the apartment building. SeaSol members were able to raise some support and help her move, but we weren’t able to keep her from being evicted. Another tenant was threatened with eviction, and we were able to support keeping her in the building. Two other tenants remained in the building throughout the whole thing. It was much more stressful for the tenants.
Michael: I was served at home. I knew that Kurtis and Phil had already been named, so it wasn’t totally unexpected. But I do remember that moment of anticipation where it’s just dread. You know this thing is coming. At the time I was a student, so I was making like $20k a year, and the thought I had was how was I going to afford a lawyer? I had no idea what it was to be involved in defamation. How am I going to navigate this? I was scared and anxious. It didn’t feel good.
What was happening in the tenant community within this building?
Michael: Initially, when we were in the slow part of the campaign, we were getting other tenants to sign petitions and letters and identifying themselves to the management. Once the lawsuits happened and the threatened evictions happened, that all dropped away and only the core group remained. They remained steadfast and they were really something else.
At the time I was a student, so I was making like $20k a year, and the thought I had was how was I going to afford a lawyer? I had no idea what it was to be involved in defamation. How am I going to navigate this?
What next? How do you start figuring out how to dig out of this?
Phil: The campaign continued. We were very scrupulous about factual truth in our stuff. One of the nice things about having a target with so many properties was that it was easy to find multiple complaints online about any given issue at their properties. There was never a question of the campaign stopping as long as the tenants involved in it were still committed to it, and they were. And then, we were lucky to have contact with the pro bono lawyer who had done some legal support for SeaSol previously.
Are any of you able to talk about what the SLAPP laws in Washington looked like at that point? Can you paint us a picture of the SLAPP climate of that time? Had this landlord ever used SLAPPs before or is that a new tactic for them at that point?
Phil: I don’t think we know. Seems like they weren’t very good at it.
Kurtis: There was a glorious moment where their lawyer was just totally scrambling in the courtroom and decided to withdraw evidence. So they kind of bungled it, obviously they lost, but one of the things that was to our advantage was that it was relatively new territory. It hadn’t been that long that this law had been on the books, so there was only so much precedent out there. If the judge determines that indeed it was protected activity and this is a SLAPP suit, then it’s immediately thrown out, it doesn’t go any farther. And remind me guys, $10,000, no matter what, has to be issued in addition to legal fees?
Michael: Correct. At the time, it was one of the strongest anti-SLAPP laws in the country and it saved our ass. It totally saved us.
From the beginning of being served to dismissal, how long was that period?
Phil: A little bit less than a year.
Why didn’t you give up and was quitting ever an option?
Michael: I was still involved with SeaSol for another couple years. It only increased my desire to keep working because it was the strategy of scoundrels to turn to the law. I could see just how horrible these folks were and it was happening all over the city. I sort of redoubled my desire to keep organizing campaigns like that so I stuck around for a couple more years.
Phil: The resoluteness of the tenants, including the tenant who was evicted continued to be part of the campaign, is what kept it together.
Knowing what you know now, looking back at this, how have you all reflected on… is there anything you would have done differently?
Michael: The worst moment for me was going to Catholic community services with the person who was facing eviction and trying to get free legal service for them to fight that eviction. The attorney there said, “Can you sell your television set? Can you sell your car?” That moment was awful. That tenant didn’t stop fighting. She kept coming to actions, but that felt awful. That’s how they win. That person had to move.
Did it change anyone’s opinion in direct action?
Kurtis: Not me. I think what it showed was that simultaneously, we were fighting in two places. One was the front of direct action, where we had agency and the ability to exert power as a community. On this other front, in the legal system, we are just completely, fundamentally disempowered as a matter of design. While it makes me feel passionately that we should do everything we can to get laws on the books that protect workers and tenants and community activists as much as possible, I feel like it also taught me that the reason that this is so important is because we’re just inherently vulnerable in that world.
Michael: I would say that we won because we had these anti-SLAPP protections. But almost immediately after this case, they were overturned by the state Supreme Court and SeaSol got sued again by another landlord after that, which we lost. You couldn’t set up a better scientific experiment for the importance that that law had on community organizing and public protest.
So where is SeaSol at now? Is it the same type of issue? Is it still actively organizing or is it more of a think tank, intellectual crew?
Kurtis: I haven’t been to a picket in a while but I’m still on the email list. I think it’s still doing the same exact thing.
Michael: They still have campaigns going. They were running campaigns against wage theft claims and they’re still kicking for sure.
Kurtis: They’re still winning.
What would you tell somebody who’s going through the same thing you went through?
Kurtis: I definitely think we were ill-prepared for that kind of an attack. I certainly was. I didn’t even know it was a thing, to be quite honest. That feels like a very important but basic takeaway for me: just recognize that even if you think you’re operating in your own little ecosystem, don’t assume that you’re not going to find yourself in court, no matter what kind of activism you’re doing. That doesn’t mean don’t take risks, but it means think through the possible circumstances you may find yourself in and make those decisions intentionally.
Michael: I 100% agree with that. If there was very immediate, visceral takeaway for me from this experience, it is that the law is not on our side. The law is made to protect property rights and the courts. Getting involved with that was super scary and I recognized how vulnerable we were. Even with that, we came together and were smart about it. Even with the odds stacked against us, we still came out okay. The more you’re able to think about good tools like anti-SLAPP laws and use them to your advantage, the better. It is possible to win.
Phil: Invest in your community and your commitments to the people you are organizing with and in solidarity with. That’s what keeps commitment and struggle strong through a period of trial in literal and metaphorical sense.
Are there any pop up lessons or things that jump out at you that you think are really important to name or highlight?
Kurtis: I think it’s really important to acknowledge the importance of having an organization in a community in the first place. A lot of activists find themselves in circumstances like these because of one off actions or statements that they make. They’re not part of an organization, they don’t necessarily have many comrades. None of this is reason not to go out and do this messy work but organization and trust and community are major assets. They’re probably the greatest assets to defend ourselves from this kind of attack in the first place. I think that we were already, before we got SLAPPed, sitting from a position of power that maybe we didn’t see at the time or realize as much when it was kind of new and scary. This was my community. These were my comrades. I was in it. I knew these folks. I trusted them. I loved them.