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Experiencing wins by working together – The Olympia Assembly and the Olympia Solidarity Network

Interview with Franz Carroll

What is Olympia Assembly?

Olympia assembly is an organization that has several different projects.  There are the  neighborhood action councils (NAC), which create a space where people come together and talk about issues facing their communities and how to address those issues through direct action and mutual aid and network building. Methods that don’t go through existing capitalist markets, government channels, or requests from so-called representatives.

How is this different than a neighborhood association?

Neighborhood associations can be NIMBY—not in my back yard. Often  they’re focused on how to make their neighborhood look better, and that can mean kicking out homeless people. Or they prioritize safety, but that often means bringing more police into the neighborhood, which can make it more dangerous for people.

We want to create a space for all people to come together—that means including homeless people and renters. The space is for people to bring up issues and talk about how to resolve them on our own without politicians, bosses, and landlords.

Where do you want Olympia Assembly to go?

Having recently passed our bylaws, refining our organizational structure with clear channels for new projects and decision-making  we can start doing great things with the organization. An example is the Olympia Solidarity Network.

Ideas get brought up at an assembly in the abstract. At the NAC meetings later, if you liked one of those ideas you ask “what needs to be done to make this happen?” A committee is then formed to carry it out. That’s how we formed the Olympia Solidarity Network.

How did you get the Olympia Solidarity Network started?

I sat down with one of the organizers and wrote up a few documents that laid out the roles, the meetings we needed to have, and the steps we needed to take to get up and running. We had a couple interest meetings. People that came filled the roles we needed. After that we came up with a weekly meeting time and it took off from there. It’s only been a few months but I feel like we’ve been building something really strong and something that can continue.

Can you tell me about a recent victory that you had?

In mid-October we received an email from Denise describing how the management company of the apartment she moved out of had not returned a majority of her deposit. This was despite the fact that there were essentially no damages. She had a video of a representative of the management company saying the apartment looked great, and they would only take 75% of the deposit. They returned basically none of it.

We met with her and discussed what she wanted from a direct action campaign. With her and her husband Dale’s consent, we decided to go forward with a public pressure campaign against Targa Real Estate, the management company that had stolen the deposit.

We used a similar model that the Seattle Solidarity Network uses. We even had some guidance from their organizers.

What did that look like?

We went forward with a demand delivery action. We helped Denise write a letter to the management company telling them the exact amount of her deposit she wanted back, and that they had two weeks from the time the letter was delivered to respond or we would take further action.

We emailed the letter both to their local office and to their headquarters in Federal Way. Our next step was bringing people to their office in West Olympia.

Denise read the letter out loud to the employee that was there. They were just a reception worker not the manager, but we still talked to her. We read the letter, 25 people filed into their tiny office, and then after the letter was read we all clapped and chanted and marched out. I think we really freaked them out. These small management companies aren’t used to being targeted. Obviously the city and state governments are used to marches and protests. Even bigger businesses like banks and corporations can expect it. So in a sense we had the advantage of surprise because despite screwing people over, they usually don’t get targeted.

What were your next steps?

We waited the two weeks and we didn’t hear anything. So we got the same amount of people to come back again and demand the deposit.  We also put up flyers reaching out to some other tenants who lived in the same apartment complex. We heard they had similar complaints.

The second time we went, they saw us coming.

We carpooled together so a group of us were waiting outside. Workers in the office locked their doors and turned off all their lights. They weren’t fooling anybody though. They forgot to switch their open sign to a closed sign and their office hours clearly said they were open. Several other tenants went up to the door and they tried to get in. They were surprised it was locked as well.

While outside we called their office and left a voicemail reading the letter. Everyone who was there signed the letter and we slipped it into their rent payment slot. We took some pictures to post on Facebook, we had a bunch of picket signs that we ended up just taping those up to the office, and one we taped over a lease sign.  It said “return the stolen deposit.”

We were disappointed that the management wasn’t there. It felt anticlimactic, pointless, and a waste of time. Then two days later we got a call from Denise saying Targa was returning the deposit. They also told her that they considered leaving the signs vandalism and if we ever showed up on their property again it would be trespassing.

That’s a small price.  The deposit was returned. This was our first  tenants campaign and it was our first victory as well.

Beyond getting the deposit back what do you think that means to Denise and Dale? Did they share how they felt?

I know they’re really excited to get it back and Dale specifically is excited about this group existing. Since we started this campaign he started showing up to every meeting and he wants to continue being a part of the organization.

This is why I like the model of the Olympia Solidarity Network. It’s us working together to make wins. If we find a campaign, we want the people we help to be involved every step of the way as much as they can. We show up for them and then they show up for other tenants in whatever capacity they’re able and willing to.

Dale said he hasn’t been involved in this kind of activism in a really long time and it makes him feel young again. He feels like one of the good guys standing up to the bad guys.

How would someone replicate this model? Are steps to follow published somewhere?

Even if you’re not near Seattle you can still benefit from the work of some members of Seattle Solidarity. They put out a packet called “So you want to start  a Solidarity Network.” Before we ever had actual person-to-person contact with their organizers, we used that. It is a thorough step-by-step guide.

The first step was getting a group of organizers together that were able to dedicate a significant portion of their time. The next step was getting flyers out there. What Seattle Solidarity suggested and what we did was getting a big flyer that listed some of the grievances people might have like stolen deposits, evictions, foreclosures, or even stolen wages.

Sometimes people rationalize what are basically crimes committed by landlords or employers by saying to themselves “oh, you should have known to not smoke in the apartment or taken better care of it.” But the tenants you helped are adults who have rented before.

I hate to to moralize it by saying there are some good tenants that don’t deserve to be cheated and then there are bad tenants who got what was coming. I will land firmly on the side of the tenant basically every time because of my politics and ethics. Seattle Solidarity does turn down cases that don’t seem winnable because they have limited resources and they don’t want to sink all of their effort into something they’re going to lose. We plan to have the same practice. Having to say “no” is hard but necessary sometimes.

When you do turn someone down, would you still point them towards resources?

That is actually the first thing we are going to do.  Robert is our incoming communication guy—there’s probably a better name for that, but that’s what we call him—so he’s the primary person who will be responding to emails, taking phone calls, and setting up meetings with grievance holders. If we get an email he will respond by giving them an idea of the laws in Washington State, such as what landlords are allowed to do. He also clarifies what Olympia Solidarity does.  Sometimes people mistakenly think we’re a legal organization. We try to be very clear up front about what we do and what we can potentially do. Some people end up not being interested. They just want to sue their landlord and we’re not going to be much help for that

Because you’re so involved, where do you think Olympia radical politics is at right now and what do you think it needs?

One problem in Olympia is the turnover rate of people. I came here  to go to Evergreen just a couple years ago, so I could easily fit into that category—a student who does some organizing for a while and then leaves projects.. I don’t want to be that person. I feel like I’m making a community here in Olympia and getting involved in projects that I want to see last for years. I would hate to see them fall apart when I leave.

The second issue is not having easy ways for people to get involved.  It’s not sufficient to have pathways only  for students and friends of radical organizers. We need paths for the general public. I think one of my primary motivations for helping start Olympia Assembly was having an above-ground big tent organization that anyone can join. I want an organization that is open to newly radicalized freshmen at Evergreen or your neighbors that go to church every week and feed the homeless. I think many people have a set of leftist ethics and morals. They just don’t have a political framework for them. I want to change that.

One Comment

  1. Dan Leahy January 3, 2018

    This Evergreen student needs to study the neighborhood organizing on the Westside of Olympia for what it has created as well as stopped over the past several decades. It’s safe here not because we call the police but because we know each other and we have organized together. We have parks here both public and neighborhood because we have created them ourselves for every one to enjoy. We have food markets here because we have found the space for them to exist. We make it safe to walk in the streets here because we have kept our stop signs, demanded and received traffic lights, crosswalks and stopped efforts to turn our neighborhood into a freeway. We have alliances with the Churches here because we respect their work and meet in their meeting rooms. Yes, we have neighbors who for decades have walked downtown to the Food Bank and to the churches to help those without homes. Our neighbors lined up on Harrison to protest the Iraq war and produced Olympia’s iconic No War sign. Our neighbors organized the OFS event called “Support the Truth” about the Iraq War and filled the theater with eight hundred people. Our neighbors made it possible to have the West Central Park at Harrison and Division instead of a 7-Eleven. The reason the WSECU has a branch on the opposite corner it that the Westside neighborhood stopped a Jack in the Box at that corner. People who run for City Council must make their views known to us in writing because we put those views into the every accessible household in the neighborhood and have a voter participation above the city average. All of these things were only possible due to on the ground strategic organizing by people who know who and where they are. The Olympia Assembly needs to answer those two questions for themselves before dismissing neighborhood associations, especially those on the Westside, as “NIMBY”, police dependent or against the homeless.

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