"We may be a bunch of disenfranchised punk rockers, but we're to be taken seriously," says Ben Livingston, the 20-year-old treasurer of the group known as Free Speech Seattle.
It's one of the most unlikely spots to be talking city council politics, but every Saturday afternoon a dozen or so of Seattle's pierced and tattooed meet at the Hi Score video-game arcade on Capitol Hill, next to Rudy's Barber Shop. At first blush, the group is another rag-tag collective of well-meaning activists who meet every day in Seattle, but seldom, if ever, amass any tangible political capital, momentum, or sign of progress.
But in only eight weeks, Free Speech Seattle has already caught the attention of City Hall. On February 25, Initiative 46's ballot title and language were approved, starting the long and arduous process for repealing Seattle's infamous poster ban.
Seattle's ban on posting fliers to city utility polls passed the City Council in 1992 with support from then-Mayor Norm Rice, business owners who worried about sidewalk litter, and the labor union that represents city electrical workers, which said layers of photocopied fliers that wrapped city utility polls were a safety hazard to workers who climbed them.
"It's a question of constituency politics," says City Council member Nick Licata, who tried unsuccessfully to reform the poster ban last year. "Unions and small business are coming together to say we don't want this vs. youth and music-industry people who want to advertise on the poles. And politicians look at this and see on one side, business folks and unions who lobby the City Council, organize, vote, and play the political game vs. a bunch of kids who don't do any of that. [The City Council] is just responding to traditional stimuli."
Tim Crowley and Beth Fell tried to play the City Council's game. Crowley, a Virginia Mason customer service representative, struggling political organizer, and longtime promoter for small rock bands, and Fell, who co-owns the Hi Score arcade, chafed at the city's posting restrictions. They met as volunteers on the City Council's Community Kiosk Task Force, an advisory panel and bureaucratic first step in addressing poster-ban opponents' concerns.
However, the task force wasn't very interested in their ideas, which included hiring homeless people to clean up poster litter and installing old unused City Light utility polls up and down the Pike/Pine corridor. "It sucked," says Fell. "I have more important things to do than be an unpaid fact finder for the city."
The pair quit the Kiosk committee in December, formed Free Speech Seattle in January, and penned their initiative, which simply strikes out the three words "utility poll" and "lamppost" from the city's list of illegal posting spots.
"Do we live in a free society, or are we controlled by a moneyed class and the City Council?" asks Crowley. "This city has waged an outright war against youth and music culture." The cause has considerable traction in the music community and among First Amendment advocates—the ACLU is already an endorser.
Now comes the hard part. Free Speech Seattle has less than six months to collect a few more than 19,000 valid signatures from voters who want to see the poster-ban ban on the ballot. The key word here is "valid." Free Speech Seattle expects to collect its signatures at rock shows, record shops, and used-clothing stores—not the most politically inclined demographic.
"The main problem is that they're working a constituency that doesn't vote, and isn't registered," says Grant Cogswell, who managed the shockingly successful monorail initiative campaign in 1997. Cogswell, who just withdrew from running for the City Council, will be helping out with Initiative 46.
His experience could prove vital. Crowley estimates that the group will need to collect at least 25,000 signatures to cover the city requirement of 19,000 valid names. "We're real confident we can get the signatures," he says, explaining that Free Speech Seattle expects to register a large number of new voters as volunteers collect signatures.
It's a familiar refrain: MTV and, locally, JAMPAC have promised to register and mobilize the youth vote to little avail. Of all registered voters in Seattle, only 4.2 percent are under 25 years old, according to Labels and Lists, a vote-tracking group in Bellevue. (By comparison, 75 percent of registered voters are over 35.) And even if they're registered, young voters don't seem to go the polls: Of all the votes in last November's election, only 2.2 percent were cast by voters between 18 and 25 years old. And collecting signatures is the easy part, according to Cogswell. "I think they'll surprise people," he says. "But the campaign [once I-64 is on the ballot] is going to be tough."
The safety of utility workers will likely loom large in the electoral race, but Crowley dismisses the safety issue as "a red herring." He asks, "Who can be against free speech?"
"I don't have a problem with their right to free speech," says Dave Timothy, business manager for the Local 77, International Brotherhood for Electrical Workers, "but my main concern is worker safety, and we've always felt that [posters on poles] was a legitimate safety concern for the workers." Timothy says the union will organize to oppose Initiative 46 if and when Free Speech Seattle makes it onto the ballot.