Inside the Seatac Airport Shutdown
Millions of people across the United States celebrated on February 9 when an appeals court blocked Donald Trump’s efforts to reinstate his ban on immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. This was an important victory for our movement and the more than 100,000 people who marched, protested, and shut down airports to win the release of immigrants detained under Trump’s bigoted order.
But the fight against this right wing administration has only just begun. Further attacks on Muslims, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, the environment, unions, and workers are already under way and are sure to intensify. We must use this as an opportunity to take a serious look at how the airport struggles were won, what worked well, and what are the lessons for our movement. Doing this will help us prepare for the even bigger challenges to come. Ultimately our goal must be to build a mass movement powerful enough to defeat Trump and the Billionaire Class, and fight boldly beyond that for positive change for the 99%.
Airport victories are proof Trump can be defeated
As Trump barrels along with one horrifying executive order after another, and as each of his right wing cabinet picks wins Senate confirmation, it might be easy to forget how our movement was able to deliver Trump his first decisive blow just one week into his administration. Building off the nationwide Inauguration Day protests and massive Women’s Marches, our movement responded in a matter of hours to Trump’s Muslim ban, winning immediate victories as immigrants in many airports were released and a judge temporarily blocked Trump’s order in response to the protests.
Like in other cities, the Seattle occupation was pulled together mostly over social media, as word rapidly spread that immigrants were being detained at Seatac airport. In just a matter of hours, the occupation swelled from about 200 people at 6 PM to over 5,000 at its peak around 8:30 PM, with people looking to fight against Trump’s attacks on immigrants.
The SeaTac occupation shows how people are being radicalized in the Trump era
If the sheer magnitude of the Women’s Marches on January 21 demonstrated that millions of people are now willing to take to the streets against this dangerous administration, the SeaTac occupation showed that many are also now open to going beyond purely symbolic protest and to take part in mass nonviolent civil disobedience.
People are quickly realizing that we can’t defend ourselves against Trump and the right wing without determined struggle. To achieve their goal, thousands were willing to sit down and block airport security checkpoints, lock arms with others in struggle, and face possible arrest and repression from the police. Just a few months ago, this would have been unthinkable!
This rapid process of political development raises the possibility of a sustained mass movement and even more powerful struggles in the period to come.
The SeaTac occupation showed the importance of bold tactics and leadership
While thousands came out to SeaTac spontaneously on January 28 to protest Trump’s Muslim ban and demand the release of the immigrant detainees, the initiation and organizing of mass non-violent civil disobedience at the airport was led primarily by Socialist Alternative members and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
A few minutes before 6 PM, Kshama spoke to an initial rally of several hundred people, and called for mass nonviolent civil disobedience while putting forward basic demands for the movement like “Release all detainees,” “Reverse the Muslim ban,” and “Not one more deportation.”
The growth of the airport protests was temporarily delayed by the actions of Port of Seattle police to shut down the light rail system with the intent of preventing more protesters from arriving. This showed how the political establishment is far from neutral, and has no concerns itself with causing disruption in defense of its interests.
But after light rail was restored and people flooded into Seatac the size of the protest swelled to several thousand. Kshama, Socialist Alternative members and other activists led a spirited march through the airport, chanting “Set them free! Set them free!” and “No ban! No wall! Donald Trump has got to fall!” We distributed hundreds of placards, signs, and pickets, and organized a mass rally at the far end of the airport, so activists and community leaders could have a platform to talk about their experiences, discuss next steps, and build confidence in our ability to struggle and defeat Trump and his Muslim ban.
At 7:30 PM, Kshama and Socialist Alternative led the growing march to a nearby security checkpoint where we initiated mass civil disobedience for the first time. We had gauged that there was a mood to take decisive action with the growing outrage against the holding of immigrant detainees.
But it was not automatic. While the energy was incredibly high, many protesters had never engaged in civil disobedience before and needed to be convinced that was the right thing to do. We won over dozens, sometimes hundreds of people at a time by letting them know that other airport protests had used civil disobedience to win detainees’ release in New York and Chicago. We explained that Kshama was attempting to negotiate with the Port of Seattle, and that our best hope of winning the SeaTac detainees’ release was to not allow business as usual to continue at the airport. We made a concerted effort to be clear with people about the risks that went along with civil disobedience, but also explained that it would be harder for police to arrest or repress us as long as we had thousands of people, and we were organized, disciplined, and peaceful in our direct action.
There were also logistical challenges, with multiple checkpoints each needing to be peacefully shut down in order to maintain a blockade. Socialist Alternative members, along with other activists, led groups to different security checkpoints to sit down and stop passage to and from flights. This involved identifying locations where police were directing passengers past our blockade, making sure there were enough protesters at each checkpoint, and giving information and direction to large groups of people. We explained the need to move forward, get as close as possible to the people nearby, sit down, and lock arms to increase the likelihood that we would be strong enough to block the checkpoints.
Debates in our movement
On the whole, the SeaTac action on January 28 was a huge success. All those who participated became part of a real life local and national mass movement to deliver Trump’s bigoted agenda its first serious blow, providing a live example of how we can defend ourselves against future attacks. Thousands of people got their first experience with civil disobedience, and dozens stepped up to play leadership roles in helping to organize it.
At the same time, some activists left the action feeling confused, conflicted, or even angry about Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant’s decision to call for an organized withdrawal of our mass civil disobedience action at 10 PM.
We should have open discussion and healthy debate when these kinds of questions arise in our movement, and if mistakes do take place we should try to learn from them. Was it correct for Socialist Alternative to call for an orderly withdrawal as the action was losing strength, or should we have advocated to stay all night? Should Socialist Alternative have remained quiet and not openly advocated its position, even though we had initiated the civil disobedience? Was the announcement made too early?
Our movement is just beginning to grapple with questions about how we can most effectively defend ourselves against Trump’s attacks, how we can build a powerful mass movement, and where and how civil disobedience fits into that process.
These debates will be essential in preparing us for future struggles.
Why Socialist Alternative called for an organized withdrawal rather than all night occupation
Socialist Alternative feels that the massive size of the spontaneous protest and people’s willingness to fight made it absolutely correct to call for and organize mass nonviolent civil disobedience at Seatac.
And our protests worked! We celebrated a partial but important victory when we got word that the two immigrant detainees at SeaTac had been granted legal representation. This meant they could no longer be summarily deported without some form of due process.
Yet the mass character of the action was changing as the night progressed, including the balance of forces between protesters and police. The occupation reached its peak at around 8:30 PM, after which the number of protesters began to decline, at first slowly then rapidly. By 10 PM, Socialist Alternative’s estimation was that there was no prospect that a mass occupation of many hundreds of people (much less thousands) could be maintained all night long. As the protesters became fewer we would increasingly face arrests, pepper spray, shoving of bicycles, and other aggressive tactics by police.
Physical showdowns between police and small groups of protesters are different than mass civil disobedience action by thousands of people. They are different in terms of their effectiveness, but also in terms of the takeaway experience of those who participate, and in how positively they are perceived by the broader working class. Ruling classes are well aware of this, and that is why police and government officials tend to exercise much more caution with large and disciplined civil disobedience actions, while often moving aggressively, and sometimes violently, against direct action carried out by small, isolated groups.
In reality, by the time of our announcement we had too few people to hold all the checkpoints and our blockade was increasingly being bypassed.
Because Socialist Alternative took the political responsibility of initiating the mass civil disobedience at Seatac, we feel we also had a responsibility to take a position regarding the action’s decline and the increased dangers of police aggression and arrests. We feel that either calling for an ineffective all-night occupation or quietly walking away would have been irresponsible.
Staying all night could also have pushed new people back into the arms of the Democratic establishment, who are only too happy to give radical sounding speeches while channeling these movements into “acceptable” yet totally ineffectual avenues to resist attacks from Trump.
Few people came out to Seatac that night expecting to engage in mass civil disobedience, block security checkpoints, and stand face to face with police prepared to begin pepper spraying them and carrying out arrests. The fact that thousands of people ended up doing this anyway was courageous, and an important step forward for the movement.
For all of these reasons, Socialist Alternative and Kshama made the decision to announce the movement’s success of winning legal counsel for detainees and at the same time to advocate for an organized withdrawal, while our numbers were still significant and our energy high. We also announced that a mass rally against the Muslim ban would be taking place at Seattle’s Westlake Park the following day and called on people to join it. The Westlake protest ended up attracting approximately 15,000 people, one of the largest and most dynamic in recent Seattle history.
Yet it may be true, as some have argued, that it would have been better to call for withdrawal at Seatac an hour or so later than Socialist Alternative did. By that time it may have been better understood that we did not have sufficient numbers to continue the blockade.
In the end, most people did not take up Socialist Alternative’s call for an organized withdrawal. Hearing the concerns and recognizing the mood of many to stay and fight, Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative did remain with the protest until 1 AM when the vast majority had made their final departure.
A few dozen activists continued to protest through the night, suffering increasingly sharp repression and ultimately more than 35 were arrested at the hands of the police departments from several area jurisdictions, including the Seattle Police Department.
Kshama has since been using her City Council office to collect stories of the SPD’s role at the Seatac protests, to hold them accountable and try to advance legislation defending Seattle as a real “sanctuary city” which should not allow its police to harass peaceful protesters who are defending basic rights of Muslims, immigrants, and other communities targeted by Trump.
The urgent need to get organized and escalate our struggle
Seatac and the other January airport occupations were just the beginning.
Stopping Trump’s reactionary agenda will require us to organize an ongoing, powerful struggle and shut down “business as usual” on a far larger scale.
That’s why Socialist Alternative is calling for 100 days of resistance and mass civil disobedience and strike action on International Women’s Day and International Workers’ Day.
All of those determined to resist Trump should help build toward escalating resistance in the coming weeks. We must organize now and plan for mass peaceful civil disobedience to block highways, airports and other key infrastructure on March 8 and May 1, as well as beginning a discussion about strike action in our unions.
Trump can be defeated. But to do so we must base ourselves on bold struggle, unity in action, and the enormous social power of the working class with it’s potential to shut down the capitalist system.