Speech given by Seattle City Councilmember and member of Socialist Alternative Kshama Sawant on November 13th, 2018 just before the Council voted 8-1 to approve the Seattle Police Officers Guild Contract
I will be voting ‘NO’ today on this proposed contract between Seattle police and the City of Seattle, which I cannot support in its current form.
I am a rank and file member of a public sector union, I want to be clear that I support the right of all public sector workers to negotiate raises, including the police. Though it is deeply unfortunate that few public sector workers get raises as substantial as these, including EMTs.
I also want to be clear that I support the right of the police to their union and to collectively bargain.
However, I am completely opposed to the serious and unacceptable rollback of police accountability measures in this contract. I do not share the view of the establishment that the accountability measures passed in last year’s ordinance were “landmark legislation” because I believe they did not go nearly far enough. But they were extremely important, and they were hard fought, by years of activism by working people, especially led by communities of color, like the black and brown communities and the indigenous communities. And now this proposed contract between the City and SPOG would dramatically undermine even those steps forward unanimously approved last year by this same City Council.
As I have said before, it is my view that the Seattle police have had a long record of police brutality and racial bias, and that this is an ongoing problem. This is also a nationwide problem, and in reality is part and parcel of the capitalist system, which rests on structural racism and inequality.
Council president Harold, I think it is disrespectful for you to say that community members are going by rumors.
In the last week, more than two dozen community groups have come forward to oppose this rollback of police accountability, including the Seattle/King County NAACP, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, OneAmerica, Casa Latina, Not This Time, El Centro De La Raza, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, Creative Justice, Africa Town, Mothers for Police Accountability, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Latino Civic Alliance, Real Change, SeaMar, and last but not least the the experts on this issue Community Police Commission, who unanimously voted to reject the contract, among others.
I join these groups along with more than 40 of my fellow union members who have signed a statement opposing this contract in its current form, and are calling for it to be renegotiated with all police accountability measures restored.
The labor movement has a proud history of standing with working people facing racism and oppression. In its best traditions, the labor movement has fought against how the ruling class uses the police to oppress and divide sections of the working class, against black and brown workers in particular, but also against the queer community, homeless community members, impoverished people, and against protests and picket lines also. As Naomi Finklestein said in public comment, an injury to one is a injury to all. It is with this proud tradition, and with my fellow union members in Seattle who are opposing this contract in its current form, that I stand in calling for the contract to be renegotiated and all police accountability measures restored.
As that statement from union members says, “The rights of community members, as enshrined in the 2017 law, are not bargaining chips to be traded away.”
In 2011, public sector workers in Madison carried out a courageous occupation of the capitol building in Madison to prevent the right-wing Governor Scott Walker from ramming through legislation to strip all public sector workers except police and firefighters of their right to collective bargaining. Hundreds of thousands of people at that time occupied the Capitol. Enough teachers and students called in sick that many schools were forced to close during the protests, and there was even widespread discussion of a general strike among public sector workers.
Of course, I am greatly happy to say that Scott Walker will no longer be Governor Walker. At that time, as always happens when there are strong progressive movements, the police forces were mobilized to attempt to quell the protests. However, we also saw many of the individual rank-and-file officers had personal or political sympathy for the other public-sector workers who were protesting. With signs reading “cops for labor,” some of them even marched with other protesters.
Police were given orders to guard the doors of the Capitol building, and while they did station themselves there as ordered, many did not obey their superior’s orders to physically stop public sector workers from entering as they were expected to by their superiors. Unfortunately, this break in the chain in command out of sympathy with workers is not usually the case with the police, but on that day it was.
For many on the left, the police are the force that physically stops you from exercising your free speech rights, the force that defends the interests of the billionaires and those in power against everyone else. And the reality is, that is how big business and corporate politicians use police forces around the world. Workers are arrested if they steal $10 out of desperation or poverty, but when bosses or banks steal billions from workers, they are rarely held to account.
When mass movements break out and big business and the political establishment attempt to use the police to put down the movement, police officers’ connection to the labor movement through their unions can sometimes be the difference between the violent suppression of the movement and an uncommitted police response like in Wisconsin.
I raise these examples to explain that if this police contract was fundamentally a labor issue, if it was fundamentally only about wages and benefits and working conditions that do not infringe on the rights of other workers, then it would be my position as a socialist and union member to vote ‘yes.’
However, with this contract in its current form, I feel this is clearly and fundamentally an issue of police accountability.
It is working people who are the most impacted by crime and a lack of public safety. While there is no doubt that the police frequently play a useful role in apprehending violent people and preventing violent attacks, it is also unfortunately the case that the police are too often a source of harassment -and at worst terror- among particularly communities of color, homeless community members, and poor people.
I do not agree with the union representative who said that these are outside groups that are trying to influence the police contract. What about our own union members who are black and brown?
While we do not believe that all police officers behave the same way, there are far too many examples and far too systematic a record of people being wrongfully arrested. There have been far too many people of color who were killed for no reason at all, like Charleena Lyles. In Seattle, an elderly black man, William Wingate, was arrested walking with a golf club, and then after it has been proved that it was racially biased policing, the officer faced no disciplinary penalty because a 180-day investigation window has closed. Such abuses must stop.
When the details of this contract were released to the public, it was met with unanimous opposition from the members of the Community Police Commission. And later, a letter of opposition from 24 organizations which represent tens of thousands of workers concerned that this contract would harm their human rights. Today, this morning, we saw the NAACP, Not This Time, Nikkita Oliver, and others say loud and clear that the black community and others facing the brunt of police brutality strongly reject this contract.
That is not a labor issue. It is a police accountability issue.
Other councilmembers have argued that the accountability changes in the contract are inconsequential or even somehow positive. This is appallingly dishonest and inaccurate.
What are some of the specifics of why so many have objected to this contract? (And I am guided here by the CPC’s expert recommendation, not rumors.)
- First, the proposed contract states that in any conflict between the accountability laws and the language of the contract, the contract language takes precedence. If, as the Mayor and some councilmembers have claimed, this contract does not reverse important accountability measures, then why was this clause deemed necessary in the first place?
- Next, the contract language reintroduces the 180-day accountability loophole that stopped Officer Cynthia Whitlatch from facing consequences for the racist arrest of William Wingate for walking with a golf club. That is an illustrative example because it also points to another problem.
- The language also hampers the ability to investigate reports of police brutality, racially biased policing, etc.
- It puts extreme limitations on civilian investigators. Again, the SPD will be investigating the SPD, and the rest of society is just expected to accept that they are policing themselves fairly.
- It prohibits accountability investigations from coordinating with criminal investigations into the same incident.
- It removes some of the subpoena powers of the investigators, meaning that investigators again need to rely on the information that is volunteered.
In other words, this contract reverses many of the hard-won and still limited police accountability reforms to defend the rights, and in some cases the actual lives, of regular people in Seattle. And that is completely unacceptable. Even Judge Robart in reviewing this contract has questioned the city’s contention that the contract is consistent with the consent decree, saying he doesn’t believe that to be accurate. He also responded sharply to the addition of what he called a “bribe” to pay officers for wearing body cameras, when in fact they have already been ordered to do so in the context of the 2012 Department of Justice consent decree.
I have stated, as I have done right now and in the past, that the accountability bill Council passed last year is not sufficient to create genuine accountability, to end discrimination and violence from the forces that are given the immense power over life and death that officers are given.
Really we need to go much further in passing serious reforms. We need an elected community oversight board with full powers to hold police accountable, including the right to subpoena. This would also include the right of police to have a union representative if being interviewed or disciplined.
In this contract we can see that when police negotiate with the political establishment, there is no one in the room that cares about how police officers impact communities of color and other working-class people. The SPOG is advocating for their members, but the political establishment is mainly interested in maintaining the police as a force to reliably defend their power. Which elected official here is defending the rights of Charleena Lyles ?
Winning real change and serious police accountability measures will require that we all, those of us who care about our members of the community who are impacted by police brutality and racial profiling, that we all join together to build a stronger and broader movement. As I have said since I first campaigned for this office in 2013, social movements and class struggle are how change will be won in Seattle – not by putting any confidence in this city’s Democratic Party-led democratic establishment.
We can take as an example the inspiring Block the Bunker movement here in Seattle which forced that establishment, very much against its will, to halt the construction of what would have been the most expensive police station in the nation, while the city languished – and still languishes – in a deep housing affordability crisis that is gentrifying the working class and communities of color out of this city. This housing crisis is a central part of the deep and growing inequality in this city – deep inequality which is itself at the root of crime and public safety problems.
We can also take as an example the movement that demanded and finally won justice for Laquan McDonald in Chicago. But to win more far reaching and urgently needed reforms, we will need a far stronger movement that brings together different sections of the working class and the labor movement together with the oppressed to fight together.
I want to be clear- I support the wages and benefits negotiated in this contract, and if they were proposed without reversing any of the City’s accountability legislation, I would be voting “yes.” For people who consider this fundamentally a labor issue, I would ask you to also consider the rights of other union members and working people in Seattle when they are negatively impacted by police officers.
Think about your fellow union members who are stopped by police simply for driving while black.
I have read in the news that some have said that voting against this contract would lose me their support in the next election. However, at the end of the day, I am not a career politician. I am here to fight for all those who are left out in the corporate politics of City Hall and its backroom deals. If I wasn’t going to consistently stand up for working people and oppressed communities, there would be no point in my being here.
In closing, I also want to point out that the upcoming resolution in which councilmembers are claiming that somehow police accountability will be upheld (as you know I will have my comments later)- the resolution does not address anything.
I would hope that councilmembers would today send this contract back to the mayor and the Labor Relations Policy Committee to restore all the accountability measures and bring back a new version that I and the movement can support – one that does not increase the discrimination people face every day, or the danger of mistreatment at the hands of the SPD.