On Saturday, May 30, mass protests in Seattle demanding justice for George Floyd broke out, and were immediately met with the same police violence experienced by protestors across the country. The Seattle Police Department (SPD) deployed teargas and rubber bullets in such volumes that it choked out neighborhoods and left scores of pellets in the gutters. Small children and passengers in vehicles were maced in pictures and videos that managed to stand out in their graphic character nationally despite the thousands of similar images flooding the internet as law enforcement threw its military hardware at working people and people of color indiscriminately.
Seattle is a city with a long-standing record of police violence and racism absent any semblance of justice, as well as sky-high rents which are pushing people of color onto the streets and out of the city at a disproportionate rate. This brutality inspired the CHAZ/CHOP sustained occupation. Already, with the support of a working-class representative in City Council, Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant, these protests have led to important victories in driving the police out of the East Precinct and passing a historic ban on chemical weapons and chokeholds. As corporate Mayor Jenny Durkan announces plans to send in police to shut down the protest zone, the Black Lives Matter movement in Seattle is at a pivotal moment. There is the potential to win major victories including massively defunding the police and taxing Amazon and big business to fight gentrification, but also a need to channel the explosive energy of these protests into a sustained and ongoing movement.
The Brutal History of the SPD
In April of 2010, SPD detective Shandy Cobane was recorded on video threatening to “beat the Mexican piss” out of a Latino man, before stomping on him while he was laying on the ground. The County Prosecuting Attorney and Seattle City Attorney refused to file charges and Cobane kept his job.
On August 30, 2010, a Native American woodcarver named John T. Williams was shot four times in cold blood by Seattle police Officer Ian Birk. Despite his killing being ruled unjustified, charges were never filed and Birk walked free.
This was part of a long term pattern of racist and brutal policing which under public pressure then forced the opening of a federal investigation. The investigation resulted in the department being brought under a federal “consent decree” in 2012 to address the ongoing violence and racism of the SPD.
On June 18, 2017, two Seattle police officers responded to a call regarding a burglar from Charleena Lyles, a black 30 year-old, pregnant mother of three. The officers refused to carry their issued tasers, and shot Charleena seven times after claiming she approached them with a knife.
On April 29, 2020, Seattle police sent a squad armed with suppressed rifles to a reported domestic violence call. They chased unarmed black 24 year-old Shaun Fuhr down an alley and shot him in the head with his infant daughter in his arms.
This was the background in which the Seattle police violently cracked down on peaceful protestors in recent weeks.
The daily protests in Seattle quickly developed into a standoff around SPD’s East Precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, with barricades and rows of armored riot police attacking protesters with teargas, mace and other so-called “crowd control” control weapons. After a week of stalemate and constant protest, on Monday June 8, after teargassing Councilmember Kshama Sawant and hundreds of other protestors in spite of the mayor’s supposed temporary ban, the police were pressured to abandon the East Precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
No official is taking responsibility for making that call. From Police Chief Carmen Best to Mayor Durkan, they’re all shrugging shoulders and deflecting. This victory was a result of the movement’s determination and the overreach by the Mayor and police in their brutal attacks on protesters.
Following the SPD’s retreat, demonstrators declared the six-block area around the precinct an “autonomous zone” under the control of the movement and free of police. While this is a positive development, we also recognized it would not be sustainable in the long term. Socialist Alternative has called for democratic structures and elected leadership, to keep the occupation focused on fighting for the movement’s demands, further develop the movement’s program and strategy, and organize self defense committees and the organization of the encampment. However, while there are some general assemblies at the “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” (CHOP, formerly called the CHAZ) about next steps forward and solidifying demands, they are irregularly scheduled such that the broader movement is unable to consistently participate.
On Tuesday, June 9, Kshama Sawant’s Council Office organized a mass public meeting in the protest zone. Activists, local community and faith leaders, and rank-and-file union activists spoke to the demands of the movement and the need to continue organizing this mass multiracial struggle to win concrete gains.
Fresh off the momentum of forcing the police to retreat, the roughly two thousand attendees of the meeting joined Socialist Alternative for a march to City Hall that had been prepared under strict controls to avoid police obstruction. Kshama Sawant used her key card to literally open the doors of City Hall to working people, as chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!” shifted to “Whose City Hall? Our City Hall!” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Mayor Durkan has got to go!” Socialist Alternative and community leaders held a brief general assembly to discuss strategy and demands to take the movement forward.
Demands and a Fighting Program
While the protests have put forward many demands, the three demands which have gotten the broadest resonance are: defund the police by at least 50% to invest in our communities, drop all charges against protesters, and Tax Amazon to stop gentrification and fund affordable housing. Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office is bringing forward legislation to cut the SPD budget by at least 50%, but we also have argued that cutting $200 million from the SPD budget won’t be enough for schools, restorative justice, housing and jobs. We will need to fight to make sure big business, which is making mega-profits off the poverty wages permitted by structural racism, is forced to pay for an investment in our communities.
There has been an incredible reception amongst protestors to the Tax Amazon campaign, which was re-launched in January of this year by Socialist Alternative and a coalition of community, labor and progressive organizations. In just three weeks, the Tax Amazon Initiative 131 has gathered 20,000 signatures, overwhelmingly at the protests. Many are eager to sign immediately upon hearing “Tax Amazon,” as Bezos’ company has used its political power in the city to crush working people’s demands for a city they can afford to live in. Seattle has seen some of the nation’s fastest rising rents for more than a decade as working-class communities of color have been pushed into the south end suburbs. For instance, the historically black community of the Central District has plummeted from being home to a 70% black community in the 1960s to less than 20%.
Many people calling into City Council meetings have added Tax Amazon to their demands for addressing the rampant and racist inequality in the city.
As Rev. Carey Anderson, pastor of Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, added at a recent press conference with Kshama’s office, “Simply put, if Black Lives Matter, then affordable housing for Black families in the Central District should matter. Taxing the big businesses like Amazon that are profiting off a pandemic disproportionately killing minimum wage workers and workers of color, for green union jobs and permanently affordable public housing, is concrete in the foundation of building an equitable city.”
Socialist Alternative has stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, using our Council Office to push forward the movement’s demands as well as to bring legislation to win them. By contrast, many establishment politicians have no qualms showing up to a demonstration or picket line and saying “Black Lives Matter,” while making empty promises and trying to kick the can down the road until pressure subsides, rather than actively fighting for the movement’s demands.
Having an independent representative accountable to working people throws a major wrench into this delaying tactic, instead setting a clear example set of what solidarity actually looks like. Kshama Sawant brought legislation to ban the use and purchase of chemical “crowd control” weapons by the Seattle PD one week after the use of teargas at the East Precinct on June 9, putting the question before the city’s establishment. Well over a hundred people called into the meeting, unanimously demanding the rest of the council support the measure in full, which led to the defeat of one councilmember’s attempt to gut the legislation, and made Seattle the first city to pass such a ban as well as one of the few to ban chokeholds by police.
In response to the shocking barbarism of the SPD crowd control tactics, momentum has also grown for the demand for Mayor Jenny Durkan, a thoroughly corporate Democrat, to resign or be impeached. Many calling into the session on banning chemical weapons threatened to add the names of councilmembers to the list as well if they didn’t support the measure in full. With this pressure from the movement, Sawant’s legislation passed unanimously without any loopholes.
Union Power and Solidarity
The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents the officers in the city’s department, has consistently obstructed justice in individual cases of police violence as well as reforms being mandated by the federal consent decree. Affiliated with the Martin Luther King County Labor Council in 2014, some who expressed hope that including SPOG in the labor movement would bring them closer to the communities they had been attacking.
This was not the result at all. In one of the most brutal incidences, SPD officers murdered 30 year-old Charleena Lyles in front of her children, in her own home, after she had called 911 to report a burglary. The two police officers who killed Charleena Lyles were not even charged. Over the six years of affiliation with the Labor Council, Seattle police killed at least 23 people. In every case and through the first wave of the Black Lives Matter struggle, which forced the establishment to concede to limited accountability reforms, SPD and SPOG fought ferociously to defend the ability of police to act with impunity, resisting the wearing of body cameras and using contract negotiations with the city to evade reforms mandated by the consent decree.
Labor leaders from the MLK County Labor Council joined with the Officers Guild and the political establishment in supporting the 2018 contract, despite opposition from many in the black community and the advisory Community Police Commission. Councilmember Kshama Sawant was the lone vote against the police contract that would roll back the modest reforms gained through the past period.
This collaboration between a bloc of conservative leadership on the Labor Council, SPOG, and the city’s Democratic political establishment has been shaken by a growing section of rank and file trade union activists and progressive labor leaders standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Inspired by the actions of Minneapolis bus drivers with ATU 1005 as well as a developing trend of labor activism resulting in #RedforEd, health care, and hospitality worker’s strikes, labor unions across the country have joined the calls for Justice for George Floyd.
In Seattle and other cities, this took the form of labor contingents joining marches and protests, seeking to rebirth the understanding of organized labor’s historic task: to unite all workers in defense of our class interests. This doesn’t mean that identity-based oppression takes a back seat. In fact, it’s the opposite. Racism and bigotry are corrosive, serving to dissolve class solidarity. These forms of oppression must be rooted out and combated at every opportunity if any worker is to achieve their freedom.
The history of SPOG in resisting reforms and shielding killer cops, and their role in consolidating the conservative layer of the Labor Council combined to bring to the surface divisions in the labor movement. A battle ensued between rank and file action and class solidarity on one side, and the failed approach of business unionism on the other, around the concrete question of expelling SPOG from MLK Labor (formerly the MLK County Labor Council).
After a rally organized by union activists, Highline educators, DSA, and Socialist Alternative, and a four-hour meeting, delegates to MLK Labor voted three different ways in support of kicking out the Seattle Police Officers Guild. This was a huge victory, but it is important for union activists to understand that this is only one battle on the way towards bringing organized labor further along into a class struggle approach.
Can the Police be Abolished?
Under capitalism, the police serve to protect the private property of the bosses and violently enforce inequality, evidenced by their frontline role in suppressing movements and breaking strikes. Capitalism requires racism and bigotry to maintain this control as much as it requires armed bodies to enforce this systemic inequality. If one institution of enforcing inequality is dismantled, this role will only be filled by another armed body for this purpose.
Socialist Alternative argues for defunding the police and argues that to abolish the police, we must abolish the capitalist system that necessitates it as an institution (read more here). But as we fight for a socialist society we must also fight for concrete reforms like cutting police budgets in half and establishing strong community control.
Criminalization of Protest
Scores of people have been arrested over the past few weeks of struggle, many of them being indiscriminately attacked and seized by law enforcement as they wage a political struggle for an end to police violence and systemic racism. Thirty-seven were arrested for vague misdemeanors like “obstructing police, failure to disperse, and resisting arrest.” All of these workers and youth must be freed, their “crime” being that of resisting injustice.
Throughout the history of working people’s movements, organizers and protesters have been labeled violent criminals, from the striking workers during the Pullman Strike that won us Labor Day to the Haymarket martyrs who were attacked by police and executed by the state in the fight for the eight-hour day. The repression of the ruling class and its political establishment goes on brutally today, and the political prisoners of this struggle must be freed.
Socialist Alternative in Seattle, along with Councilmember Kshama Sawant, will continue to use our position and our organization to help win the demands of Black Lives Matter, and bring them into the labor movement and city Hall. We will continue to put forward demands and strategies to take the struggle forward, and connect them with the fight for a society free of racism and oppression:
- Defund SPD by at least 50% – Cut the police budget and fund social services and education!
- Create an elected community oversight board with full powers over the police, including policy and procedure and hiring and firing.
- Free all the protestors and drop all charges!
- Turn the East Precinct over permanently to the community – For a restorative justice center!
- Tax Amazon to fund green union jobs and social housing.
- Abolish capitalism to abolish racism and the police!