Last Thursday, the Washington State Supreme Court gave the green light to the billionaire-backed, right-wing recall campaign against Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s socialist city councilmember. Unwilling to let this attack on our movement go unchallenged, two hundred gathered in Cal Anderson Park on Saturday for a socially-distanced rally, live-streamed to supporters across the country.
This ruling is completely unjust, but we are not surprised. Working people and oppressed communities know that we cannot rely on the capitalist courts for justice anymore than we can on the police.
Many working people saw this – first-hand – last summer, in Seattle and across the country, as peaceful protests against racist police brutality were themselves met with brutal police violence. The police and the political establishment have yet to be held accountable, while in stark contrast, more than 14,000 protestors were arrested.
I was one of the protestors, of course, and it is no accident that two of the three charges upheld by the Supreme Court are about my participation in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement.
In October, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously threw out the grassroots recall of Amazon’s Mayor, Democrat Jenny Durkan, who oversaw the vicious police crackdown against Seattle protesters. Among other dangerous weapons, Seattle police under Durkan used teargas during a respiratory pandemic. Tear gas inflames the lungs, burns the skin, and stings the eyes. Its use has the potential to increase the spread of the coronavirus and to cause long-term harm in individuals with asthma or other respiratory conditions. Democratic administrations like Durkan’s continued unleashing tear gas for weeks, despite repeated public pleas by medical and public health professionals to stop its use especially during COVID.
Yet the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the recall’s objection to the use of tear gas really represented a quote-unquote political disagreement with Durkan, and therefore did not have merit, and summarily dismissed the case.
Now, this same Supreme Court has unanimously approved the recall against Seattle’s only elected socialist, because we held a masked, one-hour Black Lives Matter rally in an empty City Hall. The Supreme Court’s real reason for siding with the recall is highly political: it is an attack on our office for unambiguously standing with the Black Lives Matter movement. The stunning irony is that I was one of the thousands who was tear gassed by Durkan’s police.
The Supreme Court has thrown out a whole series of recall cases for establishment politicians, including the COVID-safety denying Sheriff of Thurston County, John Snaza. Sheriff Snaza refused to require his police officers to wear masks in the midst of this historic pandemic putting ordinary people in even greater danger than usual at the hands of the police.
The hypocrisy is on every level breathtaking. This recall ruling against our socialist council office could not be more political – it is a blatant attack on working people, social movements, and ultimately on the right to protest. This ruling criminalizes protest, and sets an extremely dangerous precedent.
The third charge, of course, was about my support for the Tax Amazon movement. This charge is beyond farcical. I am accused of spending public resources on the issue of taxing Amazon and big business because … months later, it became a possible ballot initiative issue? In other words, I am accused of using public resources on a nonexisting ballot initiative? And ultimately, an initiative never even went on the ballot?
This is another dangerous precedent – how can working-class elected representatives use their office to organize on progressive issues? Any progressive issue may sometime in the future result in a ballot initiative! We cannot make sense of this twisted logic without recognizing that the real intent of such ludicrous charges is to have a chilling effect: if working people and movements dare to have our own elected positions that organize for our interests, the ruling class will ruthlessly retaliate.
It is appropriate this ruling came out yesterday, on April Fools Day, because this ruling makes a mockery of any kind of justice.
But of course, under capitalism, the idea of fair treatment under the law for working people, people of color, women, and the poor has always been a cruel joke.
I have talked to many ordinary working people during these past months who didn’t want to believe that the Washington Supreme Court could be capable of such an unjust decision. Like every institution under capitalism, the court’s fundamental purpose is to serve the interests of those with wealth and power against those who have little or none.
Washington state’s recall law is itself both profoundly undemocratic and unequally applied. It is well-suited for retaliation against working people’s representatives, in part because there is no requirement that the charges even be proven true. And I will never be provided an opportunity to defend myself in court against these falsehoods – the truth is not relevant, we are told.
This gives Washington courts enormous leeway to use recall elections as a mechanism to defend the ruling class and capitalist system — greenlighting cases against the left while dismissing charges against establishment politicians. It is no accident that Seattle’s last elected socialist, Anna Louise Strong, was driven out of office in 1919 by a recall campaign for her links to the labor movement and opposition to World War I.
The laws under capitalism are written by and for the elite, not for us.
The genocide of native peoples and theft of their land was legally sactioned. The bloody instituion of American slavery was once the law of the land, as was Jim Crow segregation. The lynchings that enforced segregation were not technically legal, yet no court would convict the lynchers.
In what is now Washington State, the Coast Salish people were granted fishing and hunting rights, to motivate the treaties they signed virtually at gunpoint, which were subsequently and wholesale denied. Often they were rejected by the legal mechanism that they couldn’t get fishing rights without citizenship. But they were also denied citizenship rights in the land they had lived on for millenia.
During the Civil Rights era, those who fought for black freedom were jailed again and again, while KKK leaders, killer cops, and the agents of the state who murdered the Black Panthers walked free. State violence against, and brutal killings of, union organizers and socialists was once commonplace.
None of this is distant history, this is American capitalism.
Today in Seattle, big business and the right wing are furious about the impact of socialist politics and social movements. They especially hate the inspiring example we have set for working people around the nation. After having fails at their attempt to steal the Seattle City Council election in 2019, billionaires want a do-over, and want to reverse the historic victories spearheaded by our office: the Amazon Tax to fund housing and a Green New Deal, the $15 minimum wage, the first-in-nation ban on weapons against peaceful protests, and landmark renters rights laws like the ban on winter evictions and our victory just on Monday this week, for all tenants facing eviction to have the right to a lawyer.
There’s another election Amazon and Jeff Bezos are trying to steal – the union election by warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Because if the courageous efforts in Alabama are successful, it could lead to a major organizing drive at Amazon warehouses and other working places around the country. Members of my organization, Socialist Alternative, are in Alabama as we speak, to everything we can to support the union drive.
The recall campaign is deeply undemocratic in every aspect. The recall campaign manager said just yesterday that they did not want a general election vote because of the high turnout levels. Their preference is for a low turnout special election dominated by wealthy voters – they make no bones about it.
Our socialist council office has won unheard-of victories for working people, and most importantly, we have built movements and empowered working people and marginalized communities, helping to lay the groundwork for future movements.
We have been elected three times despite the corporate cash and the corporate lies. So now they have launched one of the most serious attacks on the US left in decades. But this is the capitalist system, and it’s precisely because the ruling class so determinedly wants me off the City Council that I know our office has fought for working people, whose interests are opposed to the greed of the rich. The recall is a sign that the ruling class is deeply fearful of the growth of peaceful protest and workplace actions that are coming as the crisis of capitalism escalates.
We have to fight back. We will continue to use every avenue with our Council office to fight for working people.
Renters are looking into a tsunami of evictions. We’re fighting for just cause protections for all renters, no evictions for families with school-aged children and educators and school staff including childcare and pre-K workers. We’re fighting for standardized lease terms, credit checks. We’re stepping up our fight for rent control for all tenants in Seattle. To cancel COVID debt, including all rental and mortgage debt – make the big banks and the corporate landlords pay, not working people. And we are fighting for a socialist Green New Deal, with a guaranteed union jobs program, paid for by expanding the Amazon Tax.
In order to be successful, we have to be clear who is on our side and who isn’t. We cannot have illusions in the bosses, or in their political servants. We cannot afford to naively believe we can have peace with pro-capitalist politicians in either party, or that we can convince Democratic Party politicians with reasonable arguments.
It was no accident that after our movement won overwhelming support for the 15 dollar minimum wage and made it impossible for the Democratic establishment to ignore us, Seattle Mayor, Democrat Ed Murray, convened a committee that was half-full of business representatives, to try and water it down to 11 or 12 dollars with all kinds of loopholes. We won only because of our 15 Now movement.
It was no accident that last year, after our Tax Amazon movement built unstoppable momentum, progressive Democrats signed onto a business-backed plan, called the Third Door coalition. And then, after they were forced to concede the Amazon Tax victory, they thanked business representatives and not the Tax Amazon movement. We cannot afford to underestimate the dedication with which these quote unquote progressive Democrats will serve the interests of the ruling class.
Events have proven how it will not be enough to tweet support for an issue like 15, or criticize Republicans, or symbolically introduce progressive legislation like Medicare for All. This is not going to get it done.
In Congress, it’s not just about introducing a bill, we will need a serious strategy to actually win it based on mobilizing millions of working people and union members, and being prepared to go up against the Democratic Party leadership.
We will have to clarify, for example, that the reason the Squad accepted removing the federal 15 dollar minimum wage from the stimulus bill is not because they’re carrying out some grandmaster chess strategy – but because they’re reluctant to clash with Biden and Pelosi.
Many progressive politicians want working people to believe that change can happen in some harmonious way. This is simply not possible and it is a pathway to capitulation. In fact, if you are not facing ferocious opposition from the establishment during your term in office, and your re-election is a cakewalk, it’s a sign you’re failing working people, because the ruling class does not see you as a threat.
The great Irish socialist, James Connolly, once said, “The role of a socialist in elected office is to be a disturber of the political peace.” This is not because as socialists, we personally love conflict, it is because the whole machinery of capitalism is designed to crush workers – and there is no way to stand against that while being a part of the club. This is also why we urgently need a new party for working people and the oppressed. Rather than the futile task of trying to organize pro-capitalist Democrats, as some are suggesting, we must instead organize a grassroots force alongside other socialists and working-class representatives to lay the groundwork for future class struggle.
Bessemer workers also hear about “why can’t we all get along,” and how Amazon is one big family. Workers are told the union is disrupting the peace, and they really just want your dues money. We have to fight unambiguously against these reactionary, dishonest ideas everywhere we find them.
And we need to go further. We not only need unions at every Amazon workplace, we need to take these workplaces into democratic public ownership. In our fights for workers rights, we need to always have at the forefront that this system was not made for us – that we need an alternative to this brutal, racist, sexist system of capitalism. A system that right now, in the richest country in the world, has Amazon workers under surveillance and forced to urinate into bottles. We need a fundamentally different kind of society. We need to fight for a society based on solidarity, equality, and sustainability. We need to fight for a socialist world.