How can we advance the anti-police brutality struggle?
Reflections by Nightwolf and Mamos from Seattle Unity and Struggle
The week of August 30th, 2010 saw five people murdered by police throughout Washington State, including John T. Williams. Williams was a First Nations carver who was shot four times by police officer Ian Birk while walking with a closed carving knife and a block of wood. Birk gave Williams only four seconds warning before opening fire, and Williams, who is partially deaf, may not have heard his commands.
This murder, along with several other recent cases of police brutality against Black and Latino folks in Seattle has sparked a small but vibrant movement against police terrorism. Here we will analyze the potentials and the limitations of this movement. While we are very critical of some of the players in this movement, our goal is not to hate on folks- it is to open a rigorous and honest discussion about how we can advance the struggle beyond its current limitations. We need to advance the struggle because we don’t want more people in our communities to die at the hands of killer cops. Every day we are struggling and organizing against the effects of the economic crisis in our workplaces , schools, and neighborhoods and we need to organize citywide and country-wide networks of resistance and solidarity to make sure these small embryonic struggles are not shut down through joint repression by the bosses, landlords, and cops.
This reflection is broken into two essays. In the first one, “The Rainbow Coalition stomps the flames”, Nightwolf analyzes how liberal people of color leaders worked with the cops to try and dampen the explosion of anger in communities of color following John T. Williams’ death; he puts this in historical context, showing how it relates to the successes and failures of the 1960s and 70s movements against white supremacy.
In the second piece, “Workers spread the embers”, Mamos analyzes some of the small but promising actions against police brutality that have emerged in Seattle the past few months and asks how these actions can deepen and how they can connect to other forms of working class organizing going on in Seattle now. He explores the role that militant worker networks like Seattle Solidarity Network and International Workers and Students for Justice could play in challenging state violence.
While these essays reflect on anti-police brutality struggles, they raise much broader questions that are really relevant for a number of different struggles in Seattle and in other cities. While these essays may not present a full answer to the question of how to stop police brutality, they are an attempt to prompt discussion about the current political impasse our movements are in and to think creatively about how to move beyond it.
The Rainbow Coalition stomps the flames
A reflection by Nightwolf
The week of August 30th, 2010 saw five people murdered by police throughout Washington State, one of whom was John T. Williams. Williams was a First Nations carver who was shot four times by police officer Ian Birk on September 2nd while walking with a closed carving knife and a block of wood.
In response to this the murder of John T. Williams, the native community held a meeting at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center on September 8th, 2010. The meeting was attended by many in the native community as well as those other oppressed people who wanted some answers to the ongoing reality of police terrorism. It was held on land re-claimed through an occupation by native militants during the heyday of the American Indian Movement and other anti-racist movements of the 60s and 70s. However, despite the heroic history of the place and its leaders, the meeting was not a rebirth of those dynamic struggles; it was obviously an attempt to quell unrest today in 2010.
The police knew they had to be diplomatic in their relations with communities of color. Earlier in the year a black woman was punched in the face by a cop and another cop stomped a Latino man’s head after saying “I’m gonna beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you homie, you feel me?” This is the reality many oppressed peoples have to deal with on a regular basis but I imagine that having these instances of terror caught on camera sparked more outrage. The murder of Williams had the potential to stoke the flame. Being aware of this potential, police officials staged this meeting at the Daybreak Star to “engage” the public and listen to concerns and suggestions with assistance from native leaders organized in the Seattle Police’s Native Advisory Council.
I went to this meeting with a group of comrades from Unity and Struggle and International Workers and Students for Justice (IWSJ). We are a multiracial crew – native, black, latino, asian, and white. We have been active in the struggle against budget cuts to high school and University public education and in custodian labor struggles at the University of Washington; some of us are custodians, some are workers in other industries, and some are students and unemployed young workers who are deeply affected by the economic crisis.
We decided to get involved in anti-police work recently because the custodian organizing at the UW has been grossly repressed by management and the cops. Meetings have been infiltrated by undercover cops, two of our comrades were arrested for interviewing custodians about working conditions, and rank-and-file custodian leaders have been followed and harassed by the Campus and the Seattle Police Departments. All of this is creating an atmosphere of fear and hesitancy to continue fighting among rank and file workers. This has created the very objective need to begin taking up a struggle against the cops because it can open up the possibility of building solidarity with broader layers of the community which could breathe new life into renewed custodian and other workplace struggles.
At the same time, we wanted to mobilize the networks we had built last year in the anti-budget cuts and labor struggles to stand in solidarity with the Williams family and our fellow people of color and working folks who are brutalized by the cops. We felt that an injury to one is an injury to all and we wanted to do our part to build the movement. As our comrades in Advance the Struggle have argued, the anti-budget cuts movement cannot afford to ignore the struggle against state violence.
So I came to the meeting intending to meet fellow militants among those attending. We recognized that we did not have enough people power to initiate an event ourselves and attempted to reach out to others who might want to initiate action to see if we could support them and work together.
It should be said that this kind of meeting has its origins in the sixties and seventies when police across the U.S. recognized that they needed to take preemptive measures to stop future rebellions such as what was occurring in Watts and various other ghettos. It is public relations. It is not because the police care about our communities; it is simply an effort to maintain control under the guise of a democratic forum by attempting to co-opt a rainbow coalition of middle class “representatives” from our communities who can help keep those of us who are more rebellious from taking independent action.
The set-up was generic when it comes to these kinds of events. Police in a panel claiming that they want to initiate a dialogue with the community. Amongst them were leaders and “representatives” of the native community acting as mediators or, as it turned out, rather overseers for master. Seeing the Native representatives and leaders on the panel with the cops reminded me of all the books I had read as a kid about the history of Native peoples: treaties made, then broken. Some of them seemed to whole-heartedly believe they were helping their people. The police talked of making changes. I knew these were hollow promises. The only thing that comes from peace talks with the state is betrayal. On the panel were native police officers, which came as no surprise. An image of diversity is central to rainbow coalition politics. What seems to really matter is that people of color have the opportunity to be oppressors too. The rainbow coalition came to the forefront in two ways; the broker and the warden roles.
The broker role was apparent in this situation in the sense that these “leaders” seemed to have decided that the most they could push for was that the police be more culturally sensitive and change their trainings in order to be careful next time. In this sense I guess they weren’t as naïve as I thought. They recognized the truth of the matter. A poor person of color’s life isn’t worth much in this society. But the problem is they have no vision for changing the society to alter that fact; they just accept it and work within its limitations. From engaging with folks in the crowd it became evident that not everyone agreed with the position of their “leaders”.
The warden role emerged to make sure that a room that was filled with tension, anger, and fear did not erupt in calls for independent action. An elderly member of the Native community began the meeting with a prayer and speech. He began his monologue with a fiery rhetoric reminiscing about his people and his role in the American Indian Movement. Interwoven with this seemingly radical tone was a call for peace between the community and the police, a call for understanding and patience. It was like a preemptive strike. He had shown his radical credentials, proving in a sense that he was down. It was clear he was an elder and for that he was respected off top.
So when he began to contradict himself and propose peace, it made it difficult for many to rebuke his position. In my experience this has been an ongoing occurrence throughout the Left; elders and leaders using their credentials to quell any questioning of their liberal positions on issues. After the elder and other leaders spoke, it was clear what the tone for the night and the coming weeks would be. Anyone who strayed from the line of peace, cultural understanding, and reconciliation was shut down instantaneously. Elders and respected community members controlled the “rabble” and made sure that everyone was “respectful”, code word for passive.
This in effect caused some to silence themselves or as in the case of one women who spoke, to “stop being angry”.
All of this shows that today the white man cannot govern by cultural justifications alone; he needs a multiracial and multi-gender bureaucracy, a new rainbow coalition, of leaders to keep our communities in check. The power of the rainbow coalition leaders lies in their use of identity politics and generalizations of the identity group they represent. They place themselves in the positions of leadership by fighting for the perceived interest of marginalized groups presenting themselves as fighting to maintain equality. In doing so they have to ensure they continue to have a base of power within these communities which often translates into them becoming wardens in the sense that they must keep dissent from within their communities at bay i.e. generalizing their experiences. It is essential to their power that they show the state that they have a base and that they can control them only if given concessions. To be certain they are often from the oppressed community they are supposed to represent often allowing their dominance to go unquestioned because they know what “their” community needs. They become “representatives “and spokespersons for a community brokering for concessions from those in power.
What has become apparent to me about this rainbow coalition is that they play the role of broker and warden, as mentioned above, over their own people. They gain and maintain their power by claiming to speak for their people justifying that claim by positioning with identity politics. Their attitude seems to say, “I know these communities best therefore I can speak for them.” This type of thought process often works from the assumption that there is a defining archetype for what it means to be a part of certain communities (i.e., there is one experience. There is one kind of “blackness”, etc). This kind of logic allows for the individual experiences of people within these communities to be lumped into one, often with a devastating effect of simplifying social relations and allowing for opportunism.
Anybody can claim to speak for a given group. This also feeds into white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia. Often, as we have seen historically, this tendency amongst the affluent classes, people of color and white, to define the experience of a given social group for their interest has lead to defeat for working class people of color which has weakened our struggles against white supremacy.
For example, at the end of the Black Power Era in the early 70s, middle class Black leaders told working class people of color to demobilize, claiming they could take care of the struggle against white supremacy from the position of their newly won posts in the offices at city halls, police headquarters, and nonprofit administrations. They claimed those offices were the fulfillment of Black Power. But by demobilizing and scaling back our grassroots, working class-led community actions, a void was created which was filled by electoral politics, non profits, and gangs leaving our communities left open to a white supremacist backlash from the 80s through today involving the defunding of social programs, the withdrawal of jobs from our neighborhoods, the incarceration of more and more youth of color, and even outright political attacks on the Rainbow Coalition itself by the old school white supremacists!
So even the Rainbow Coalition itself has started to crumble in the face of racist attacks because the rest of us have not remained active. It is no surprise that several members of the native community expressed that this Native Advisory Council had not even been consistently active until the crisis following the death of John T. Williams. It was revived because, as one of the cops on the panel put it frankly, “the Seattle Police department needs someone in the community to go to and relate to when something like this happens.” What this officer revealed is that the white supremacists attack or ignore the Rainbow Coalition and only reinvigorate it when they fear that working class people of color might take matters into our own hands.
The native leaders and representatives on the panel and the crowd could be compared with other communities of color dealing with the same issues. This was demonstrated in Oakland during the protests against the murder of Oscar Grant, a black man shot in the back by a white cop. Nonprofit leaders stood next to the police urging people to go home in fear that they would riot. Nonprofit leaders thought it was their jobs to ensure a “peaceful and thriving Oakland” by creating , “organized events or avenues for young people and community members to express their frustrations with the system in constructive and peaceful ways” and by “inoculating our bases and the community at-large so that when the verdict comes down, people are prepared for it, and so that the ‘outside agitators’ who were active during the initial Oscar Grant protests are not able to incite the crowd so easily.” These quotes are from an email sent by one of the Oakland non-profits, the Urban Peace Movement. To be sure their intentions may have been good but this obviously creates an atmosphere where only certain strategies and tactics are allowed. The language reeks of supposed leadership of a theoretical community where all have the same interest and one way of attaining such obscuring the fact that those agitating were no outside agitators but members of the community these non-profits supposedly represent.
During the meeting in Seattle the murder of Williams was being framed as a matter of cultural misunderstanding and as an isolated incident. I knew by engaging with folks earlier that this was not accepted by everyone in the room. If the rainbow coalition had been listening to the anger of “their” people they may have changed their tone. Williams was poor, native, and homeless which equates to target practice for the police. They are here to serve and protect those with property not the rest of us. A few people began to speak along the same lines, calling out the police very forcefully, and the “wardens” came in using cultural norms and appealing to the heroic history of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center in order to shut folks down and demand respect for the police. I think that this brief outcry may have been one of the biggest highlights around this issue and it’s a damn shame. But, it was obvious that people we’re upset and ready to move.
A week later on September 16th, 2010 the Native rainbow coalition staged a rally/march through downtown Seattle. The initial meeting place was the scene of Williams’ murder. Around noon members of International Workers and Students for Justice (IWSJ) and I arrived at the scene. Our crew’s goal at this march was the same as at the Daybreak Star; agitate and dialogue to find other militants who wanted to build toward a more dynamic and democratic network of workers and poor folks who could oppose police brutality, budget cuts, and all the other assaults on our communities which are becoming more intense with the economic crisis. We wanted to attempt a solidarity action with folks in Oakland who were gearing up for strikes to protest the Oscar Grant verdict. We wanted to put a transitional method into action. To do this we felt we needed to work in a united front and build a multi-cultural from- below alliance. We wanted to make demands that would lead to reforms at best but would not easy for the elites to concede to and thus draw out the contradictions of the system and build our collective power hoping that this would build unity and confidence for the future struggles. Maybe it was naïve of us to try to attempt this in a month and a half but the need for something of this nature seems dire in Seattle.
The event began with a rally. The first speakers were very militant. Unfortunately, this would be the last of the militancy and as the rainbow coalition again took over. A native “leader” took hold of the bullhorn and began directing. In a sense this foreshadowed what would occur later. He began directing the crowd telling the native drummers to lead the march followed by elders and family members. Then he said that he knew there were folks in the crowd who had an agenda and who wanted to cause trouble and they should leave because, “This event was for the mourning.” This was another preemptive strike.
I recognize there are political divisions among Native leaders, and not all of them are part of this rainbow coalition; there are still militant AIM members and veterans of past struggles who continue to struggle in various ways. Also, I believe that some rainbow coalition members honestly believe they are helping their people and join these leadership groups because they are seemingly no other options (If the Left were more organized maybe we could prevent powerful organizers from being sucked into these roles). On the other hand, others in rainbow coalition are quite calculative and opportunistic as in the case of this one Native leader. Later on that day hundreds of people gathered inside the city hall as people began to speak. One of the speakers was a woman who identified herself as Williams’ family member. She was clearly upset and said something to the effect that there shouldn’t even be police. Before she could finish, the same Native leader from earlier who tried to run various left groups off stopped her in mid-sentence and ushered her to the side. I thought this whole event was put on for the Williams’ family to mourn? Why are they being prevented from expressing their anger as part of this mourning?
It seemed that the Rainbow Coalition leaders were holding back militancy from Native folks and other people of color in the crowd so that they could bargain with the city government. They even provided a gift to a city councilman symbolizing peace and welcomed the mayor into a drum circle. Ironically, when the mayor and a council member spoke they were uninterrupted even when the council member stated that, “we should see this through the eyes of the officer who shot Williams. If we can see the situation through their eyes they can see it through ours.” No interruption there. So a comment like that passes without interruption but militancy from one of Williams’ loved ones needs to be silenced? I guess the one with the agenda was the one directing the event supposedly for the family. Williams’ murder seemed to be used by some Native leadership and officials to put themselves in the spotlight rather than the issue.
I think that it should go without saying that my critique of some of the Native leadership is also a critique of the rainbow coalition as a whole.What I can say is that regardless of the flaws in the rainbow coalition, the left has not been able to dethrone them as the de facto leaders of working class, poor, queer, and more militant people of color politics. To do so, we need to start envisioning and practicing a clear alternative. The events that followed in the months of October and November proved to be the beginnings creating new avenues of resistance outside of the confines of the system.
Workers spread the embers
A reflection by Mamos
Our current moment in history is agonizingly complex and confusing. More and more people are loosing their jobs, their housing, their education, and their health care, and police brutality, which has existed since the police began, seems to be on the rise. Under these conditions it would not be surprising if working class and oppressed people rose up and took matters into our own hands like folks seem to be doing outside the US from strikes in China to uprisings in Greece. Mobilizations against police brutality, budget cuts, bosses, and landlords have begun here in Seattle and across the U.S. but we, as working people, have not yet developed the confidence and vision to connect all of these struggles together into the kind of movement that could really challenge state violence. This essay is an attempt to discuss how solidarity networks of workers and unemployed folks could play a role in fighting back against the economic and political warfare the elites are waging against oppressed people, with the cops as their ever-brutal bodyguards and shock troops.
In the streets against police brutality: “No More Racist Pigs at Work, Let’s Make Some Bacon Out of Birk”
I’ll begin with recent developments in Seattle in the struggle for Justice for John T. Williams, a Native American man killed by the Seattle cops. At the actions Nightwolf described, people voicing militant resistance to police brutality were scattered and either voiced their discontent as individuals or were shut down by people of color leaders who played the role of warden and power broker with the city government. No groups were able to bring people together around making more confrontational demands.
This started to change a bit with the Oct 22nd rally against police brutality. This rally happens every year, and it is usually put on by Leftists and families who lost loved ones to police violence . This year it took on a broader and deeper character with a wide range of people from various political perspectives getting involved.
The rally began with courageous speeches by families who lost loved ones. Inspired by their stories, A.K., one of the rank and file University of Washington custodian leaders who helped build International Workers and Students for Justice, spoke about how the police had framed his son and then deported him to Ethiopia, even though his son had never lived there. Dropped off there with no money wearing a prison jumpsuit, his son disappeared. A.K. has also been harassed regularly by Seattle Police for speaking up in the media about UW campus cops’ collaboration with management to repress custodian organizing there. He and other custodians attending the rally are now becoming community activists, not just organizers in their single workplace. It was great to see that this broad multiracial crowd of working people had A.K.’s back, and that these various struggles for labor, immigrant rights, and an end to police terror could be linked in solidarity.
As the sun set and the march moved through downtown it swelled with people coming off the streets injecting even more militancy and straight up revolutionary perspectives. Homeless folks, youth of color from different hoods, gang members, and workers got on the megaphone and spit fire.
This made the concept of “the working class” as a fighting community feel less and less abstract. We have a long way to go, but in actions like this you can really see the initial rough outlines of what it would be like for the proletariat to pull ourselves together as a fighting force. To see custodians and gang members, unemployed homeless folks and students vibing off of each other’s energy really helped me understand how all of these different groups of people are part of the proletariat. The proletariat is not just currently employed waged workers. It includes everyone from slightly better-paid unionized workers to precariously employed non-unionized workers to unemployed folks, gang members, and in short, anyone who is dispossessed and does not own or control the means of production.
Of course there are concrete differences in power, privilege, consciousness, and strategic positions among these different layers of the proletariat, and we can’t gloss those over. White supremacy and patriarchy divide the proletariat along race and gender lines, attempting to buy off white and male workers through special deals. American imperialism separates layers of the proletariat here from the majority of the class in the hellish factories that line places like the US Mexico border and the Pacific Rim of Asia. But if we can try to break down those divisions by rallying around the demands and the self-activity of the most oppressed layers of the proletariat, then maybe, just maybe the class struggle can resurge here again.
The proletariat in Seattle is multiracial and when it really makes moves that will mean the reinvigoration of historic movements like Black Liberation and the American Indian Movement, as well as the birth of new struggles which will put ethnic communities like Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Samoan folks at the forefront of American politics. When it goes down, the stereotype of Seattle as a bourgie white Starbucks latte-sipping, Microsoft town will be shaken to the core.
For a second, on the night of Oct 22nd, it seemed like it was about to go down when everyone started chanting “No more racist pigs at work, let’s make some bacon out of Birk”
Next Steps: What do we do once we see that all the cops, and the whole system is guilty?
Since the Oct 22nd rally, the coalition that planned it has continued to organize actions demanding that Ian Birk be jailed for murder. These actions have been small but have consistently drawn in new folks, including a number of homeless and low-wage workers from the Native communities that congregate downtown. This shows that the Rainbow Coalition middle class power brokers cannot claim to speak for all Native folks – when the most oppressed people in the Native Community have spoken up what they have been demanding goes far beyond diversity training for the pigs.
However, the Rainbow Coalition’s small reform demands will continue to be the only viable option for a lot of folks until we can work together to develop and put into practice an alternative program. Many people see that police brutality is not simply a matter of a “few bad apples” and it won’t disappear if they simply fire Ian Birk. Many people also see that it is not simply a problem that will go away if the culture of the Seattle Police Department is changed through better training.
Many, many people see the police are systematically oppressive, that they exist to hold down working people and people of color. But where do you go once you realize that? Once you see that, then what we are up against is the entire state itself, which is a formidable opponent. So many folks have no faith in the cops but are cynical about fighting back because it seems impossible: if we actually tried to take away the power the police currently have won’t they just kill us or put us in jail? As Seattle activist GCL1 has consistently reminded us that your politics are only as good as your ability to back them up. What kind of power would need to be built to directly challenge the state, in a way that is not simply symbolic but can actually stop state terror?
To try and figure this out, Unity and Struggle and IWSJ members have been studying together, and based on our studies we’ve made flyers and passed them out together regularly in locations like the Central District and Native Park downtown. We’ve been talking to other working class people and people of color about these ideas and we’ve been listening to folks’ ideas about what is to be done as we start to work out a program to move forward.
Some folks are just waiting to smash on the cops
One alternative we keep hearing from folks is something along the lines of “rallies are a waste of time, I’ll get involved when the rioting starts.” This just goes to show that working class’ folks consciousness is far more radical than a lot of people on the Left would give them credit for. Like our comrades in Oakland, we don’t condemn riots outright because the real violence folks should be worried about is the violence of the pigs not a little property destruction by the people. Also, the uprisings in Oakland were instrumental in scaring the system enough to bring the cop who murdered a young Black man named Oscar Grant to trial. However they weren’t enough to make sure he got a meaningful sentence and he may be out in 7 months.
Also, there are real problems with rioting in Seattle, so we can’t just be sitting around waiting for a riot to start, we need to come up with creative and militant alternatives. As one comrade of ours put it, the city’s rulers would just use a riot as an excuse to accelerate their campaign of clearing homeless youth off the streets. The anti- World Trade Organization uprising here in 1999 was before my time, but from talking to activists who participated in it, it sounds like the police basically implemented a reign of terror afterwards which lasted for years, leaving residues of trauma that last to this day. The cops were so embarrassed that they had been caught off guard in ‘99 that they took precautions to make sure it won’t happen again: they beefed up their repressive apparatus, they have increased their liability insurance in case they brutalize people and get sued, and they have enveloped this iron fist with the polite parlor gloves of all these ethnic advisory councils like the Native Advisory Council that held the meeting Nightwolf criticized above.
The ruling class has also de-concentrated potentially rebellious working class people of color communities through gentrification. As middle class white folks build condos and displace working people out of neighborhoods like the Central District, High Point, the Hollies, White Center, etc., people are pushed out of the city and scattered through various far apart locations like housing complexes in Renton, motels on Aurora, or towns in southern King County. How would all of these folks get to the same place spontaneously to riot? So all of these factors together make riots less likely here. I’m not saying they’ll never happen but I’m not sure how deep or fast they would spread if they do start and I’m not sure how much of a political impact they would make. Of course, I am certainly open to be proven wrong. If there is one thing I have learned from organizing it is never to try and predict the future with certainty, and never to underestimate the creative self-activity and power of working class people.
What could be more powerful than a riot? A mass strike!
We are learning from comrades in the Bay Area who have experienced the ebb and flow of the Justice for Oscar Grant Movement and have distilled their experiences into strategic and programmatic insights for how to move forward. In particular, our comrades in the group Advance the Struggle have consistently raised the idea of mass political strikes to shut down business as usual – school walkouts, strikes in key industries, etc – against police brutality and are tirelessly building for this among the Bay Area working class.
It seemed like this perspective gained ground when the ILWU, the port-workers union, staged a work stoppage demanding justice for Oscar Grant on Oct 23rd. This is certainly a major step beyond the situation in Seattle where no union has yet stepped forward like that, and those of us who are rank and file members of unions should try to organize our union brothers and sisters to take this kind of step. However, the action in Oakland was limited by the fact that other workers in other industries didn’t join the strike and it didn’t last long enough to seriously disrupt production in the port. Advance the Struggle was advocating something much larger than that, a city-wide general strike, and I think that sort of thing will be necessary to actually stop police brutality.
What would it take to build that sort of thing here in Seattle? To organize a general strike like that would require serious working class organization that can be bold, daring, and fast moving, in dynamic interaction with spontaneous upsurges of worker militancy like what the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg analyzed in her excellent Mass Strike pamphlet. It’s difficult to predict spontaneous militancy, though we need to be constantly open to it and ready to embrace and interact with it. As Don Hamerquist puts it, we need to be constantly on the lookout to recognize and name events which are ruptures from the status quo, and our organizations need to remain “porous” to these events of insurgent worker self-activity. In the meantime, we can try to build an organization so we are not caught off guard when it does go down and so that we can open up new phases of this spontaneous struggle through our actions instead of simply trailing it.
Sewing the seeds of mass political strikes: Seasol, IWSJ, and hopefully others
Seeds for this type of strike organization can be found in the growing networks in Seattle of independent worker-militants from different workplaces or currently unemployed folks who are independent from union bureaucrats, nonprofit leaders, Democratic Party politicians, or other forces that could try to dampen a political struggle against police brutality. Right now these networks are mostly engaged in small-scale economic struggles around specific bread and butter issues but these issues can quickly take on a political character when they involve fighting a racist or sexist boss, or mobilizing broader layers of immigrant communities around an on-the-job struggle which starts to galvanize the broader immigrant rights struggle. But what would it take to get the point where these networks could mobilize in campaigns that could build real power against state terror and police brutality so we could actually go on the offensive instead of just reacting to crises all the time?
First let me describe these networks and then I’ll discuss how they could develop to go on the offensive. I will focus on the groups I am most connected to because these groups are my immediate intended audience for this piece; I imagine that other, related networks exist in the city or are forming now, and I welcome further elaboration of these points and analysis of the state of the Seattle Left in the comments section.
First there is International Workers and Students for Justice, which emerged out of organizing solidarity with rank and file UW custodians against budget cuts but is now becoming a network of rank and file militants in different industries as well as youth and unemployed folks. This is still very small and we have a long way to go but we are in the initial stages of helping organize in other workplaces off campus. Even more impressive is Seattle Solidarity Network, or “Seasol” for short, a group of working people who support each others’ struggles against oppressive bosses and landlords. They have a track record of winning the vast majority of their campaigns against small to middle sized private businesses, surviving lawsuits and coordinated counter-attacks by bosses and professional union-busting agencies. This shows that something can be won, even during a recession and massive bosses’ offensive. I am an organizer with IWSJ and just joined Seattle Solidarity Network as a rank and file member (which means I go to their actions but am not an organizer)
IWSJ and Seasol both have limitations but these could change over time. IWSJ emerged out of a specific single workplace struggle so it’s biggest challenge is to continue to expand off the UW campus/workplace. We have also had difficulties in maintaining independent rank and file organizations inside the workplace in the face of management and police harassment, sometimes facilitated by and other times passively allowed by the union bureaucracy. That’s why we’ve turned toward collaboration with Seasol and other folks involved in the anti-police brutality work, trying to build an outside support network for on the job rank-and-file led struggles.
Seasol seems to be moving in a complementary trajectory – it started as a solidarity network building outside support for individual workers, but Seasol is open to eventually trying to organize in workplaces as well or to support workers who do so. One Seasol organizer put it well in an interview on Libcom:
“SeaSol is in some sense an adaptation to modern conditions of high turnover and small workplaces – as one member has said we ‘organise the worker, not the workplace’. Any worker who joins SeaSol after a problem at their old job is much better prepared to fight back if they encounter problems at their new job. It’s an organisation of militants spread across different work and housing situations. Obviously, working towards organisation in specific workplaces and neighbourhoods is still vital.”
As I see it, this is exactly what we need to keep building : a network of rank and file worker militants across the city who can support each others’ immediate workplace and neighborhood struggles and can stand up to repression from the bosses and the state; this in turn could generate new rank and file workplace and neighborhood organizing campaigns which in turn could lay the groundwork for political mobilizations or even political strikes around city-wide crises like police brutality. Again, when mass political strikes do emerge, they could start from workers who were not previously drawn to Seasol and IWSJ networks by these groups’ previous small victories; a track record of winning small battles does not guarantee we will win the war. However, when mass strikes do erupt, from wherever they come, these existing networks of militants could hopefully help recognize, expand, defend, and deepen these strikes.
Problems with this strategy?
I can see a few immediate objections to this strategy which I’ll attempt to respond to here:
1) Some may ask, how can unemployed or homeless folks participate if it’s a workplace and tenant based strategy? Does this strategy privilege those who already have jobs and homes? If the strategy were based only on organizing in current workplaces and neighborhoods that would be the case, but again it also involves outside solidarity through mobilizing wider layers of people against specific bosses or landlords. This means unemployed folks have tremendous power as general activists who can move fast in flying squad pickets to confront targets, linking up struggles in different parts of the city, and mobilizing folks on the streets to help out. High school and college students, and workers employed in industries that aren’t on the move can also play this role.
If workers on strike in a particular business for example get a court injunction to stop striking this injunction would not apply to people who don’t work there, and unemployed folks, students, and workers from other jobs could keep the picket line going like the Lucas County Unemployed League did during the 1934 Toledo Autolite strike (this action turned that strike into a broader general strike which involved insurrectionary street fighting). In turn, unemployed folks should organize to inject their own demands into actions and workers need to listen to them, for example if grocery workers went on strike they could add demands for price controls on food to their strike demands, or the workers and community could team up to occupy a supermarket and give away food in an organized way… kind of like an organized food riot, or a Panthers free breakfast program at a large scale. In the more short term, unemployed people and groups like Seasol could take up struggles against abusive homeless shelter administrators who function as homeless folks’ immediate landlord, or against companies that hire unemployed folks for temp jobs and then don’t pay them.
2) The second objection I could see is that groups like Seasol and IWSJ are still small with few resources and need to focus on continuing to do the labor work we are already doing, we can’t just move into mass political mobilization against police brutality right now. This is generally true for the time being because the level of mass struggle is still relatively low. If anything, we need to try to convince folks who are becoming active as part of the anti-police brutality work to also support these small scale workers’ struggles. This essay is an attempt to do that – to show how these labor struggles could lay the groundwork for a base of power to actually win against the cops down the road, but that base will only be there if we build it by fighting the immediate labor struggles that emerge now. If not our actions against police brutality could remain small symbolic protests for a long time and people in our communities will keep getting murdered. Of course, if mass struggle against police brutality really picks up we’d have to do the opposite and convince folks in worker networks to be flexible enough to shift focus and throw their energy into large scale mobilizations against the state. These kinds of calls are historical and context-specific.
As one of the founders of Seasol put it: “My own perspective originated from frustration with symbolic and ineffectual anti-war and anti-globalization protests and anarchist propaganda groups that had limited relevance to most people’s lives, including my own.” This is right on. Many activists felt that way in the wake of the collapse of movements in the early 2000s. The anti-WTO rebellion in 1999 was not symbolic, it actually shut down the WTO, but the protest hopping that emerged in its wake often became a contained ritual with no threat to the system. While some activists reacted to that collapse by becoming reformist and trailing the union bureaucracy in the name of “putting down roots for the long haul”, it is to the credit of the founders of Seasol that they built something more dynamic, independent, and direct-action-oriented. The key question though is how to make sure that we don’t get stuck in only small -scale fights forever, and to be open to returning to large scale, Seattle ’99 type mobilizations but now with more sustained power to strike back in ways that are not just symbolic.
3) The third objection I could see to this strategy is that it could become economistic, focused only on bread-and-butter demands like back wages, getting someone’s job back, etc. However, most of the folks involved in Seasol and IWSJ are not economistic in their perspectives and do have a broader vision than simply the immediate small scale labor struggles we’re involved in now. Lots of folks are asking how we can fight police brutality; how can we take the organizing skills we’ve learned in labor work into the streets to confront the state. I do think it’s important for independent labor organizers to be out there at small symbolic anti-police brutality rallies like the one described above, which many have been. This allows us to meet people and build up a proletarian network that overcomes some of the divisions within the working class such as the divisions caused by white supremacy, patriarchy, occupational divisions, unionized vs. nonunionized workplaces, and employed vs. unemployed workers.
Also, to avoid economism we need to engage in political and specifically revolutionary study and agitation to develop a vision and strategy that can see beyond the immediate small-scale labor struggles, that way we won’t get swamped in those struggles forever, and we can link them to something larger. Even though there is no mass movement right now we need to be bold and daring and imaginative about the possibilities of one breaking out, and we need to train and prepare ourselves as militants to engage with the complex and contradictory working class self-activity that could erupt anytime. The various revolutionary study groups emerging in Seattle right now are a good step in this direction, and there is a small but growing culture of political cross-fertilization and debate between different political tendencies which is contributing to this.
We need to foster this. Networks like Seasol and IWSJ by necessity should remain politically pluralistic, with a variety of perspectives in the mix, open to anyone who wants to wage the immediate fight against the boss or landlord. But when we are on the picket lines at a Seasol or IWSJ or some other labor action we should keep on mixing it up and discussing and debating politics, just like radicals used to do in the unions and mass neighborhood organizations of the 30s. This will prepare us to play a role in the kind of mass political strikes that will be necessary to actually turn the tide against state terrorism and police brutality. I hope to discuss the contents of this essay with folks soon on the picket lines.
So…. What is to be Done?
Finally, I do think it is necessary to build specifically revolutionary organizations at the same time as we build these working class networks. I don’t see these tasks as counter-posed to each other. Unlike Lenin, I believe it’s possible for working people to develop revolutionary consciousness without joining revolutionary organizations. But this doesn’t mean that we can forget about revolutionary organization. Some, but not all of the folks involved in the broader networks and study circles will develop revolutionary consciousness and will want to join and build revolutionary groups; while we build those groups we can still struggle side by side with and be in dialogue with those who don’t choose to build them. Being in a revolutionary group allows us to develop our political skills, analyses, methods, and fighting capacities much faster than only being in a study group and participating in organizing efforts. It allows us to do this study and organizing together with fellow comrades who can reflect together on that work and study and learn from each other, which accelerates growth and allows us to make positive political interventions in the movement together as a team.
These interventions could mean developing new strategies; developing a political program that could illuminate the contradictions and potentials of current movements; challenging authoritarianism, patriarchy, or white supremacy within the movement; or, as things heat up down the road, being prepared to deal with the inevitable fact that strike picket lines will likely become street confrontations with the cops.
These are exactly the kind of strengths we will need to develop further if we want to take on police brutality and the organized power of the state in a way that goes beyond symbolic protests and it would be a shame if we wait until things heat up to start training ourselves to deal with all of this.
So to summarize, these are the challenges I think the current crisis of police repression in Seattle is posing: 1) the need to build an alternative to the rainbow coalition 2) the need to link up different layers of the working class in a fighting force, 3) the need to expand independent labor and solidarity networks across the city 4) the need to organize our workplaces and neighborhoods to deepen these networks 5) the need to politicize these networks though study, dialogue, and debate, and 6) the need to build revolutionary organizations that can do 1-5 collectively, reflect on these activities, and go beyond them to prepare for the next steps.