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.
16 thoughts on “How can we advance the anti-police brutality struggle?”
I think of slogans as attempts to distill political ideas. So I am curious what political perspective you are meaning to communicate with the slogan about police being “pigs”. You don’t explain this and it is not self evident to me.
Good question Doug. To be clear, I didn’t create that slogan “no more racist pigs at work, let’s make some Bacon out of Birk.” I think it emerged out of political discussion among several different people and then it took off among the crowd. If anyone who came up with it is reading this, feel free to weigh in. I’m highlighting and reproducing the slogan here for a few reasons:
1) it shows the militancy of the crowd. Everyday people who as far as I know are not affiliated with the Left were pouring off the streets and chanting that slogan. In fact, the ranks of much of the established Left were not at that demonstration and that chant was not created by self-proclaimed professional revolutionaries. To me, this shows that there are layers of working class people who go a lot farther in their thinking and action then the Left currently expects them to.
2) I think the slogan echoes the Black Power movement, where groups like the Panthers called the cops “pigs.” Partially because of their influence, this concept has been transmitted to my generation and is still popular – just listen to most Hip Hop artists talk about the cops and you’ll probably hear at least some reference to “pigs” at some point. NWA’s classic anthem “Fuck the Police” is also still popular and that was one of the other popular chants at the demonstration. I think what all of this does is highlight that the entire institution of the police is dehumanizing and beast like, it’s not just a few “bad apples.” In that sense, it’s a seed of revolutionary consciousness because it highlights the need to dismantle state power.
3) People of all different backgrounds were chanting these slogans together. Black youth from the neighborhoods, white homeless youth from the downtown streets or shelters, East African, Native, Latino, and Asian folks were chanting together. This shows that if there is a lasting legacy of the Black Power movement among working class youth in Seattle it isn’t necessarily the Black separatist side of Black Power, it is the side that emphasized people of color-led multi-racial class struggle against white supremacy. A number of youth have told me recently that they want to build a multi-racial Panthers. We saw the same thing in Oakland with the Justice for Oscar Grant rebellions. I think that’s a very positive development.
4) when we were saying “make some Bacon out of Birk” obviously folks aren’t talking about cannibalism (though the ruling class might be worried cuz in their race and class hatred they often think crowds like this are full of cannibals). I think what the slogan means is get Birk off the force, fire his ass, and send him to prison for murder.
When some people chant “Fuck the police” or call them pigs, they may mean more than what I outlined above. They may be dreaming about some sort of ‘propaganda by the deed’ if you catch my drift. I’m not for propaganda by the deed, I think that all it would lead to is they’d replace one dead racist cop with another living racist cop and police brutality would continue. But again, the fact that quite a few folks seem to be thinking along those lines shows how deep the political and economic crisis runs and just how fast official society could destabilize if people decide they’ve finally had enough.
In fact, it’s already happening. Christopher Monfort blew up a cop car then assassinated Seattle cops. Maurice Clemons killed several Lakewood cops in a coffee shop. Clemons’ motives are unclear but Monfort’s are: he left writings which clearly identified his actions as political retaliation for police brutality. Segments of the ruling class were panicking after that happened but a lot of working people were not mourning; even if most workers are probably opposed to assassinations like that their empathy for cops is not particularly high considering how many people have loved ones who have been brutalized by cops.
If anyone thinks general strikes against police brutality are far fetched I’d invite you to consider how polarized the city already has become in the wake of those shootings. The way I see it, the political situation in Seattle is pretty unpredictable right now and people are thinking about all sorts of options for how to fight back, for better or worse. Unfortunately, right wingers are also calling for blood and the white supremacists are reconsolidating their agenda. Our analyses need to begin with that objective and subjective situation.
That being said, I am hesitant to empahsize those assasinations because it plays into the cops’ whole false claim that they are victims and that their job is so dangerous so we can’t question murderers like Birk when they kill people from our commuities. In reality, a lot of working class jobs are much more dangerous than being a cop. You are more likely to die as a trucker, lumber worker, etc. than as a cop. Where are the funerals and front page stories when some minimum wage worker dies on the job because she was working too fast because the boss used the economic crisis as an excuse to understaff? THAT question is the one that I think is on a lot of people’s minds after the shootings, and it’s that broader reality of working class life that could lead to the kind of strikes I talk about in my piece.
Thanks for this post!
Can you let people know that there is a protest planned on January 10th at noon in front of the King County Courthouse. This is the date the inquest is scheduled.
More info below
The video from Birk’s car has just been released to the public, showing John crossing the street carving and that Birk shot at him 5 times within a few seconds of shouting out to John T. You can also hear Birk commenting that John was walking across the street carving. Watch here.
Ian Birk needs to be arrested and charged with murder now. The authorities are attempting to re-assure people that justice will be served via an inquest into the police murder of Williams. Our research has shown that no police officer has ever been charged with murder by the prosecuting attorney after inquest findings in Washington State. Pack the courtroom at these inquest hearings to demand justice for John Williams and to let the powers that be know that we are determined to make sure that Ian Birk is tried for murder. Bring your friends, signs and other visuals that demand an end to police brutality and that Birk be tried for murder
This was a piece that had some good insight. I’m the same Native man who wrote that piece on thanksgiving that was on this site a while ago with some help from Matt, I edited it and we raised a point. What does John Williams & his family have to be thankful for?
My name is Chris McFall, that’s my slave name. My tribal name, my true name is Ahiga Kotori.
Anyway on the notion of striking and riots, I admit that a full out riot wouldn’t be easy in Seattle. I’m from Watts & I’m a Crip as are my older cousins, who are full blooded while I am half blooded. They still live in Watts.
My family may be in the “Urban Indian” category but I think the racism is every bit as prevalent as it is toward Natives on the rez. The one advantage to Natives on reservations is there limited interactions with white people.
Yet my cousin David, they tried to give him a felony for aggravated assault on a cop but the fact is, they beat him brutally and used a taser on him. He still fought back and managed to zap the pig with his own taser right in the neck.
He put up a fight but got beaten even more. Now they tried to give him a second felony on top of the criminal record he already had.
Then there’s my other cousin Eli who did 7 years in Pelican Bay for manslaughter. Its funny how he had to do seven years when the cop that shot Oscar Grant won’t even do two as its looking.
& all he did was kill the guy who killed our other cousin Brandon. R.I.P.
He shot two Surenos, a mexican gang that in their own ways, contributes to racism by making prison treaties with the Arayan Brotherhood.
Anyway, why is a cop allowed to shoot a 22 year old black man who wasn’t even armed? That was straight up murder! Yet I would say what my cousin did was justified because let’s be real. Street justice gives you more justice than the “Justice” system.
Now I agree about the rioting thing. The mayor is in bed with the chief of police. Of course they would justify more forces on the streets.
Which raises an interesting question. Instead of cutting back on health care and Medi care for people, hearing aids for the deaf, why don’t we just cut back on police funding?
That would be one way we could go to war with them in a non violent way. Sure, we don’t need to vote for candidates but we can vote on issues.
I would love to see the pigs at least have a dent in their cause. Now as far as the Oakland riots go, I am glad that it had a reaction as far as putting Mershele on trial.
I think that these full out strikes & rioting, even violent ones are just the beginning. We do need to get the hearts and minds of people on our side so that we can’t be labeled as trouble makers. The Panthers failed t do so in some areas.
I think that strikes however big or small, even ones that turn out violent or end in arrests such as that of the Oakland 100, is just the start. For now its the developing stage of revolution.
Soon they will be at all out war. That’s when the shit will really be real. & we need to be real careful and make sure we win those hearts and minds so that we aren’t taken down by something like cointelpro.
As for motivating strikers and keeping the morale of protesting going at the stage its at now, I say that this is where the hearts & willpower of revolutionaries are going to be tested by the trials and tribulations.
Emma, thanks for the heads up. I hope everyone reading this in Seattle can try to make it to that demonstration outside Birk’s inquest hearing.
Ahiga Kotori, I didn’t know that your cousin caught a felony for fighting back against police brutality. That’s messed up. The police like to celebrate the fact that they have “nonlethal” weapons like tasers, as if that’s more humane. Well they clearly don’t think it’s that humane because when your cousin turned their taser back on them they slapped him with a felony charge! But would they get a felony charge for using a taser on a civilian? Of course not…
You’re right, strikes, protests, riots, are just the beginning, and could be part of the “developing stage of revolution, ” which is a long-term, but not gradual process… it’s a process of leaps forward and insurgent moments followed by relativley quiet periods where it seems nothing is happnening, followed by uprisings. That’s why it’s key that we build organizations that can navigate the twists and turns of possible movements, to help build toward revolution. You’re absolutely right, a key part of that means winning the hearts and minds of our neighbors and coworkers through organizing in our workplaces and neighborhoods, through cultural work like hop hop shows, writing, study groups, etc., and through taking bold, daring, and well-timed actions that can help advance the struggle by increasing folks’ confidence in their own ability to take action.
I also strongly agree that we should be calling for them to cut the budget of the police instead of schools, health care, etc. The only problem I could see with that is what if the rich white racists then just end up hiring private security forces to keep people down? These private paramilitaries could be even more brutal than the cops. I heard that something like this was already starting in LA. What if we end up with militarized suburbs, gated communities, etc. coupled with increased gang warfare and 2 hour wait times when you call 911 trying to get an ambulance in the ghetto? That would pose a whole other set of problems. Ultimately, we need to think about how everyday people can be self-governing in security and judicial affairs so we can replace the cops with democratic neighborhood councils.
Thanks for these posts U&S comrades. My questions have to do with a seeming disconnect between the two.
Nightwolf provides yet another example of our experiences across the country in attacking policing as an institution of white supremacy, namely, the state strategy of using intermediary elements to “stomp the flames.”
My question has to do with Mamos’ follow-up, which moves very quickly from the community to the workers, understood in traditional terms (of the “mass strike”). Why displace a struggle over policing to a different sphere, the point of production?
If workers’ struggles are not balanced by struggles on the level of the community, then this “rainbow coalition” will continue to reign and the police will go unchallenged. I think Mamos recognizes this in their last response about “democratic neighborhood councils,” but why is this an afterthought rather than an alternative to be built and a terrain on which to struggle?
Thanks for the feedback Gio. Just to be clear, I fully endorse every one of Nightwolf’s conclusions, as well as “experiences across the country in attacking policing as an institution of white supremacy.” If I didn’t make that central it’s not because I wish to downplay it, it’s simply because I was taking for granted that readers would see the two pieces as part of the same overall argument and I didn’t want to be repetitive because Nightwolf already covered it.
Also, my intention was not to move from “the community” to “the workers.” My intention was to break down this division between community and workers. The strike I’m imagining is not only at the point of production, it’s also in the streets. What I’m thinking of is something like the Toledo Auto-Lite strike where unemployed folks and workers from across the city joined the picket lines, turning the strike into a quasi-dual power city-wide pursuing. Similarly, the teachers’ strike that touched off the Oaxaca uprising several years ago, or the Greek general strikes going on in recent months (which were touched off originally by the police killing of a young man). I imagine folks refusing to work, refusing to shop, doing militant demonstrations in the streets, doing whatever it takes to disrupt business as usual.
This is evident in my original response, where I consider the counter-argument that this strategy privileges point of production workers over unemployed folks. If you read that again you’ll see that I’m trying to think through a way where employed and unemployed proletarians can unite around directly anti-state demands as well as economic demands that both employed and unemployed workers are struggling for (this is symbolized by the suggestion of a grocery workers strike occupying grocery stores and distributing the food). What’s I’m imagining here is not a traditional struggle at the point of production, one workplace at a time, but rather a flying squad picket of workers, unemployed folks, students, etc. that can operate at multiple workplaces and other sites of struggle around the city. I think Seasol starts to prefigure this because they’re working not only on labor struggles but also on housing struggles which are relevant to folks who don’t work at the point of production.
A weakness of my piece is that it did not mention the role that housewives, or other folks who work at home, could play in such a strike. The strategy was directly informed by the movie Salt of the Earth and by Domitila Barrios’ book Let Me Speak which talk about this, but this should have been more directly acknowledged. On the ground, in IWSJ’s organizing efforts, we are discussing this and trying to put it into practice by connecting not only with workers but with their entire families. The discussion on the earlier Gathering Forces post called “Women and Revolutionary Organization” gets at this.
Finally, my post focuses specifically on what IWSJ and Seasol can do to stop police brutality, because that’s the milleiu I’m currently working in – my fellow workers and I who are still trying to fight after the anti-budget cuts struggle collapsed (for now – I’m sure it will resurge soon). We are connecting with unemployed folks and building these anti-police brutality struggles and this piece is a way to try and think that through. I’m not trying to fetishize the mass strike or say it’s the only way forward. It is simply one possibility that could grow out of our current work, but not the only one. Actually, to put that more precisely, we cant’ “grow” a strike, all we can do is prepare for it because it would be much, much bigger than us, and this piece is an attempt to help us prepare. The piece never claimed to be a comprehensive statement on how to stop police brutality. All sorts of other actions, from copwatch, to building neighborhood councils, will be necessary and I support them. In fact, in Seattle there has been a lot of overlap and healthy discussion among people committed to Seasol type strategies and those committed to copwatch, those committed to spreading self-defense skills among everyday people, etc.
Frequently as a teacher I teach about the historic existence of democratic neighborhood councils and ask my students what the possibility of building them today would be? So many of them abide by the “no snitching” code which means they dont’ call the cops, and I understand why. But I ask them to go further and to think about what it would take to deal with crises and conflict in the community without calling the cops. Ahiga Kotori (who wrote in above) and I have been discussing this extensively as well. If you look at the LA gang truce between the Bloods and Crips, and the LA uprising, it was what Mike Davis rightly calls a “social miracle”, and it’s one of the highest stages of working class struggle in recent decades. But why did it collapse? Cle “Bone” Sloan from the movie Bastards of the Party suggests that one of the reasons why is there was no economic and political program that could address the direct material needs of the gang members who were attempting to make peace and of all the other oppressed people who were rising up against the cops. According to the Aufheben peice on the LA uprising, the gangs proposed a Keynesian/ social democratic development plan to the city government (something along the lines of “give us the hammers and we’ll rebuild the city”), and the city rejected it. So in other words if we want to make gang truces -which would be absolutely necessary if we want to build democratic neighborhood councils to replace the police- then we need resources. Where can we get them if the state refuses to give them to us? Well, of course, we need to take them… and that would require revolutionary or proto-revolutionary measures like seizing workplaces and running them democratically. I mean, you can loot the grocery store, but what happens after the food runs out? Without seizing the means of production, how possible will it be to sustain these neighborhood committees over time? I’m not saying that to downplay the importance of building neighborhood committees, we need to build them, and maybe the struggle will start there. I’m just saying it can’t end there… just like we can’t focus only on the point of production, we also can’t focus only on the community…. we need to break down the division between the two.
Also, I would argue that white supremacist capitalism’s strategy for dealing for proletarian rebellion, especially Black proletarian rebellion, has been to violently wrench the labor process out of the community. This is what slavery did, and this is what incarceration does today. They try to rip Black workers from the social power of the rest of the Black community – the power of culture, social reproduction, “commons” or collective resources folks can rely on to regroup before launching new attacks on the means of production. Black rebels have often resisted this by creating new community ties, from the maroons to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. That’s why prison strikes like the recent one in Georgia are such a crucial part of the class struggle against state terror: they are labor struggles by one of the most oppressed layers of the working class, and by their very nature they have to confront the state violence that separates incarcerated workers from the rest of the working class. As Advance the Struggle put it in their recent analysis on the prison strike:
“Prisoners are confined to conditions involving brutal super-exploitation and complete containment. Ripped largely from proletarian communities, systematically denied access to the basic productive and reproductive power of society, prisoners and their labor are violently controlled and regulated by the state which claims direct control over their bodies, energies and activity–a relationship not unlike ownership. Prisoners form a unique and specific sector of the proletariat, bordering on a class unto themselves–and yet they are not separate from their families, their neighborhoods, the exploitation and oppression of society at large.
This breaking up of communities has always been an indispensable component of the political side of capital accumulation, going back to the disruption of African societies for the slave trade and Native American societies for colonial access to land. To this day, war for conquest of land and total political control of labor remains every bit as crucial to the processes of capital accumulation – the logic of our system.”
I wrote this piece before the Georgia Prison strike broke out, but it’s pretty much exactly the kind of strike against state violence I was hoping might break out, and it shows in a lot more concrete detail than anything I could have written exactly what the contours of struggle looks like. As usual, working class self-activity exceeds anything that one revolutionary could imagine – that’s what’s so exciting about being a revolutionary! I hope this type of activity spreads across the country, and we should be spreading information about it in our cities, and to friends and loved ones in prison. This should be a key part of our agitation in labor and anti-police brutality work in Seattle and elsewhere. The working class from the housing projects to the fast food restaurants to the high schools to the homeless shelters can learn from our comrades in the Georgia prisons and we should strike outside to show them they’re not alone!
preface- whatever i say is my individual opinion, and doesn’t represent any of the organizations I’m a part of (since I know they’d disagree with a bunch of the stuff I will say).
objections & responses- I like the section on objections and responses, I think I might have modified versions of both the objections and responses, and liked that dialogue.
Anti-police confrontation- I could be misreading you, but I think you may be a little too soft on the collaborationist elements in our communities. Police occupy a unique position because in our time the state is not simply repressive, but consciously takes on social roles, in ways that move sections of our communities. Police terrorism in the working class (worst in communities of color) is also met by terrorism of organized and unorganized violence within the community and from outside the community. In many cases I’ve found older people don’t like how the police do business, but welcome them in repressing young people and “criminal elements” in their community. Part of the problem is that oppression and repression don’t just breed consciousness about your community, but also can breed repressive reactionary consciousness. That contradiction is particularly pitched in times like our own where there is no movement. So i think it’s clearly split, and in fact there’s a lot of support for the police which drives the wedge.
Whatever division there is, would quickly and dangerously become polarized if it turned into an open confrontation any time soon. A colombian friend of mine always tells me he worries for us, because here people see police and soldiers as their neighbors, friends, whatever. There is little division in the population between the state and community.
I see a problem with anti-police work in the current balance of forces as a primary activity. I think it’s a necessary component of organizing, but if taken on its own presents difficulties at this time. I’m open to that changing with the level of struggle though. Taking on the police is a massive step. it requires the will and resolve to endure the potential of ongoing and constant terrorism waged against a communities life and safety. Yes things are horrible now, but imagine unbridled terrorism that police could unleash without any existing community organization on the ground, without a developed layer of leadership, etc. I think we need to be careful not to look to 1967 or 1969 anti-police struggles and forget about the 1950s-1967. We can’t leap over that work (nor can we ignore that the police’s relationship to the community has significantly changed). I’m skeptical about that as an organizing demand in the short term, outside exceptional circumstances. From an organizing perspective, getting people to risk everything and step up to the plate without a process of struggle and organizing seems incredibly difficult, since there’s no real process to radicalize people, build leadership, and expand through direct confrontation. These pieces are good because it presents the issues as a more long-term struggle integrated with other struggles.
political character- We should question what is political, and I’m not being semantic here. At this time, I would argue that economic struggles generally have more of a political character than the struggles that are explicitly political. Political strikes I worry tend not to reflect political activity of an organized active body of the class, and more represent the dominance of political sects at this time. I lived in India for a time, and there the unions are allied with political parties. The largest unions are communist (stalinist), and there’s smaller maoist unions too. They strike frequently against budget issues (the communists are in the parliament), for the right for Iran to have nuclear weapons, whatever. When you go to the strikes, most of the workers have no clue why they’re on strike (huge portions are not there), and there’s little confrontation at all. I think it’s great that the ILWU goes on strike wily-nily for various activist causes, but it can reasonably questioned how much knowledge and consciousness about those struggles the workers have (knowing the ILWU locals that I do), and consequently how much it means? At this time calls for political strikes effectively mean calls for strikes by activists with political banners. Without a level of engagement in struggle by the oppressed classes, truly politicized political strikes are not possible. So we need to rethink how we understand what is political, and how we get to political strikes. The problem is that I think people tend to take an intellectualist (just argue for radical ideas at events with numbers) or a populist (try to get numbers to agree with cleverly repackaged hazy ideas) approach. The real political work in my opinion is working with people to confront their material interests collectively at the various points where they have power and that impact them deeply. I have the most hope for workplaces, transit, and housing, but I think the site of struggle is less important than many make out. In the end, the most radical struggles are not necessarily those that have the most radical demands or proclamations, but the ones that most thoroughly engage the class in collective activity that ruptures consciousness and constructs another way of living. That is crass populist slogan for communization or prefiguring or whatever you call it. In this time of low struggle, the most success I have seen has been around bread and butter issues, and for that reason I think people have underestimated the theoretical contribution of the syndicalist tradition which gives us a method for understanding consciousness and organization across different periods of struggle and in mass movements.
Ok excuse me for taking up the more abstract stuff and side points here:
class- unwaged workers, lumpenproletariate, etc. I know I’m probably alone in this but…. (1) I don’t think that people need to be workers in order to be important to a revolutionary transformation of capitalism. Classical anarchism was right on this point. Peasants, lumpenprol, whoever all can play an active role in the struggle. The working class is super important, but I think it’s an error to believe people who aren’t workers aren’t crucial to the struggle. gio’s comment on the community is positive and I see it in line with all this. The community should matter on its own, not in its relation to the workplace only. (2) There’s something special and unique about the social relationship of wage labor. Being in a position where you exist through selling your labor to an ownership struggle managed by a managerial class who organizes production with dictatorial power is a unique thing. I think it’s a mistake to try and generalize that relationship beyond any meaning.
For those reason I reject the idea that unwaged people are workers. They’re oppressed, they’re important to the struggle, they’re not inherently reactionary, but that doesn’t make them workers. Ultimately I think the work of the JFT and the Autonomia on this stuff was an attempt to make worker=oppression because of a desire to save a particular interpretation of marx from the struggles by lumpenproletariat, housewives, and students. By trying to turn those other relationships into that of wage labor, I think we lose a lot of the political dynamics that make up other classes.
So I’m a class-pluralist and I don’t think we need to commit to a mechanical interpretation of the working class, but… I do buy some of the classical socialist workerism. I do think that the nature of the work process itself gives elements of the working class a distinct possibility of collective liberation (though I don’t believe objective conditions are determining; i.e. fascism is also a possibility). I also think the working class is central, because of its point in capitalist social relations, because of the struggles and consciousness tied to wage labor, and because of the fact that in our time increasingly non-waged relationships are being proletarianized anyway.
Not that numbers matter that much, but I think we need to stay conscious of the fact that an overwhelming majority of all races and nationalities in the US are workers. we should remember that the overwhelming majority of people are in the working class (outside of places where peasants still exist). The amount of permanently unemployed, underground economy, non-waged workers, etc., relative to the population as a whole is quite low. Even if we think about now and estimate maybe 20+% unemployment with a generous 20% of managerial and capitalist classes, the working class is still 60% and a huge majority of the oppressed sectors.
When you write the objection where people say this only applies to workers, I’d say so what. Every struggle doesn’t need to engage every sector of the class. Nor do I think that the most oppressed are necessarily the most revolutionary (which is a crass kind of determinist populism), and therefore must be engaged primarily.
Also I don’t think the programmatically we need to rally behind the most oppressed sectors demands. This is because those demands are not automatically revolutionary (those they may be more likely to be revolutionary). We need to support all sectors of the class, but which demands we choose will vary. That line came from a time when the most oppressed where objectively in the lead. But I think we should see that historically. There are also times when more privledged sectors of the class put forwards demands that are the correct and most advanced demands. That’s not because they’re objectively more radical, but because demands are historical not determined by class. Balances of forces, organization, experience in struggle, etc., can help produce demands not raw oppression (which also can produce fascism it should be noted).
-mass strikes, That book is actually one of rosa’s worst in my opinion. You have to remember she was being slandered as an anarchist for her positions in the 2nd international. That book was an attempt to theorize the general strikes (in some cases led by anarchosyndicalists) across europe in her period. The problem was that anarchosyndicalists had theorized these concepts since the rise of syndicalism in the late 1800s. Engels and the heavy hitters of the 2nd international had slammed those ideas pretty openly. So 1905 happens, and general strikes all over the west, and Rosa was in a tough spot. Mass strike was a sectarian attempt to try incorporate those ideas, but reframe them as truly marxist. Hence the insightful bits like anarchosyndicalism isn’t anarchist because they believe in organization. The part in there I like (which in a way was a side point) is that she shows the unpredictability of those ruptures, and argues against linear thinking. Her problem, which she gifted to councilists and the ultraleft ever since, is that she had no orientation for how to deal with those and how to prepare for them. There I think the anarchosyndicalists actually had contributions, and she opened the door the leninist substitutionism to sweep her aside.
Thanks for posting these pieces… reminds me all too dearly how things play in San Jo with the police and the ‘community policing’ strategies that SJPD has deployed, essentially deploying a combination of the ‘warden’ tactic you outline above along with what amounts to community organizing by the police/city government to build a direct base of supporter in the neighborhoods as well as a more passive base through buy-in/buy off efforts (offering crumbs and concessions to ameliorate long neglected issues in neighborhoods).
I also want to echo Todd’s comments around how to view the struggle of marginalized very poor/unemployed/homeless folks. I think similar points could be said of prisoners as well, but I’ll get to that later. While all of these folks are broadly part of the working class because their existence is defined by wage labor (or lack thereof) and not by ownership of property, business, stocks, etc, I think efforts to conflate them as part of the proletariat (ie wage workers) just seems off to me.
This doesn’t mean their struggles are any less important and haven’t posed very serious and radical challenges to the political order when they’ve arisen– time and time this has been demonstrated in practice. But I think that by rolling these folks (like unemployed/lumpen folks, students, housewives, etc) into the same category as wage workers we miss analyzing these groups as their own forces with their own unique dynamics.
For the record that we are dealing with experiences in Seattle this is not a recommendation for struggle in other cities with different circumstances but there are many point worth considering.
I think folks (@ Adam and Todd) have mistaken some of the points Mamos was trying to get at. The article clearly recognizes the “unique” dynamics of each group he refered to. As the article states,
“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.”
It would be a tactical error not recognize these nuances but also to not recognize the potential of any of the groups to become part of capitals power base or in broader terms, change its relation to capital. At this stage in capitalism I don’t know if the capitalist have the means to make concessions to certain layers of the class and use them to prop up it’s power but I wouldn’t put it passes them. How long have anti-capitalist forces said “capitalism is near death” only to have it show it’s dynamic nature and take new forms adding groups into it’s “inner circle” to ensure it’s existence?
Recognizing the intricacies of each groups relationship to capital as it is now is important and can be done in tandem with seeing these groups as making the proletariat as a whole. The struggle of those who aren’t wage laborers is tied to the struggle of waged laborers. We can’t stop one groups oppression without stopping the others. Though certain layers aren’t waged laborer they have the potential to be. Their relationship to capital can change and certainly will. We have to acknowledge this.
I feel that Mamo’s is trying to figure out a way to respect the dynamics/ social relations that characterize each group with an understanding that it is an all for one one for all situation and that capital, as mentioned before, is in a stage of transition which has historically meant a change in capitals’ relation to different group on a national and international scale. Hence, at any moment and even as we speak those wage laborers could become homeless or apart of the lumpen, etc. In that sense it is useful to try to organize these broad groupings with varying relations to capital under a new category or extend and redefine old categories or else be caught off guard. Is this not a lesson history has already taught us with the ride of non-profits, the rainbow coalition, etc? The relationship of middle class/wealthy POC changed dramatically after the civil rights and black power movements. The relationships of these groups to capital changed. The same can be said of workers in the “rust belt” or those in Detroit, etc. Wage laborers and would be wage laborers who had jobs taken from them with little recourse but to move, turn to crime (become lumpen) etc.
@Todd- I have some points I want to present but I’m going to have to get beck to you.
As I said before I will return with more points. Thanks for reading this everyone and for your comments!
Just got done reading this.
I thought it was fairly good. The experience of the ‘rainbow coalition’ forums described were pretty similar to a situation here in Iowa City in 2009.
A homeless Sudanese man named John Deng was killed by police after an altercation with a white man coming out of a bar. The whole thing was real questionable, and a university TA or professor set up a ‘community forum’ which had the same dynamics. Black folk and African immigrants were angry about a pattern of harassment from the police and the university dude, who was black, tried to funnel this towards extremely tame avenues, etc.
This attempted marginalization of radicals within these type of forums is nothing new, but I’m curious to what your response was. Co-optation within wider assemblies in inevitable, and I guess I’m curious if you came to any decisions on what to do about this…
Re: 1st article —
No wonder Sendero Luminosa (Communist Party of Peru-Maoist/Shinning Path) executed liberals in the 1990s.
Sadly, when one does that the 85% generally do understand why it was necessary. The ‘sleeping with the enemy’ part is usually somehow missed. Until its too late.
For us, it is not too late to “Wake Up, God Dammit!”: http://www.allpowertothepositive.podomatic.com
I usually just ignore these debates out of necessity (little time, lots to do) and also because they rarely seem to produce unifying or movement building results. But lately, I have gotten the impression that the “political winds” …in Seattle are shifting. New comrades, new organizations doing exciting organizing, and a new generation too.. In particular, IWSJ, Casa Latina’s Defense Committee, and of course my own SeaSol.
Alot of this debate has been around the “Rainbow coalition” of John T Williams that has been criticizing the actions of O22 and the Black Bloc.
Identity politics weaken social movements when they are not class based. This is the case with the John T Williams Committee as far as I can tell. Ultimately, economic interests will create revolution in this country just like they have in any other country around the world and those people in communities who act as middle class leaders (for crumbs from the table) in working class communities of color do not have the same interest.
I also would like to make note of this obsession with calling out all white people as privileged. Yes, white privilege exists. You’d have to be blind not to see it. But especially in the NW there is a considerable strata of poor and working class white people who do not fit into the typical experience of the rest of the white America. lets be inclusive and multi-racial from below, yet still recognize the nature of white supremacist oppression.. it is important to our organizing to be aware of the demographics of our locality as revolutionaries. Pursuing a dogmatic approach to analyzing class strata in the North West will negatively affect our ability of organize effectively. It’s worth considering at least..
John T Williams lived in Seattle. that means what happened to him is something that many poor people in Seattle experience. As much as the native community tries to claim him as “their” casualty, his killing is part of a pattern that IS HAPPENING in metropolitan Puget Sound, from South Seattle to Federal Way to Tacoma.
I don’t agree with the actions of the black block for the simple reason that their actions were not strategic or organized. On the other hand, I don’t think they did anything that can be condemned. Strategy and our ability to win our desired goals is more important than debating violence vrs non-violence. People could probably stop blaming the black block for being violent. its a cop-out. The police are always violent FIRST. Even people in the movement dismiss police violence because sub-consciously they actually believe that police have the god-given right to beat people up.
The police are always wrong. end of story.
We need a multiplicity of organizations patterned after the use of goal oriented direct action organizing. SeaSol inadvertently had a discussion similar to this last night at our meeting. Seattle Solidarity has been developed to handle two very broad issues (housing and workplace issues). I personally don’t think its a good idea that we re-direct our organizing efforts to anti-police work. I DO support adopting our model to anti-police work and moving forward with working class based organizing in this department. It would be really nice for the Seattle anti-police movement to dump the Oct 22nd coalition and get something going with some substance.
Concerning class composition in the Puget Sound metropolitan area, this bit from the above essay is pretty accurate. It’s also one of the reasons that anti-police organizing in Seattle is sooo fucking difficult:
“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.”
There are a lot of property owners (out of town pieces of shit tourist motherfuckers) in Seattle who have an interest in having condominiums built, landlords raise rent, and cops brutalize people. It means their property values stay high. Over the last 20 years, Seattle proper (with the exception of an extensive part of the south seattle) has been insulated against working class people. With exceptions, we no longer live in Seattle. We live in South Seattle, Tacoma, Kent, ect ect…
What I am getting at is that our organizing will probably be most strategically focused in South Seattle and all the way down to Tacoma. A conclusion from Struggle and Unity’s essay that I think alot of us can get behind:
“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.”
This human rights approach may also be extended to address calls for social justice that have trailed the protests, especially in the aftermath of massive lootings across the country. The Nigerian government can respond to these calls by working to protect basic socioeconomic rights. As things stand, the oil-rich Nigerian state is shielded from any form of judicial accountability by the provision in Chapter II of the country’s constitution which states that socioeconomic rights are mere “objectives” and “directive principles.”