By STEVE LEIGH
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
SEATTLE, June 3 — The movement for Justice for George Floyd is at a crossroads. After over a week of mass protest and often violent repression by the police, the movement is facing a choice of direction.
In Seattle on June 2, over a thousand demonstrators surrounded the city’s operation center. Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best addressed the skeptical crowd. Two “leaders” of the demonstration urged everyone to listen. The mayor and chief oozed sincerity, claiming to be outraged by the murder of George Floyd. They pledged that the Seattle Police Dept. would investigate claims of police misconduct. They pledged to be engaged in dialogue with the movement to enact needed reforms. The “leaders” agreed to participate in this effort.
The demonstrators were skeptical for good reason! From Saturday May 30 onward, the police in Seattle have regularly used violence against protesters. Since Saturday, over 14,000 complaints have been filed against the police . This is the usual number of complaints in a full year! The Office of Police Accountability promises to look into these complaints but says it may take a year or more.
One of the most egregious examples was from Saturday, when police pepper sprayed a crowd, including directly into the face of a little girl who was at the protest with her father. This disgusting event has been shown regularly on TV. But this is only one example. On both evenings of Monday, June 1, and Tuesday, June 2, hours-long peaceful protests were finally broken up by the police using tear gas, pepper spray, and flash-bang grenades. Even rubber bullets have been used. Ironically, on at least one occasion, some police “took a knee” to say they were in solidarity with demonstrators only a few hours before attacking them with pepper spray !
None of this has been in response to supposed violence. The looting and property destruction on Saturday has largely ended. The police have been violent in order to assert and maintain control and let demonstrators know who is boss. One Washington State Patrol officer said in whipping up fellow cops, “ Hit them hard!” The actions of the police show their fundamental role: to “serve and protect” the power and profit of the rich against the poor and oppressed. (See: https://rampantmag.com/2020/03/31/abolish-the-police/ )
Every day has seen larger and larger demonstrations, usually in the many thousands.
Certain “leaders” of the movement have called for cooperation with the mayor and police chief for reform. On June 3, they had their first round-table meeting with the mayor and police chief. Demands discussed including sensitivity training and implicit bias training for police. These demands assume that the fundamental role of the police is fine as long as they carry out their duties properly.
The concrete changes so far are moves toward stopping police from covering their badge numbers and a withdrawal of the city of Seattle’s attempt to get its police department out from under Justice Department supervision.
On the other side, more radical voices are calling for defunding the police. Some 20,000 people have signed a petition calling for cutting the police budget in half. This call recognizes that the problem with the police is not “bad apples,” poor training, or better communication with the public. The problem is the fundamental role of the police itself. They understand that the movement should support reforms that weaken the police and undermine its repressive function:
“Police reform efforts—from Minneapolis to Seattle—have failed. To stop police violence, the police must be reduced in size, in budget, and in scope. The police have never served as an adequate response to social problems. They are rooted in violence against Black people. In order to protect Black lives, this moment calls for investing and expanding our safety and well-being beyond ‘policing.’
“Our schools, workplaces, and government offices frequently collaborate with police. The police are an occupying force in Black communities. Their brutality towards Black people is condoned and accepted as business as usual. We urge all local governmental and non-governmental entities to cut ties with the SPD. When they put on their badges, police officers cease to be members of the working class. In fact their primary role is to surveil, control, and silence all forms of dissent to support the continuity of a racist, harmful, murderous status quo. …
“#BlackLivesMatter #DefundSPD #DisarmSPD #DismantleSPD #DecriminalizeSeattle #CareNotCages #FreeThePeople #FreeThemAllWA #DecriminalizeSeattle #CharleenaLyles #ShawnFuhr #TommyLe #CheTaylor #JTWilliams #IsaiahObet #JesseSarey #JusticeForStoney #SayTheirNames”
On Wednesday afternoon, June 3, over 12,000 people rallied in Cal Anderson Park and then marched a few miles to City Hall to turn in petitions calling for cutting the police budget. On the way down, they chanted, “Defund the SPD,” “ Say his name, George Floyd,” “Say her name, Breonna Taylor,” and the most popular: “Back Up, Back Up, We Want Freedom, Freedom! These racist ass cops, we don’t need ’em, need ’em!”
At one point , Mayor Jenny Durkan came out from her discussion with movement “leaders” to address the Defund the Police rally to mixed response.
The movement, at least in Seattle, has come to a crossroads: Reform the police but keep their basic function the same, or oppose the institution of the police wholesale. Most activists have not come out clearly on one side or the other. Many would support both efforts to reform the police and to defund the police. Over time, the debate over the direction of the movement will likely sharpen. The initiative by the “Defund the Police” movement has been important in sharpening this debate and leading the way forward.
Previous movements against the murders of Black people by police have accomplished little in terms of structural change. Since 2014, when the Black Lives Matter(BLM) movement erupted, the police have continued to kill over 1000 people per year. The racial disparity in these murders has continued. The chief accomplishment of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to raise public awareness. Even large numbers of white people now see racist police brutality as a major problem as a result of BLM.
In the long run, the political direction of the movement will determine whether it can be more effective at limiting the destructiveness of the police.