By STEVE LEIGH
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
The movement against the police took a leap forward in Seattle on June 17. The Martin Luther Jr. King County Labor Council voted to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). The reason for the expulsion was that SPOG had not taken a clear stand against racism. The vote was 45,435 to 36,760.
MLK Labor Executive Secretary-Treasurer Nicole Grant said, “It’s our responsibility to fight for all forms of justice. In the Martin Luther King County Labor Council, we believe that there can be no justice without racial justice. Any union that is part of our labor council needs to be actively working to dismantle racism in their institution and society at large. Unfortunately, the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild has failed to do that work and are no longer welcome in our council.”
While the meeting was going on, Capitol Hill Organized Protest, CHOP (formerly known as Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) was holding a rally in support of expulsion. Over 1000 people gathered to hear speakers demanding expulsion. They chanted “Black Lives Matter, SPOG Out!” Members of several unions spoke, including some that had already passed resolutions for expulsion.
Jesse Hagopian, from the Seattle Education Association, noted that “you don’t have to go beyond the shores of Puget Sound” to see police brutality in action. He talked about the case of Charlena Lyles, who was killed by Seattle police three years ago after she called for help from police. She was pregnant and was shot in front of three of her children. Three of the shots were in the back! He recounted his own experience of being pepper-sprayed directly in the face as he was leaving the Martin Luther King Day rally in 2015. He said he could not be in the same organization with people who regularly attacked protesters and killed Black people.
Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative city council member and member of American Federation of Teachers, praised the movement for successfully pushing the city council to ban chemical weapons, rubber bullets, and choke holds. She called for continual pressure. Kshama also noted that as long as the rich held the wealth, they will hold the power and use the cops to defend it. She called for nationalizing the top corporations.
It was important for Sawant as a city council member to speak out on this issue. She was instrumental in pushing the city council reforms limiting the repressive ability of the police. However, on the issue of police unions, her organization has been ambivalent. A recent article in their newspaper, Socialist Alternative, said that police unions should be allowed back into the labor movement if they renounced racism and strike breaking. This wrongly implies that racism and anti-labor action is not fundamental to policing! See: https://www.socialistalternative.org/2020/06/17/socialists-and-the-state-how-to-end-racist-policing/
A longshore worker, Leif, noted that since the police officially joined the labor movement they had become the largest group with collective bargaining rights. The number of cops in “unions” is higher than among workers. From the time the cops joined, the percentage of actual workers in the labor movement declined. He called for a new labor movement without cops.
Many other participants talked about their negative experiences with police and praised the solidarity that the Black Lives Matter movement had received from people of all races. Speakers called for the centering of Black voices. Others noted the systematic role of police in defending the concentration of wealth at the top and white supremacy, as well as their role as strikebreakers. The rally was livestreamed and influenced the on-line vote in the labor council. People at the rally could also watch the council meeting on line.
The upsurge in anti-racist sentiment since May 25 swept through local unions and the labor council as well as the public at large.
The vote was preceded by a raging debate among KCLC delegates and union members in general. One argument was that cops were workers who deserve collective bargaining rights. As workers, the argument went, they deserved solidarity from the labor movement.
Some wanted to keep SPOG in the labor council to influence it: Karlena Allbery from IBEW 46 said unions are “stronger together.” “Why are we engaged in union-busting from within? … We need them at the table, we can talk with them, discuss with them, so then we can hold them accountable,” she said. “Again, it’s not an overall … ‘only police are racist.’ We’re all fighting this.” Yet, this argument was rejected by the majority of the labor movement in Seattle.
The Seattle Times noted that before the vote, Jane Hopkins, registered nurse and executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, spoke in favor of the motion: “Speaking as a Black woman and a mother of two young, Black men, a labor leader, I know full well the obstacles that stand in the way of people who look like me. As a leader of a union, I know we are only as strong as our members.
“At this point, I just can’t justify to our members, ones who are staffing the medical tents and getting gassed by SPD, having SPOG at the table, using our unity as a shield to justify contracts that go against our principles and mission.” She argued that even if SPOG were expelled, it could still come back to the labor council at some point in the future.
As important as this vote was, Jane’s argument expresses a weakness in the rationale. This weakness was also expressed by the executive committee of the labor council on June 4. It called on SPOG to admit racism within its ranks and demanded that SPOG labor contracts not evade accountability.
This rationale assumes that the police can reform themselves. It rests on the idea that the problem is bad ideas in the heads of individual cops. Yet as speakers at the rally pointed out, the real issue is the fundamental function of the police. The police in the U.S. were formed out of two major sources: the slave patrols in the South and new forces used to suppress strikes and workers in general in the North.
The creation of public urban police in the late 1800s was supposed to be a progressive reform. Yet very quickly, the police showed themselves to be enforcers of private property against the challenges of the working class. The wealthy 1% control the government nationally and locally. They use that control to ensure that the police serve their interests.
Due to institutional racism, people at the sharp end of poverty are more likely to be Black or other people of color. The role of the police is to control people in poverty. As such, the police have more conflicts with people of color. They are an occupying force in poor communities. This is true of Black cops as well as white ones. Implicit Bias training will not eliminate this reality. This was well expressed recently by a former cop: https://medium.com/@OfcrACab/confessions-of-a-former-bastard-cop-bb14d17bc759
The problem with the rationale for expulsion is that it leaves an opening for re-entry of SPOG later. They were only asked by the executive committee to verbally oppose racism. Yet as one speaker at the rally noted, “ Even Donald Trump says he is “the least racist person you’ll ever meet.” No matter what SPOG says, it will continue to act in a racist manner. As the speaker pointed out, “It is actions not words that are important.”
Just as importantly, the rationale for expulsion totally leaves out the other side of the police function: Police defend the power of the rich over the rights of workers. They suppress strikes. They suppress the right to organize. These aspects of the police cannot be reformed away under capitalism. Asking the police to be non-racist and no longer enforcers of class division is like asking a lion to become a mouse. The police in general and SPOG in particular are enemies of labor. They should never be considered for re-entry into the labor council!
This is a battle that is going on throughout the U.S. So far, the leadership of the AFL-CIO favors continuing its dues base among cop unions. As long as cops are part of the labor movement, the pressure will be on other unions to apologize for the police. This will make the labor movement less able to challenge racism. It will undermine the ability of unions to solidly unify workers in their fight against capital. Expel all police “unions” from the labor movement!