By STEVE LEIGH
The author is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
UPDATE — A federal tactical unit, composed of Custom and Border Protection agents, has been withdrawn from the Seattle area in accordance with requests from state and local officials, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office announced on July 28. The following day, Oregon state officials announced that federal agents would likewise undergo a “phased withdrawal” from Portland, Ore., although Trump then stated, “We are not leaving until the operation is finished.”
The movement for racial justice and against police brutality has scored victories in the last two months in Seattle. Under massive movement pressure, the city government had to concede de facto control of a six-block area near the East Precinct of the Seattle Police Dept. and temporarily closed the precinct. This project, known as Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), lasted from June 8 through July 1 (see: https://socialistresurgence.org/2020/07/01/seattle-police-shut-down-chop/).
The city council reflected this pressure by passing an ordinance banning chemical weapons and chokeholds by the police in mid-June. This ban was set to go into effect on July 26. On top of that, seven of the nine city council members have called for a 50% cut in police department funding.
After the police and FBI cleared CHOP, the level of protest declined but did not disappear. The invasion of federal forces into Portland, Ore., has revived the movement in Seattle. Recently, federal cops were also sent to Seattle but have been so far held in reserve and have not yet confronted protesters.
For the last week, there have been significant protests in the Capitol Hill and downtown areas, as well as in other areas of the city on most days. Most have been peaceful, at least on the part of the demonstrators. On a couple occasions, there have been a few cases of window breaking, looting, and even arson. On Saturday, July 25, arson hit the construction site of the county’s New Youth Jail (euphemistically called the Children and Family Justice Center). This is a notorious target. A movement against it has been organizing since 2012. In spite of mass peaceful protest, involvement by dozens of community groups, and civil disobedience, the jail is still being completed.
The county is spending over $200 million on this monument to cruelty against young people, disproportionately youth of color. Again, under movement pressure, the King County executive, Dow Constantine, announced a plan to try to shut it down by 2025. There is, of course, no guarantee that this promise will be fulfilled.
On Friday, July 24, the city council ban on police use of chemical weapons was overturned by a federal judge. Earlier, Mayor Jenny Durkan had gone to federal court to overturn this ban. On Friday, she was joined by the Trump administration in court. Durkan has been a public opponent of Trump. When he threatened federal troops to eliminate CHOP in early June, she told him to “go back to your bunker.” Yet she welcomed the FBI to help Seattle police close down CHOP. Her de facto alliance with the Trump administration belies her anti-Trump rhetoric.
How can a federal judge dictate police weapon policy to a city? The Seattle Police Dept. (SPD) has been under a federal consent decree since 2012. The SPD was found guilty of using excessive force and being racist in practice, though the Justice Department would not officially call the police department racist.
The SPD is being supervised by a federal judge. This is what gave the judge the power to dictate police policy in Seattle, and clearly shows the downside of consent decrees and Justice Department supervision of police departments. Most activists have been critical of Justice Department intervention on the grounds that it is often ineffective. Even worse, in this case, the supervision actually invalidated a democratic decision by the city council. It at least temporarily eliminated one of the movement’s recent gains. This is an example of the failure of the legalistic approach. It also shows who really has power in the state apparatus when push comes to shove.
The rationale of the judge’s decision was tortured. He ruled that the ban on chemical weapons would likely increase the use of violence by the police! Since they would not be able to rely on pepper spray and tear gas, they would turn to the use of nightsticks and other direct physical violence, he surmised. Instead of following through on the supposed drive to reduce the SPD’s use of excessive force, the judge accepted the violent nature of the police and condoned it. Chemical weapons, he said were less violent, and therefore he approved them .
The mayor and Police Chief Carmen Best, the department’s first Black female chief, were quite happy about the ruling. The police made use of it over the July 25 weekend. In spite of the vast majority of protests being peaceful, the police extensively used pepper spray and flash bang grenades. On Saturday over 40 people were arrested. Arrests were not the only problem. Many activists showed wounds from projectiles. The police were indiscriminate about attacking anyone in the crowd of demonstrators, including legal observers and caregivers. The Independent reported on one incident: “Law enforcement shot a stream of what appeared to be pepper spray directly into a nurse’s face as she tried to help someone who had been pushed over by police in Seattle.”
A separate court decision limiting the use of chemical weapons was ignored by the police. The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking a contempt ruling against the city of Seattle over this violation. Even former police experts on crowd control criticized the extensive use of pepper spray aimed at the mostly peaceful protesters.
The mayor, a liberal Democrat, is famed for hypocrisy. She oozes anti-racism in press conferences while turning her police on protesters against racism. Police Chief Best echoes the same line. She claims to be devastated by the murder of George Floyd but has little to say about the many Black people killed by police in Seattle in the 30 years she has been on the police force. Police in Washington State have shot 153 civilians in the last five years—a per capita rate that is almost three times higher than New York and Chicago (see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/). In recent years, police have killed an average of seven people per year in the county that Seattle is part of. Just as nationally, the victims of police killings have been disproportionately people of color (see: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/number-of-deadly-police-shootings-in-king-county-is-little-changed-over-past-12-years/).
“Systemic Racism” is much easier for the mayor and police chief to denounce in Minnesota than at home in Seattle. The violent police response to the protests is the object of an active recall campaign against Durkan, which is now collecting signatures (https://www.resigndurkan.com/).
Many mayors have denounced Trump’s military occupation of part of Portland. Constitutional scholars on TV claim that this invasion violates the norms of federalism and established procedure. The actions of camouflaged thugs in attacking protesters and even kidnapping people off the streets is of course horrific and an escalation of repression. The movement nationally needs to organize against this!
However, the mayors’ responses are mostly of the “repression is okay, but leave it to us” variety. Along with this is a debate over tactics to contain the movement. The debate is over the balance of carrot and stick to be employed, not the goal. Liberal mayors say that they can contain the movement with less obvious repression and say that federal cops are merely inflaming the situation. The goal of containing the movement is the same, even if the liberal mayors also include a dash of rhetorical anti-racism to win public support.
This pattern is clear in Seattle. As is typical with strong movements, the government, in this case the city council, grants reforms in the face of mass pressure. When pressure recedes, reforms are never fully implemented or are rolled back. Though now the mayor and police chief are the main voices of repression in the city government, the city council cannot be trusted either. On July 27, several city council members denounced BLM protests aimed at the homes of city council members who don’t want to defund the police. The city council can succumb to pressure from the police and the right wing of the ruling class—which wants order above all.
In order to ensure the reforms and implement even more radical ones, the movement needs to keep the pressure up. As long as capitalism exists, the rich will use the police to protect their property, power and racism. However, we can limit that power and win important gains if we keep fighting and involve more and more people in the fight.
Activists in Seattle understand the need to continue the fight. More demonstrations are planned. The drive to push the city council to carry out its statement and cut the police budget by 50% is gaining momentum: https://DecriminalizeSeattle.com.
Photo: Dean Rutz / Seattle Times