By STEVE LEIGH
The author is a member of Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
For two months, the movement for justice for George Floyd in Seattle has demanded a cut of at least 50% in the police budget. In early June, there was a debate among activists over reform of police practices vs. defunding—better training for the same job of protecting wealth and white supremacy vs. less capitalist policing.
By mid-June, the defunding argument won. Decriminalize Seattle along with King County Equity Now organized dozens of community groups to demand defunding. Every march and rally prominently featured this demand. (See: https://www.kingcountyequitynow.com/ and https://decriminalizeseattle.com/ )
The rationale for defunding was well expressed by Decriminalize Seattle:
“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.”
City council backs away from movement’s demands
Day after day, night after night, since May 30, thousands of people have supported this demand. On June 12 alone, 60,000 marched. On Juneteenth , thousands marched in several actions throughout the area with many taking time off work. Activists seized a six-block area, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), for three weeks.
The city government was under enormous pressure from the movement. Seven of the nine council members publicly signed onto the movement’s demand, promising to cut the police budget by 50%. For the rest of 2020, this would have been $85 million.
Yet when the council voted on Aug. 10, they only cut the 2020 police budget by $4 million. They suggested cuts in the police patrols that shut down homeless camps, school police officers (which had already been eliminated by the school district), mounted patrols, the SWAT team and public affairs. They also mandated cuts in the top salaries of police management. They recognized that the precise cuts would be up to the police chief. The budget cut will result in a cut of 100 police positions in a department of 1400 cops.
The mayor denounced the council’s suggestions for trying to “micro-manage” the police budget. However, the City Charter leaves these decisions to the police chief. This allows an unelected manager to make key decisions that the city council would make in a more democratic set up. The state apparatus is not under the control of those supposedly elected to oversee it.
The city council also moved some functions out of the police department: 911 dispatch, emergency management, Harbor Patrol and parking enforcement. The council members who voted for this saw it as a down payment on deeper cuts in 2021.
Many in the movement criticized the council for backing away from its promises. Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant, the only socialist on the city council, said:
“The Democratic Party Councilmembers … FAILED TO defund the police, and voted against our movement’s and my office’s proposal to defund the police by 50% ($85M) this year. Democratic Mayor Durkan punches at Trump to look progressive when she’s in danger of being exposed for her betrayals (while agreeing with Trump that police can use weapons with impunity), and Democratic Councilmembers punch at Durkan when they want to deflect attention away from their breaking of defunding promises. That’s the story of establishment politics. The working class needs our own party rooted in our movements and accountable to working people.”
Even this very minor cut was too much for many in the political establishment. Mayor Durkan attacked the council for supposedly refusing to work with Police Chief Carmen Best on “reimagining” policing in Seattle. But Durkan lacks imagination. She had only proposed a 5% cut next year, mainly achieved by re-shuffling functions. Best herself refused to carry out the layoffs demanded by the council and announced her resignation as of Sept. 2.
Pro-cop supporters sound off
The battle over cuts to the police budget will intensify. The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) organized a rally against the cuts on Aug. 9. The size of the rally was pathetic. With a department of over 2000 employees under direct attack, it was unable to turn out even 1000 people, though many came from outside Seattle, including right-wing activists like the Proud Boys. (What are they proud of? Who knows?). SPOG has also initiated a petition to “DEFEND, not DEFUND” the police, which has received thousands of signatures.
Chief Best’s resignation will further the flames of the pro-police sentiment. She is being hailed as a wonderful public servant by Mayor Durkan and by the Bigot in Chief, who has lately made ignorant tweets about Seattle his forte. She is, of course, being supported by the Downtown Seattle Association.
Unfortunately, Best has also received support or quasi-support from some Black people, including those who have been active in the movement. BLM Seattle King County said that it did not aim at removing Best and had criticisms of the city council. Some activists are worried about her leaving, primarily because she is the first Black woman to lead the Seattle Police Dept. This is a problem because support for Best will increase support for the police generally. If it was bad for Best to be “forced” out, the argument will be that the city council was too supportive of the movement and went too far in cutting the police budget.
The sympathy for Best is unwarranted. She has been a member of the SPD for 28 years. As Chief since the end of 2017, she has presided over a department that is still under a Justice Department consent decree for use of excessive force and racism. Since the end of May, she has sanctioned the use of chemical weapons against peaceful protestors over and over.
Best, along with the mayor, have of course claimed to be opposed to racism and police brutality and have even called for reforming policing. But their actions have belied their rhetoric. They seem to oppose racism everywhere else but Seattle. They only discovered systemic racism in policing after the murder of George Floyd.
The mayor and the police chief are highly paid for their service to the ruling class. So are even ordinary cops. The average pay of a Seattle cop in 2020 was $168,000, which is double the Seattle area median income; 44 cops made over $300,000, and Best was earning $285,000 before her recent pay cut by the city council.
A false anti-racism
Racism as always is a tool used by the ruling class to divide the movement. In this case, a faux anti-racism puts the needs of one very highly paid repressive official and her also highly paid command team ahead of the needs of the mass of the Black and poor population. As Keeanga Yahmatta-Taylor pointed out in #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, “Black Faces in High Places” is no road to Black liberation for the majority of Black people.
We should, of course, oppose actual racism no matter what strata it is exercised against, since this can trickle down onto ordinary people. Having more high officials from oppressed groups shows more clearly that the issue is a repressive, racist ruling class, not the demographics of those in positions of power. In this case, Best is the casualty of a movement led by Black people in the interests of Black people and other poor and working-class people. She is not a casualty of racism but of a movement against racism.
Some of this new-found support for Carmen Best comes from quarters that opposed her hiring as police chief in the first place on racist grounds. They are quite willing to use “anti-racism” as a weapon against an authentic anti-racist movement.
Many activists are not falling for this pro-Carmen Best line. As Nikkita Olive, an activist with Decriminalize Seattle and recent mayoral candidate with the People’s Party, put it: “Best chose to be Chief of an institution that has perpetuated racist policies & practices & perpetuated much harm on many communities. Not to mention the violent policing of the recent protests. She could have chose to whistleblow but she protected the status quo. She chose.”
The fight to cut the police budget, especially around the 2021 budget, will be intense. Seattle faces a funding crisis due to COVID-19 and the economic depression. The city government will justify cuts in human services due to this situation. Activists in the Black Lives Matter movement want to cut the police budget both to fight racism and police brutality and to make sure those funds can be spent on human needs. The votes will be in the city council, but real action will continue to be in the streets!
Photo: Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times