- Category: Revolutionary Strategy
- Created on Thursday, 02 June 2011 11:00
- Written by Black Orchid Collective
"We need to change up our tactics, build deeper bases in our neighborhoods, schools and workplaces, and not just rally at Westlake downtown where the cops have the upper hand.
"We need to discuss how to build concrete alternatives to the police in our neighborhoods.
"We need to avoid cycles of nonstop demonstration-hopping, arrests, and jail solidarity. That will just burn us out.
"We need to reach out and bring more people into this mix. We need to organize, analyze, and publicize, not just mobilize."
“Between the Zeal of the Young and the Patience of the Old”: Reflections on Seattle’s Recent Upheavals Against Police Brutality
v) Why We Think Seattle Didn’t Riot
We do not fetishize riots, or think that a new society will emerge in one grand riot. However, we think riots can be effective at getting cops tried for murder — the establishment in Oakland only tried killer cop Johannes Mehserle because Oakland rioted. So it is a reasonable question to ask, why didn’t Seattle riot that night of Feb 16th? Tensions were high, emotions were raw, and anger was flooding the streets. How come something more drastic did not happen in this city?
Here is our attempt to account for this:
Gentrification and Displacement in Seattle: Lack of a Concentrated Population of Oppressed People
The rallies convened in downtown Seattle and in Capitol Hill. There was talk about taking the rally also to Central District, which is the predominantly Black neighborhood in Seattle, though it has become increasingly gentrified. Riots draw from their ability to bring in large numbers of people in spontaneous action, tapping into their rage and frustration of the system. These people are not only people of color, oppressed minorities, homeless folks, they are also debt-ridden working class students, young workers and adults who are inspired by the opening allowed to them in a riot situation, to come out, and join in the fun, the anger and the rebellion.
Downtown is a heavily-policed shoppers’ island, more specifically, a tourist and middle- and upper-class shoppers’ island. It is the territory of the rich, which explains their constant fears about the presence of youth of color, homeless folks, and gangs in the area. Just stand at the bus stop on 3rd and Pike in front of the McDonald’s and you can see the dramatic clash that goes on everyday between the liberal elite who work and live 15 floors above the street, and the various groups of people at the street level who they attempt to contain and suppress by hiring the cops and private yellow-jacket security forces.
Downtown is the territory of the capitalists and the police. They have everything downtown memorized to a tee. They have put down many rallies and resistances downtown. Short of thousands of people who can thwart the cops’ decade-long manuals on distracting, rerouting, repressing struggles downtown; short of thousands of people who can eradicate several successful barricades to effectively block traffic and shut down the area, we will not be able to tap into the spontaneous rage of the city. We will simply be a media spectacle, doing the routine street blockage. Cops will reroute the cars, we will be surrounded. We will feel demoralized. In the mobilizations we were a part of, this happened several times. In fact it seems to happen every time any movement has gained ground recently – the highest stage ends up being a street blockade which the cops leave alone and traffic simply takes a 2 block detour.
The rally that night moved across downtown into the next neighborhood, Capitol Hill. Due to gentrification, Capitol Hill has gone from being a gritty queer neighborhood of rebels and outcasts, into a neighborhood that has been dominated by the glitzy, elitist, predominantly white middle class. While homeless folks and street queers still live here, their voices and presence have been attacked and made invisible through police violence and anti-pan handling practices. The image of Capitol Hill peddled by tourist Seattle, willingly subscribed to by its liberal, classy clientele, is a bubble of comfortable rebellion expressed only in culture and mockery, poking fun at real rage, real passion, real emotions. Too many well-off hipsters and yuppies have taken over this neighborhood and made politics into an irony. They watched our rallies from inside their bars and took snapshots to upload onto Facebook. That’s the extent of their involvement. Those we want to reach have no money to chill in bars like “The Elite.”
There is another dimension to how Capitol Hill residents responded to the marches. In its mobilizations, the anti-police upsurge failed to integrate the daily experiences that queers and gender non-conforming people face in relation to police violence. Police brutality and the oppression of the criminal justice system are forms of state repression that many queer folks have been exposed to. The criminalization of sex workers, a form of labor that many street queers also engage in, as well as the systematic transphobia and homophobia within the police department and criminal justice system, has led to disproportionate targeting of such communities by the police. Further organizing around police brutality also needs to take on the struggles of queer communities as an integral part of its politics.
During the march through Capitol Hill, many people in the crowd were discussing moving into the Central District. The Central District (CD) had been predominantly a Black working class neighborhood located next to Capitol Hill. With gentrification, the neighborhood became whiter and more middle class. Real estate replaced real people and community. The attacks on one of the CD’s vibrant community spaces, the Hidmo, is the most recent of a long string of institutionalized pressure to gentrify the neighborhood. In the recent 2010 census, this historically culturally rich Black neighborhood turned out to be more than 50 % white.
The roads between Capitol Hill and the Central District are mostly dark, quiet streets filled with apartment blocs that have been gentrified. If we had taken the route, we would easily have been attacked by the SPD. As we will describe later in our recount of the Feb 18th rally, the police were waiting for us to walk into dark streets and less populated spaces to mace and attack us.
However, since we knew we couldn’t march into the Central District, this left us with one option – to march in circles in Capitol Hill, trying to draw people out of the bars. This was not that successful and was demoralizing for some folks. We tried to politicize the moment by laying out the analysis we’re making here, calling for more organizing and actions outside downtown.
Seattle’s ruling classes have systematically created a city that exists for their class purposes. What used to be thriving working class Black and Asian neighborhoods, with high population density have since been displaced to make way for high rises, apartment blocks and fancy bars. This has had its precedents in history. Paris in 1848 erupted in rebellion against the elite, with workers setting up barricades to aid in street fighting. After the rulers squashed the uprising, the architect Baron Haussman reconstructed the city, creating broad streets that would be more difficult to barricade and where police and state forces could easily march through. They displaced working class communities and removed rebellious populations, attempting to move working people further away from each other to prevent the concentration necessary to riot.
This ultimately did not work. Paris erupted again in the Paris Commune of 1871. The workers of Paris figured out ways to come back together after they had been separated and spread out by Haussman’s gentrification efforts. They rose up and took over the city.
Workers of Seattle should keep this in mind. They might have kicked us out of our historic neighborhoods but they can’t get rid of us entirely — the city would not be able to run without our labor! They have moved us into South King County, into areas such as Renton, Burien, and Seatac. These are the places where future uprisings will emerge, descending on downtown Seattle only when we have the strength to break through the guarded perimeters of their little waterfront Disneyland.
Beyond Facebookology: How virtual proximity doesn’t translate into physical proximity
The fact that the rallies on the 16th and 18th started and ended downtown is predominantly due to habit and a lack of imagination on the part of the left. However, it can also be attributed partly to the media distortion of the Egyptian revolution, which was still going on as we rallied. Activists in Seattle thought that we could replicate the Egyptian dynamics here – folks heard about the rallies through calls on Facebook and imagined that Westlake Center could be like Seattle’s version of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, the nerve center or the Egyptian movement.
In reality, the movement in Egypt was not simply the product of spontaneous calls to action on Facebook. Facebook played a key role, but the calls for “days of rage” were actually the culmination of decades of smaller insurgencies and ruptures, including Palestine solidarity rallies that became anti-Mubarak rallies, as well as strikes lead by women workers at the Mahalla textile factories which gave birth to networks of militant workers and students who would later lead the revolution.
By saying this, we are not claiming that revolution is the culmination of years of slow patient organizing around small winnable demands alone. Many of the demands people had rallied around through the years were not winnable. In fact, there were moments and events, ruptures where all of the sudden a lot more became possible. It was possible in these moments, to go far beyond the limitations of what folks just thought was winnable yesterday.
We also recognize that in the right moment, successful struggle can spread fast through communication networks and folks can replicate this struggle over and over again, creating a convergence where the ensemble of all these actions is greater than the sum of it’s parts. The Tunisian uprising was replicated in Egypt, and then spread to Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.
However, we can’t attribute this process of exploding collective consciousness to Facebook! Facebook is a great tool for coordinating social networks, but to do that, we need to have social networks in the first place. We need to actually build those networks in material reality, not in virtual reality. The media spectacle about Facebook activism contributed to a somewhat idealist conception of struggle here in the streets of Seattle- it encouraged a lot of us to have our heads in the clouds, with ungrounded expectations that the struggle would just pop off spontaneously and then spread. It led to lack of situational awareness; we didn’t pay enough attention to the material geography of the city.
In reality, as important as Tahrir square was to the Egyptian revolution, it was where the revolution peaked, not where it started. Clandestine organizations had called several other marches beginning in neighborhoods around the city, which served as decoys to distract the cops. Then, with the police spread out, they converged in one working class neighborhood for an unannounced march. When the neighbors saw that a critical mass of people were assembling safely without interference by the cops, they poured out of their houses and joined the march. This created a force large enough to break through police lines and force its way into Tahrir Square and other downtown areas. Although we don’t face nearly the same level of police repression here as in Cairo, these lessons are important for us to learn: we need to organize in our communities, not just mobilize downtown.
Our future organizing attempts need to take these realities into consideration. We cannot escalate on our enemy’s territory first. The capitalists and the police dedicate large amounts of energy and time to remodel the city to their advantage. We need to counter that with as much dedication and commitment. The working class communities that still exist in places like High Point, White Center, Delridge, South Park, the South End, and parts of the CD need to unite with the emerging suburban ghettos and working class neighborhoods south of the city as well as north along Aurora. Since all these places are spread out we will need a serious organizing effort with sophisticated strategies to bring everyone together across these divisions. For example, instead of spontaneous riots, maybe we need roving “flying squad” pickets of protesters in cars and trucks that can mobilize at key points through the sprawling proletarian areas, spreading the word, and bringing people together to confront key ruling class institutions. This would require developing resources and capacities that most militant organizations don’t currently have, but could build over time.
When we get organized we will show everyone that Seattle is not nearly as white and bourgeois as the masters of downtown want it to be.
A diverse Seattle, slow to warm up to one another
The diversity of the crowd that the night of Feb 16th was as much its strength as its weakness. Brought together across this sprawl that is now Seattle, we had not seen each other struggling on the streets before. We did not know what to expect from one another. The sprawl of the city, the geographic distance that separates oppressed communities from one another, the experience of having been acculturated into being an embattled minority in a sea of rich white liberals, in a culture monopolized by their racism, created a scenario where we were slow to warm up to one another, slow to trust one another. We did not trust that if we took militant action, the other person next to us would get our back. This sort of trust arises from common experiences, identities and struggles. We did not yet have dominant, coherent working-class based narratives that could explain our varied, though similar experiences of the many facets of the current economic crisis.
In Seattle, our divisions based on race, gang territorial beefs, class and geography have erased common experiences forged in past struggles. On the 16th we were a motley crew: families with children, homeless youth, older workers of color, gang members from different hoods, students, etc. We were a diverse group of people brought together by the rage we all felt at the acquittal of Ian Birk. What prevented us from operating like a militant street force was not the presumably innate “passive aggressiveness” of Seattle. It was, in part, the distance, the splintering of our common identities and experiences, and lack of trust that had built up among different communities divided by geographic sprawl, segregation, and recent memories of displacement and gentrification, that made us unable to predict what the person next to us would do.
How do we break down these institutionalized divisions that the ruling class has so carefully nurtured, and build instead strong multiracial, multi-gender, multi-neighborhood, anti-racist, feminist class struggle contingents that have trust in each other, that can get each others’ back? We have to work with large numbers of similar-minded militants and put time and energy into creating spaces and struggles that can begin to bridge these distances.
Other tactics that the SPD employed that evening may not have been new, but are also worth stating. As the Puget Sound anarchists have identified, there were police infiltrators in the crowd, acting as media reporters, taking pictures of those of us who were present. The knowledge of their presence was destructive for a new, diverse crowd that was coming together for the first time. It exacerbated the wariness people felt toward one another.
The Rainbow Coalition “managing” the movement
The Seattle Weekly states that “the buildup was too gradual,” which led to the demobilization of the rage around the acquittal of Ian Birk. They are right in saying that the community forums were able to demobilize the rage around the shooting. This is where our critiques of the Rainbow Coalition [see above], represented by the JT Williams Committee, are important. It was the willingness of such organizations to partner with the state to help drag out the process of prosecuting Ian Birk by respecting legalistic procedures, to help channel the rage of the city toward forums with police officers, to contain the rebellion within such sanctioned spaces rather than organize the large numbers of restless and disenchanted youth, that made the demobilization of the public anger around police terrorism successful. There was an absence of anti-statist, anti-authoritarian, majority people of color organizations that were able to play a strong alternative role to the rainbow coalition, to put out politics that fore-fronted direct action and street mobilizations to empower all of us who are survivors of police terrorism. In that absence, the Rainbow Coalition monopolized the political terrain and spoke for all of us. This is one more reason why such militant multiracial organizations need to be built as soon as possible.
vi) February 18th: More militants start to get organized
We saw the first glimpses of militant multiracial organization at the second large rally, the night of February 18th. We and some people we have organized with decided to come together to form a bloc at that rally, and we brought bullhorns to make sure that if the RCP or any other forces tried to divide the crowd again we’d be able to respond more effectively.
Our goal was to build a multi-racial crew of adults who could back up 90’s Upheaval, a youth-of-color-led anti-police brutality organization that had just emerged a few weeks earlier. We wanted to support these new young leaders so their messages and leadership would not be drowned out in the political crossfire between established political tendencies.
The name 90’s Upheaval reflects that its members were born in the 90’s and are now rising up against oppression. 90’s Upheaval had called a small but energetic school walkout in January to put pressure on the King County prosecutor to hold Ian Birk accountable for Williams’ murder. Some of us had been mentoring the youth involved in the organization. On the night of the 18th, we gave them two of our bullhorns and they led the crowd through the streets in an energetic and militant unpermitted march. This kind of march is called a “snake march” because it weaves unpredictably through the street, making it harder for the cops to control. In a march like this there is more possibility for people to participate and play a leadership role because it is not scripted ahead of time by leaders, and lots of people can collaborate to make decisions and to take responsibility for the direction of the march. Our friends and us encouraged this direct democratic spirit by passing our other megaphone through the crowd so people could agitate and participate. Over and over again we have seen participation like this change people; far from just “blowing off steam”, these are sometimes moments where oppressed people decide to become long-term organizers and revolutionaries.
Some of the 90’s Upheaval youth wore masks at this march to lessen the possibility of personalized police retaliation. Although not all members of the group are affiliated with gangs, they chose a variety of colored bandannas to symbolize how people from various neighborhoods and past or present gang affiliations were overcoming their divisions to unite against police brutality. We see this as the best hope for overcoming gang violence. The main gang conflicts in Seattle are between South End, West Seattle and Central District neighborhoods. During their organizing for the walkout, and their mobilization the night of February 18th, 90’s Upheaval brought together people from these different neighborhoods to march in unity. Their message has consistently been that these divisions play into the hands of the cops who love to see people of color fighting each other because it prevents a unified rebellion and gives the pigs an excuse to occupy working class neighborhoods, backed up by possible gang injunctions, gang databases, and gang unit terror squads.
Because they wore bandannas, the media suggested that the 90’s Upheaval members were anarchists or were part of the Black Block who all wear black bandannas. In fact they are distinct and separate political tendencies, though there was some collaboration between the two tendencies on the night of the 18th. The Black Block played a positive role through most of the march, helping the crowd take the streets and hold them in the face of the cops’ attempts to pick people off and arrest them.
We heard a lot of people in the crowd saying they hoped the anarchists would engage in property destruction to show the cops that if Birk is not tried, there will be serious consequences. This crowd seemed to have lost faith in the idea of obeying laws made by a system set up to oppress us. But the crowd was not yet confident about its own ability to engage in illegal action, and many people were hoping that the professional revolutionaries in black would do it for them. They got their wish when someone smashed a cop car window and the cop, panicking, let the car run right into the police van in front of it and lot of people in the crowd laughed.
90’s Upheaval members and the rest of our bloc did not participate in this action but we did help the crowd regroup in the chaos that followed, and we tried to hold our ground when the cops reacted by pushing us around with horses and batons. This set the tone for the rest of the night, where the cops would let us march in the streets but then would try to pick people off and arrest them. At one point they tried to block us from marching and they maced a bunch of us when the crowd almost squeezed through a hole in their lines.
90’s Upheaval decided to lead the crowd to the King County Jail in downtown Seattle, where many peoples’ friends and family members have been unfairly incarcerated. Our common bloc used the megaphones to open up an open-mic session where survivors of police brutality from a variety of working class communities spoke out. The political message exploded clearly from the crowd the minute we came up on the jail – people were furious that their loved ones are/have been trapped in there, often without cause, while killer cop Ian Birk goes free. We shouted loud enough for our captive neighbors inside to hear us, and we could see the silhouettes of hands pounding on the windows. This is also an example of good tactical collaboration with the Black Block, who had initiated the tactic of doing a “noise demonstration” outside the jail after a few prominent community organizers had been arrested and brutalized by the cops a few weeks earlier (when a cop arrested one of them, he told him “I’m gonna Ian Birk your ass motherfucker.”)
We have respect for the role the Black Block played on Fri the 18th. However, our political tendency did have tension with one of the multiple political tendencies within the Black Block. This tendency seems to oppose all forms of leadership, and feels that even having megaphones in the crowd was authoritarian because it amplified some people’s voices over others. Someone, presumably from this tendency, grabbed one of our megaphones, made a speech with it, then smashed it on the ground. Afterwards, several anarchists from this tendency claimed they smashed our megaphone because they thought we were all with the Revolutionary Communist Party, which is ironic since we had opposed the anti-Black Block interventions of the RCP just a two days before. Some said even if we aren’t with the RCP we acted like them, in an authoritarian way, just because we brought the megaphones and played a leadership role in the rally.
What these folks fail to realize is that if anti-authoritarian militants don’t organize ourselves and provide organic, accountable leadership, then authoritarian or reformist forces will intervene and will provide inorganic, unaccountable leadership. Something like an open-mic speak out does not always just spontaneously emerge, sometimes some people need to consciously open up space for it. If we don’t, then some “boring leader”, as the anarchists like to put it, will take over and start preaching. We brought megaphones and organized ourselves into a block to support the organic leaders that were emerging in the crowd, so that liberal nonprofit reformists from the JT Williams Organizing Committee or authoritarian parties like the RCP would not be able to dominate the march.
We worked with a variety of political tendencies in the crowd to build and defend the autonomy of the crowd as it took over the streets. With many others, we helped hold the crowd together when the cops tried to disperse us. This allowed the Black Block members to pursue their tactics. These are all crucial leadership tasks – relating to militant people in the crowd, working with them to communicate a clear, militant political message rooted in the working class composition of the crowd. Unlike dogmatic vanguard party politicos, we don’t think we are the only ones capable of playing such a leadership role. In fact, we think anyone can, and our entire goal as organizers is to help activate and support the development of other leaders so that everyone can be leaders.
vii) The Black Block
Seattle’s Black Block’s lack of organization and leadership development creates other problems for themselves. The Black Block didn’t do the PR work, such as sending out a press release, to get their perspective out in the media. When the police finally cracked down on us on March 4 (discussed below), the media portrayed it as a necessary measure to control anarchists with an outside agenda. To be sure, corporate media’s coverage of the Black Block is bound to be negative, but it doesn’t seem that the Black Block — or anyone else — took any measures to preempt the media’s spin that legitimized the police’s response. We are not saying that the police crackdown on protesters on March 4 was the Black Block’s fault. The cops were doing what they do. But the Black Block appeared to make no attempt to counter the narrative in the mainstream press that promoted just this idea. We recognize that such attempts might not have gotten the Black Block very far, and media control is a major issue for the entire left. This is why some of us have started collaborating to make our own media. The video linked earlier is our first project.
Issues with the Black Block’s communication goes beyond media: they’ve also done a poor job of communicating and relating with folks who want to protest police terrorism but who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t currently engaging in Black Block tactics. Some members of the Black Block seem to define militancy as the immediate escalation in intensity of tactics, and write off folks who don’t follow them in this but who do show militancy in other ways, for example, by leading chants on the bullhorn and organizing in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces against the police.
In fact, Black Blocks in other cities have done just these sorts of things. During the protests of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, Black Block anarchists helped organize Tent Village, where they did security and assisted in deescalation with the police. They also maintained communication with other organizers throughout the convergence, so that groups coordinated their efforts. The Black Block contributed to what many Olympic protesters considered a very successful event. Nevertheless, Vancouver’s Black Block faced similar accusations from would-be movement cops as Seattle’s Black Block has faced, which No One is Illegal member Harsha Walia counters in this video.
Walia’s statements indicate the potential power of Black Block tactics when folks who use them organize or keep communication with organizers. The Black Block can open up space for people who are bored or alienated by conventional rallies and ritualized civil disobedience. To those who worry that Black Bloc tactics alienate potential joiners-of-the-movement, Don Hamerquist has this reply