Report: Seattle #BlackLivesMatter Protest for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile

by Sophia Burns on July 15, 2016

At the federal courthouse

At the federal courthouse. Photo by the author.

For the first hour, energy stayed low outside Westlake Mall in downtown Seattle. Members of the clergy group that had convened the vigil asked us to pray “in Jesus’s name” for justice for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Signature gatherers worked the crowd for a ballot initiative (endorsed from stage) to amend Washington’s use-of-force laws; currently, police here enjoy less liability than in nearly any other state. A preacher declared that “Black Lives Matter means Black lives matter too,” and a Republican candidate threw out some barely-audible platitudes in the rain. Maybe one or two hundred people were in attendance. The speakers, by and large, were older, male, and suit-clad. Of course, the Revolutionary Communist Party had shown up, pressing self-promotional leaflets into people’s hands. They had no role in organizing the event, but that’s never stopped them before. Few cops were visible.

A few younger people started heckling – familiar faces, leaders of earlier (and larger, and more militant) Black Lives Matter protests. The vigil organizers scolded them, then invited a young white man to the stage; he introduced himself with the words “I’m a member of Socialist Alternative.” My comrades and I then followed the growing crowd to an adjacent intersection, already occupied by a circle of protesters. To my knowledge, this demonstration had not been planned in advance; certainly it had not been advertised. It appeared to represent a direct, on-the-spot rejection of the rhetoric, tactics, and strategies promoted at the original event.

The hecklers and a few other organizers had started speaking. I’d seen many of them at Black Lives Matter marches before; as a group, they were substantially younger and less male than the vigil speakers. All of the visible core leaders were Black, although the crowd itself was multiracial. Queer and trans people abounded, as did signs declaring not only “Black Lives Matter,” but also “Black Power.”

Instead of voter registration and Christianity, we heard words about the ongoing genocide of Black people, structural white supremacy, and the reality of ever-present danger for every Black person. A leader declared that the city belonged to the people, so we would take the intersection and hold it as long as we chose. By now, the numbers of both protesters and police were rapidly swelling. The cops had bikes and motorcycles, but no horses and, aside from a few waving cudgels, no riot gear.

Chanting “Whose Lives Matter? Black Lives Matter!” and “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,” we marched. By and large, the cops hung back, and by the time we arrived at the federal courthouse, we numbered at least a thousand. From the courthouse steps, the leaders denounced the proposed Seattle PD “bunker” – the precinct building SPD wants the city to spend $160 million to construct. If they get it, it will be the most expensive police building in the United States. As the speaker noted, SPD is suppressing Black people’s rights while demanding extravagant funding from the people’s money. The speaker then evoked a vision of a future where Black people – of all genders and sexualities, they specified – attained freedom. They exhorted the white people present to do the work of anti-racism beyond posting on social media and coming to protests. White allies, they explained, need to work within white communities to challenge the racism therein. We chanted “white supremacy will fall,” and one person from the middle of the crowd shouted, “Shut the freeway down!” However, the leader with the megaphone named SPD headquarters as our destination instead.

While we proceeded across downtown, the police didn’t attempt any heavy-handed kettling. They always left the way south clear – in general, they prefer to herd protests into the low-traffic, warehouse-filled Sodo District, just south of downtown proper. The march, however, kept on course, and once we arrived at police HQ, we congregated in front of a freeway ramp.

There, as the crowd shrunk bit by bit, the leaders started speaking again, expounding on the origins of modern police in antebellum slavecatchers. The word “revolution” and the characterization of the dominant system as capitalist and imperialist white supremacy began to appear. Along with other white comrades, I participated in “whitewall” tactics, which were successfully used during the Black Friday protest last year. Because police are less likely to brutalize white bodies the way they do Black ones, white demonstrators form lines of human shields to help defend our Black and brown comrades. Eventually, with the crowd substantially smaller, the police used pepper spray to defeat an attempt to take the freeway. Otherwise, they were less violent than they often are to protesters, despite the failure of their normal protester-herding strategy.

Moving through downtown.

Moving through downtown. Photo by the author.

Black Lives Matter organizers in Seattle are developing their tactics effectively. A year ago, BLM marches were getting successfully diverted to Sodo; that’s no longer happening, which puts BLM well ahead of the curve when compared to, say, the May Day rallies, or most other marches.

Two particular features, though, seemed prominent. Firstly, the tension around leadership featured strongly: the original event centered clergy, most of them older and male, most of their preferred tactics friendly towards electoralism and even the major parties. The much larger and more visibly radical spin-off march, though, was initiated and led by much younger people, with a strong component of women and LGBTQIA in leadership. In short, the generational split appears to be a fairly straightforward liberal/radical divide. Every movement has one – luckily, at least in Seattle and at least for now, the radical wing seems firmly dominant.

Secondly, however, the role of ideological leftist groups needs to be questioned. This action was neither for singing panegyrics about Chairman Bob‘s supposed genius nor for growing Socialist Alternative‘s voter base. It was for honoring Black people killed due to structural white supremacy by demanding justice and building up the people’s movement needed to secure it. Socialist, anarchist, and communist groups need to show up to actions, sure, but to support the goals of those actions. Self-promotion, advertising, and recruiting by these organizations actively impede any other goals a rally has. Selling newspapers, putting your own political party’s name on banners, and pushing promotional leaflets into the hands of people who came to be part of the struggle? That’s outright destructive. So next time, please leave the flyers at home. The movement isn’t a recruitment farm. Don’t treat it as one.

Sophia Burns is a communist and a member of The North Star’s editorial collective. An officer in both RATPAC and the Communist Labor Party, her work can also be found at Gods&Radicals.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Hansoni July 15, 2016 at 6:06 pm

This is really good to hear, comrade. The organic rejection of platitudes and equivocation. Power to the People.

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