This guest post is by Kshama Sawant, an economics teacher at Seattle Central Community College and a Socialist Alternative candidate for Seattle City Council.
It was tremendously inspiring to see over 4,000 people, mostly undocumented immigrant workers, marching in Seattle on May 1, International Workers' Day, demanding legal rights, as well as decent working conditions for all workers. Most undocumented immigrant workers toil at some of the hardest and most invisible jobs for the least pay in restaurants, factories, and hotels, and they live in daily fear of being deported and having their families ripped apart. But May Day demonstrated the latent power workers hold when we speak in solidarity with one voice.
Yet not so surprisingly, most of the media, with a few honorable exceptions, ignored the mass protest against corporate exploitation of immigrant labor and focused almost exclusively on a march of about 250 radical young people, involving arrests and damaged storefronts.
Conspicuously absent in most of the reports was the fact that the police—armed with intimidating riot gear and military-grade weapons—were clearly attempting to escalate tensions and provoke these radical youth.
As an activist and a socialist, I strongly oppose protesters smashing windows, especially of small businesses. Such actions are often a desperate response to injustice, but they are counter-productive. Rather than helping to build a mass movement, they isolate activists from the working people that are the natural constituency for organizing against big business.
However, the primary perpetrators of violence this May Day were Seattle police who liberally deployed pepper spray, threw flash bang grenades into crowds, and relentlessly targeted defenseless individuals. This is not new. The Seattle police have a longstanding record of using brutal force against Occupy activists, WTO protesters, and people of color.
The hypocrisy of the mass media, owned by a handful of mega-corporations, is evident. While relentlessly blaming the protesters on Broadway, they maintain a polite silence regarding the gruesome violence of US wars or the devastating cuts to social services and education in Seattle and statewide.
Instead of the usual—and meaningless—refrains about the “great job” the police did, we need a substantive discussion about how to address the persistent and systematic use of excessive force and violations of basic civil rights by the Seattle Police Department.
One place to start would be creating a democratically elected civilian review board with full powers to investigate and prosecute SPD commanders who promote violent conduct or racial profiling and officers who engage in this behavior.
But without fundamental change to the pro-corporate and anti-poor culture of the mayor's office and city hall, reforms of the SPD will have a limited impact. Rather than handing out sweetheart deals to real estate corporations and criminalizing the homeless (as a majority of the city council voted to do—see here and here), we should be taking serious measures to reduce poverty and social inequality. These would need to include raising the minimum wage, fully funding social services, and providing affordable housing. With over 68,000 millionaires in King County, there is plenty of money to fund such initiatives if we have political representatives who are prepared to stand up to the super-wealthy and tax them.
Cynics will say all of this is “unrealistic.” It is unrealistic to expect such measures on the basis of the status quo where the city government represents a tiny portion of Seattle, the rich and powerful. But their power rests on the backs of ordinary people. History shows that radical change can and does happen—but only when thousands of ordinary people demand it.