One week ago I attended my last meeting of Socialist Alternative as a member, having officially resigned from my seven year long membership the following day. I did so, following nearly two years of raising consistent concern and criticism of many elements of SA, most recently around the Black Lives Matter movement. Produced now publicly on this blog post, was the last critique I wrote internal to SA, with some additions, which I publicize now to raise discussion and debate around the issue of how Socialist groups should participate in the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of these critiques are not based on specific public comments of the organization, but rather on impressions given by comments made by leading individuals of the Seattle branches. If specific assertions are seen as wrong-headed or misinformed by Socialist Alternative, I most certainly welcome replies and the opening up of clarifying discussion on this blog. It seems rather appropriate that today should be the day I publish. I joined Socialist Alternative just over seven years ago, around concrete anti-war organizing in high schools, in which I aided in organizing a walkout. Today, I will support Outside Agitators 206, as they organize walkouts throughout the University of Washington campuses, as part of the Black Lives Matter struggle.
As an accompanying piece, embedded below is a video taken on Saturday, February 21st, 2015, at King County Council Member Larry Gosset’s reelection and birthday party hosted at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. After being endorsed for her own reelection campaign by him, Kshama Sawant was in attendance for this celebration around a local “progressive” Democrat, and a long-time figure in the Black establishment community, on a basis of leaning on past radical cred. Sawant in the video is seen defending Larry Gosset, in the face of his vote for a youth juvenile facility which has come under a well-sustained movement opposed to it. While recently Kshama has correctly, though belatedly, come out to support that movement, she does the movement no service by whitewashing the role of institutional figures like Gosset. In the video we see her counterposing him to “the real establishment,” referencing his long past and long past ended record in radical politics. It is unfortunate how quickly the interaction devolves into defensiveness on the part of Sawant, and accusations put on the young activists raising legitimate concerns on her attendance at such an event. She made the promise on camera that she would stand with these activists when an expected police presence arrived. That promise was not honored. Fortunately, no arrests were made after activists deescalated the situation on their own. This unfortunately reflects Socialist Alternative’s own insecurity around the genuine upsurge of Black Lives Matter.
[EDIT: The fuller video was taken down, due to security concerns raised by some of the activists seen, the above video is a more recent upload to YouTube]
Sectarianism as Cover for Conservatism
Largely absent from the Black Lives Matter movement, Socialist Alternative Seattle and the Office of Kshama Sawant have leaned on a number of pseudo-criticisms and self-interested excuses to explain an ultimate lack of activity, and unfortunately cover conservative tendencies. Much of this narrative can be framed in relation to Outside Agitators 206, one of the few democratic organizations to emerge out of the Seattle Black Lives Matter Movement, and primarily led by young Black women activists, overwhelmingly rapidly radicalizing and some new to organizing. Multiple allegations have been made of OA206 which should be addressed, however also in relation to the larger movement.
It shouldn’t have to be stated the remarkableness and importance of a youth formation emerging from the Black Lives Matter movement, or at all, carrying an analysis of oppressor/oppressed relations, an understanding of corporate control of the media and of the role of police, as well of course as a critique of Capitalism. Rather than seeing this emergence as the positive step forward that it is, in practice- and often in words as well- Socialist Alternative has responded with sectarianism. The central argument posited is that due to their “ultra-left” and “sectarian” points of unity, Outside Agitators 206 is inevitably destined to be disconnected and isolated from the working class. This argument is an idealist argument rather than a materialist one. “Ultra-left” is not a critique in and of itself, it is an allegation, and without evidence given, a slur. The argument which has been past presented to SA membership by leadership has not been useful in describing any actual activity of OA206, but rather describes particularly distorted ideas not rooted in factuality. While it would be dishonest to claim that OA206 is unaffected by many of the dominant ideas in society and in certain activist circles (as Socialist Alternative is as well, even if different ideas), how these ideas are perceived and engaged by these young activists must be considered for a full summation to be produced.
These criticisms have consistently pointed towards the Points of Unity of the group, which are as follows:
1.We center Black voices to celebrate and affirm Blackness. We believe that any movement to end anti-Black racism must be led by Black people.
2. We believe that everyone has a right to resist their oppressors and what resistance looks like varies for different individuals and different circumstances.
3. We don’t directly speak to corporate media, nor do we need them. We are our own voice.
4. Fuck the police: As an institution fundamentally rooted in white supremacy and anti-Blackness we reject the police presence in our communities, absolutely. It is our responsibility to hold each other accountable and keep each other safe.
The forming statement of OA206 continues:
We are abolitionists in the year 2015. We want an end to police terror, we want an end to slavery that is the prison system, and we want the people who profit from this held accountable.
Aside from that, we are as varied as the plant life in the North West. We are youth, students, workers, parents, teachers, artists, street philosophers, survivalists, revolutionaries, solutionaries, Queer, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and White Allies. We are from the town, we are transplants, we are economic refugees, we are the result of colonization, slavery and genocide. Essentially we are people that deserve a dignified life and want the same for our brothers and sisters in the struggle towards Black Liberation. Cuz when Black folks get free, we all get free.
Launching this contribution now is a breakdown of common SA criticisms regarding these points of unity. On point 2, the argument has been presented that this is, in a narrow conception, the anarchistic “anything goes” notion of “diversity of tactics” with different terminology. In practice, OA206 has organized a variety of highly intentional and coordinated actions, including a peaceful demonstration at Bellevue Square last December. At this event a small peaceful group gathered, linked arms, and sang politicized carols, while surrounded by over a hundred militarized police officers from multiple cities. The massively disproportionate response by the police was in fact desired to occur. A planned highlight in a series of incidences which were raised at the City Council meeting questioning Kathleen O’Toole. Additionally, OA206 members have participated in much of the most effective militant direct actions, from freeway occupations, to council meeting disruptions and agitating sharply on panels. Whether a peaceful demonstration, or taking to the streets, actions all mandate a certain level of group awareness, consent, and organization. Outside Agitators 206 actions are all reviewed, self-critiqued, and developed upon. What must be noted, is that importantly this point was made to mark the space for radical action that OA206 wanted to provide, in contrast to the liberal institutional Black organizations, such as the NAACP and the United Black Clergy who often demand hegemonic control over movements they participate in. Many differing notions of diversity of tactics have played out in many Black Lives Matter groups, primarily due to the conservative weight of establishment organizations, and the willingness of youth activists to break from their control.
On point 3, the generative idea is an understanding that the corporate media does not have neutrality in mind, but rather serves the “truth” of the ruling class. Such a media simply cannot be depended upon to convey radical and revolutionary ideas. However, OA206 has prepared and delivered targeted press releases on actions, including for the 400-strong rally at CenturyLink Field, pressuring the Seahawks to display a sign of solidarity with Ferguson as the St. Louis Rams had done.
Perhaps most vocally contentious for the leadership of SA, is point 4. “Fuck the Police.” Socialist Alternative, amongst other things, publicly calls for the nationalization of “major banks”, “bankrupt and failing companies”, as well as “the top 500 corporations and banks.” Not every statement of an organization need immediately appeal to the broadest range of society, nor should that be necessarily desired. “Fuck the police” is such a statement that resonates with the quickly radicalizing youth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and it is a slogan that they have adopted. This slogan however, has also been clearly linked to the role and position of police as instruments of oppression. A concern has been voiced that this slogan alienates workers who have illusions in the necessity of the police. The task of revolutionaries should be to explain to those confused as to the nature of the police, and challenge this dependency and fear, not to distance oneself from those gaining revolutionary consciousness themselves.
It is point 1 that, while not vocally, SA leadership has perhaps most been in disagreement with. That is, the view that the Black Lives Matter movement should- an unfortunately for the SA leadership- be centered on Black Lives Mattering, and be led by Black people. Declared intentions to keep focus on the plight of the Black population, and the state violence they face, are treated as an “obstacle” to raising “class consciousness,” or even as an obstacle from discussing class oppression- as if institutionalized racism was itself not a form of class oppression! The connection between race and class, between racism and capitalism, is something very much understood in Outside Agitators, and that understanding is growing in the larger movement. If Socialist Alternative members find difficulty in raising issues, it should not be seen as due to “problems” with the movement, but rather in this instance, quite the opposite- those problems are originated in the false methods set down by the leadership.
Yet another slur related to point 1, on the question of Black leadership. It is alleged that this call for the movements of the Black community against racism to be led by the Black community itself is a form of identity politics. Rather, this criticism itself is a result of identity politics. Specifically, workerism. Workerism is an analysis and method which sees, and correctly so, the centrality of the working class in the struggle against Capitalism. However, from that launching point, the workerist method is one which dogmatically prioritizes economistic struggles, the more “purely” class based fights, such as those around wages, working conditions, etc. All other struggles are seen as a distraction from, or even as an enemy of, those prioritized campaigns. This is, for Marxists, a “legitimate” identity politics, which conceives of an idealized working class. Historically this ideal has been White, male, and employed primarily in blue-collar unionized factory labor.
Again, for it seems that it cannot be stated enough: the struggle of Black people against racist oppression is a form of class struggle, not an adjunct to it. It would be preposterous to approach a group of striking workers, and declare to them that their refusal to accept the leadership of Socialists, intellectuals, even homeless youth, or whoever, was sectarian. If respect towards the autonomy of organizing workers (in the narrow sense) is to be expected and conducted, then why not respect towards the autonomy of organizing Black (worker) groups? As is the norm in engaging with the battles of struggling workers, solidarity and aid is placed first. However, towards OA206, solidarity and aid has yet to occur. The odd criticism is made that calling for Black leadership is foolish, and could imply an uncritical allegiance towards reactionary Black institutions, such as the NAACP, over multi-racial anti-capitalist groups, such as Socialist Alternative or the International Socialist Organization. Such a conclusion does not base itself either in the intentions of the point of unity, nor the practice of OA206. In fact, the inverse has been borne out. The Seattle chapter of the International Socialist Organization has actively supported OA206, and has had members participate in the multi-racial meetings of OA206. Nor, contrary to the slur which has been spread, has OA206 ever discounted the possibility of future co-organizing with the NAACP or Socialist Alternative.
A thoroughly workerist organization, the degenerated Socialist Workers Party, has publicly been much more honest in their reactionary sharp words toward youth organizers. In a January 19th piece, The Militant criticized Ferguson youth organizers from Millennial Activists United, who were invited to speak at an Al Sharpton organized DC rally, before being pulled off stage for being too radical, on December 13th. They write, comparing the slogan of those youth to that of calling for dead cops in New York City: “In D.C., some protesters involved in an attempt to take over the speakers platform carried signs that said, ”Hands up don’t shoot’ didn’t work. Fists up, fight back.’ Such unchecked provocative conduct from within the protests — in the absence of a proletarian leadership strong enough to build a disciplined movement — created an atmosphere where a Brinsley could feel encouraged to act.”
The public rhetoric of Socialist Alternative has been a populist echo chamber for notions already popularized in the movement which has been uncritically exulted on SocialistAlternative.org articles. The practice of SA in Seattle, perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out out political orientation, has actually resulted in supporting the more conservative wing of the Black Lives Matter movement, and limiting the scope of possibility to the Left, to the degree to which the organization has participated.
This critique I put forward is best illustrated in the use of Kshama Sawant’s platform and image. Of the dozens of street mobilizations which occurred over the space of a number of weeks across Seattle, only those organized by the NAACP, the United Black Clergy, and the institutional MLK Day Celebration Committee, were participated in by Kshama. SA mechanically orientates itself towards liberal institutional organizations, seeing these groups as necessary to win over to mobilize the working class. This logic is not far from that of Alan Woods of the International Marxist Tendency (a rightist break from SA’s Committee for a Workers’ International), who posits that in times of political upsurge, the working class will turn towards “their” traditional organizations. In Socialist Alternative, this orientation has often been linked to the conception of the African American community of being dominantly built up of church-going folks. All this ignores the ruptures within the Black Lives Matter movement, where youth have quickly formed their own groups and networks, cutting ties with conservative tendencies. In Seattle, the institutional organizations organized only two marches during the Black Lives Matter movement. The first, organized by the NAACP on November 25th, was given life by the thousand-strong walkout of Garfield High School students, part of a separate coordinated effort by students across the city. The second, was organized weeks later by the UBC, with little notice and only 200 in attendance. In no way could it be claimed that Kshama has consistently been at the largest demonstrations. At least three marches were double in size to and planned over much more time than that of the United Black Clergy, with little SA participation.
Implicitly, SA is actively legitimizing these conservatizing organizations, while undermining in at least one clear example, the left-wing of these groups. On MLK Day of 2015, Jesse Hagopian, an ISO member and leader in local education movements, lent his own platform and credentials while on stage at the Downtown Seattle Federal Courthouse to announce an Outside Agitators 206 organized march, and introduce two OA206 leaders on to the stage. This act was jointly co-ordinated with other radical activists of the MLK Day Celebration Committee. Along this march came collision with a police blockade in the South Lake Union area. At this juncture, the police began indiscriminate deployment of pepper-spray upon demonstrators. Infamously, it was at this point Jesse was sprayed, while on his phone having stepped to the sidewalk from the march. What was the official response from the Office of Kshama Sawant? “The rally and march, organized by the MLK Celebration Committee was a inspiring event, especially for the young people who are starting to speak out and get politically involved.” In the midst of denunciations of the SPD came a complete erasure of the context to the incident and a praising of the sanctioned institutional Celebration Committee march at a time when those bold activists within the Committee are being pushed out for having stuck their necks out in an effort to radicalize the event.
The language of respectability used to describe the incident mirrored that of mainstream liberal and progressive media outlets, a product of a fear of the leadership to appearing ultra-left themselves, which is a longtime tendency. An element of self-interest then is introduced, as the refusal to even acknowledge the good work of Outside Agitators 206 is based perhaps purely on fear that “Fuck the Police” might somehow be linked to Kshama Sawant. And God forbid a Socialist is seen as soft on crime. Less about correct politics, and more about political correctness. This refusal to acknowledge OA206 is very real and disconcerting. At a successful and energetic disruption of a Seattle City Council meeting at which Kshama Sawant organized for the Seattle Police Chief, Katholeen O’Toole to be questioned on BLM policing, Outside Agitators 206 members were centrally involved in the sharpest agitation of the room. In an article published on SocialistAlternative.org a quote by one well known OA206 leader was placed in bold as a section header: “You work for us!” While SA knew of OA206’s superb and productive participation, their role was ignored in favor of a very different interpretation highlighting Kshama Sawant over all else. The article was titled “Despite Sawant’s efforts: City Council fails to hold Seattle Police accountable.” Consistently, OA206 is excluded from Kshama’s speech laundry lists of groups doing good work in Seattle.
Time after time, the incredible work of this fledgling multi-racial militant group has been slighted and ignored by SA leadership, so as to ease and simplify crude critiques of Black Lives Matter as ultra-left.
An SA article, “Eyewitness Report From Ferguson,” reads as follows:
From time to time, liberals, clergy, and elected officials come down to address whoever wants to listen. They tell people to stop “getting arrested for nothing”, failing to recognize that the radicalized black youth in Ferguson have inspired and raised the confidence of their entire generation. No matter what the approach, in the end the liberal’s argument is always the same: Go home, and let us handle this now. The youth of Ferguson know better and are deeply resentful of the betrayals of the previous generation who pushed the civil rights movement into the established halls of power. The youth is also conscious of how far this movement has come because of them.
This is why Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton got booed when they came to Ferguson. Unable to contain the movement, they left in frustration. Here in Seattle, Outside Agitators is unwilling to be contained. And Socialist Alternative is unable to contain it. To the Black Lives Matter movement, SA leadership has left in frustration. “I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest and it’s wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it… What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’” Like Oprah, as quoted, SA claims that the movement lacks clear demands, lacks a cohesive leadership, and only SA’s leadership, as expressed through their ideas (rather than actions) can provide a way forward. This, in spite of being two weeks late to Ferguson in August. In Seattle, having no serious orientation towards mobilizing members to rallies until after Black Friday, and now jumping onto the No New Youth Jail campaign after not even knowing of it’s existence since Summer 2012 until last fall. Already Kshama for her support was declared “instrumental” to the campaign within SA! Socialist Alternative nationally, as well as locally, have recently heavily promoted February 21st as a day of action around the anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. However, this date has also been set as the launching of door-knocking for Kshama’s re-election campaign. SA has seemingly no intention of backing up their own demands on the movement.
Even without taking up Outside Agitators 206’s politics if certain slogans are deemed unpalatable, this new wave of youthful organizations across the country must be supported and fostered in their growth if SA is serious in it’s efforts to break activists from dependency on the Democrat Party, and their instruments such as the NAACP. However, Socialist Alternative’s politics are not fully rooted in working class struggle. Rather, it balances between other forces, whether they be middle-class opinion, union bureaucrats, non-profiteers, or the liberal media. This could be combated in part by a bold orientation towards openly critically supporting and engaging with Outside Agitators 206. Unfortunately, there is no consistent indication that the will or the interest to do so is present. Instead, hostility. My sincere hope is that this changes.