Fighting For Our Common Freedoms:
A letter from Seattle to Hong Kong Protesters
Dear Hong Kong protesters,
We write to you as people who participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement and Decolonize/Occupy Seattle. We are writing to express our solidarity with your struggle against repression. We are inspired by your courage and we want to let you know that people here are paying attention to your struggle.
On Oct 1st, 400-500 Chinese people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and the broader Chinese diaspora came to a rally in Seattle in solidarity with your struggle .
We see ourselves as part of a global movement where everyday people are trying to create forms of democracy that challenge the rule of the capitalist class and the political system that serves them – that frees us from their domination everywhere from the voting polls to the workplace.
We see that you are fighting for democracy, for the right to nominate your own leaders. In the US, this is something the government claims to practice, but doesn’t. In a true democracy, the richest 1% would not hold more wealth than the bottom 90% combined, and banks would not be able to evict families from their homes when the vacancy rate is five times the homelessness rate. A truly democratic government wouldn’t be pointing rifles from the top of tanks at protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and or imprisoning children fleeing from violence in Latin America. Our capitalist “democracy” has dismantled the old U.S. industrial base, leaving cities full of foreclosed homes and toxic land, while generating new forms of resource extraction such as fracking that have left us struggling against pollution and environmental degradation.
We see that you are also fighting against repression by a government that calls itself Communist. But we believe that in a true communist society, the Foxconn workers producing our smart phones would not be despaired to the point of suicide: workers would have hope for the future and not have to waste away ten to twelve hours each day of their young lives making their bosses rich. Workers would not be counting their pennies before their next pay day while their bosses—whether they be mainlanders like Ma Yun or Hong Kongers like Li Kashing—roll in money enough to spread their investments over the world.
At our different locations, we are provided with these two false visions of politics inherited from a past full of repression. It is up to our generation globally to build a new politics, a direct democracy from below, where everyday people take over and transform our workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods, sharing everything for everyone, and making collective decisions for the betterment of all our lives. We want to build a new society where the principle ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’ can form out of the ashes of the old. Voting can be one tiny tool in this system of direct democracy, but it is far from enough. Suffrage within the context of nation states means we will simply be voting on the regional and national distribution of the table scraps from global capitalism’s last feast.
Because we believe we are fighting on different battlefields in the same global struggle, we want to share with you some of our successes and failures in the movement here. Our governments are already learning from each others’ newest most sophisticated tools of repression against us all. We are listening to the strategic debates unfolding within your movement and they remind us of debates we had here. We also used occupation and blockade tactics similar to what you are attempting now. It looks like we face related challenges, though in very different contexts and magnitudes. Just as Occupy in the US learned from the parallel movements from Egypt to Greece, we hope that you can draw some lessons from our experience.
We are hesitant to write this because your movement has been so much bigger and more dynamic than what we have been through. You have set up barricades in Mongkok, Causeway Bay, and Admiralty. Yet, the only real barricade that Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle built was at the Port of Seattle. You have brought whole workplaces out on strike. We did not have any of these big successes.
Nonetheless, in the hopes that we can connect with more people who are part of this global upsurge against the abject world we currently live in, we are writing this to reach out to you across the Pacific. We hope you can also sum up your experiences when the dust settles so we can learn from it. We are not there and do not know what discussions you are having from these problems that arise, so please excuse us for any repetition and know it is made in good faith.
Reflections on the Decolonize/Occupy Seattle movement
- Resisting police violence through direct action organizing that affects chokepoints in capitalist networks of production and distribution
We see that your movement has declared itself to be non-violent, and that this declaration has not spared you from violence committed by police and organized thugs attacking you, possibly instigated by the police. We dealt with similar problems here on a smaller scale.
Police surveilled, infiltrated and attempted to disrupt the movement through federally coordinated clamp-downs across the country. Police raided, pepper sprayed, tear gassed, and beat people in multiple cities, attempting to destroy the camps which were nerve centers of the movement.
Even those who are perceived as most respectable by mainstream U.S. society were not spared. In Seattle, Dorli Rainey, an 84 year old woman was pepper sprayed in the face at close range; In Oakland, Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen had his skull cracked open by a police tear gas canister.
It was in response to this violence that the Occupy movement chose to blockade the ports up and down the West Coast of the US, attempting to disrupt trans-Pacific trade. The intention was to disrupt the business of the capitalists who are fearful of our movements, who rely on the police to defend their class interests. We also wanted to continue the energy of the movement in new forms, beyond the camps, in ways that connect with the everyday lives of working people. We knew that if we focused solely on the camps we’d be isolated from the rest of society, and it’d be easier for the government to repress us.
Like you, we in Seattle are situated at an important node of the global trade in goods that the present-day capitalist system depends on. This global logistics system makes it possible for companies to shift production away from workers who are fighting, to places where they have not yet developed that level of organization. It allows them to operate a global assembly line stretching from Shenzhen to Hong Kong to Seattle and beyond. This is the system that produces looming inequality and leaves us powerless over our own lives. We recognized that where we are, in an area where industry is relatively weak, our material power also lies in our ability to shut down the flow of goods through the economic transport node that we keep running.
We recognize the power of workers to disrupt and put pressure on this system. The global assembly line can only function though the labor of farmers, factory workers, dock workers, truckers, logistics company office workers, bank workers, the people who feed, clothe, and care for them, and many more. For that reason, we actively built relationships with Seattle port truckers who went on strike, and supported the struggles of militant dockworkers in Longview, WA. The movement across the country supported multiple workers’ struggles, including farm workers in Eastern Washington and steel workers in Berkeley, California.
At the same time, unemployed people, youth, students, and service industry workers who are not in strategically decisive positions within the global supply chain can also shut it down by blockading the movement of shipping containers that have become the lifeblood of the system. This is what happened when Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle shut down the port against police violence.
The port actions were an ad-hoc response, perhaps done too late when the camps were already smashed, but they helped show the movement would not go quietly into the night; they solidified networks and relationships among participants and workers that last to this day. They also point to the kind of actions we could do in the future to defend our movements and to carve out spaces to organize new forms of social life and politics, from downtown camps to industrial zones.
- The importance of general assemblies, action groups, and the limits of single-issue leadership
We see discussion circles and little assemblies beginning to form at your occupations. We want to say how valuable similar forms were for our Occupy movement and encourage you to take these discussion circles further, giving them more power and developing truly democratic governance in your movement rather than waiting for your government to give it to you. To us, the strength of Occupy was that it brought together people with different grievances against the system, who usually wouldn’t mobilize together. The general assemblies and ad-hoc action groups were our attempts to build direct democratic forums where different tendencies within the movement could advance their arguments, and coordinate with each other to compose a movement strategy.
Once strategic decisions were reached in the general assemblies, people were free to carry out these strategies through a range of different tactics and actions, and everyone maintained their autonomy to organize actions without running them by a central leadership. Often, people voted with our feet, initiating new tactics in the streets. Or, we attempted to expand on strategies emerging in other cities, and set up ad hoc action groups specifically focused on planning local actions to expand these strategies. These groups overlapped with the assemblies and brought crucial issues to them for discussion and voting; however, they did not wait for the assembly’s permission to advance.
This was often tedious and stressful, but it was essential for a culture of democracy in the movement. It also made it harder for the established political parties and their paid staff organizers to co-opt and control us, though they certainly tried hard to do so. They tried to coopt the figureheads of the movement, those who presumed to speaking for us, but those of us on the ground knew there were many of us, working cooperatively to do the work that affected the direction of the movement. This decentralization made us resilient.
There were factions of people who tried to suppress this diversity in the name of a narrow, moderate unity. They wanted to reform the electoral system, keep the movement respectable, and advance their own particular interests at the expense of others. They did this by arguing that the movement could only win if it kept its messaging focused on one or two specific issues, suppressing any politics that diverged from these.
It was essential for the vibrancy of the movement that this form of single-issue politics did not dominate. We found each other, as migrants, as people of color, as working people displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods, as houseless people, as women, as queers, who have grievances against the system beyond electoral reform. We refused to silence ourselves in the name of a false “unity of the 99%.” We wanted to practice unity in and through diversity. We wanted the movement to connect with other movements emerging in the neighborhoods, prisons, and workplaces, and didn’t want it to narrow itself to one, relatively privileged demographic group. This was what kept our movement vibrant, allowing it to last for a period of time and accomplish as much as it did, organizing around foreclosure defense, anti-police brutality and anti-deportation struggles. This diversity also allowed these and new initiatives to carry on long after the camps faded. If Occupy had restricted itself to a single issue, this would have not happened.
The setting of a general assembly with its collective decision-making body was critical to the development of this diversity and decentralized movement power. It allowed us to collectively debate issues such as: should self appointed middle class leaders speak with the city mayor on our behalf? Should the camp move to another site because of the ongoing police violence and worsening weather conditions? And it allowed us to meet and speak to strangers—to find each other and coordinate actions autonomously, for each and every person to be able to take action within the movement without the having to go through the institutions of any false leadership.
No pre-existing, formally organized group was able to claim to represent us all. More importantly, we collectively created a space that encouraged those who were new or unaffiliated to political groups to speak and articulate concerns. These general assemblies allowed us to find one another and to organize ourselves over the long-haul, changing the political terrain in our city.
Together we were able to form a network of people with shared values beyond electoral reform, people concerned with economic injustice, racism, queer liberation etc. We became more than individuals; we came together as a stronger organized voice initiating direct actions against mass incarceration, labor injustices, gentrification, and police brutality.
We were organized, though we were not a single organization, and we were therefore much more flexible and adaptable to the quickly changing situations we were confronted with. Our creativity and courage grew as we built together.
It is tempting in times of repression to fall back on existing organized groups, but our experiences in Seattle taught us that these are the times we need more than ever, to reach out to each other, to take calculated risks, and to organize in new ways.
- Resisting the “Good protester, Bad protester” dynamic
We know that in the confusion of many meetings and many new faces and perspectives coming together, it is easy for a “good protester, bad protester” dynamic to emerge. It was common, early on in our occupations, to have homeless youth, queer youth, Black youth—those who do not conform to the dominant ideals of “upright” citizen—participating in the occupation. These youth were labeled “bad protesters” by the movement’s proper, polite middle-class members. The middle class forces tried to limit the movement to the grievances they felt were legitimate, thus marginalizing the everyday injustices these youth feel. In particular, these middle class forces saw the antagonism to the police as misplaced, and pushed back against the use of the Occupy platform to talk about deeper and more fundamental concerns with our society.
Yet in Seattle it was those initially labelled as “bad protesters,” those marginalized from mainstream polite society, who fought to keep the camps standing in the face of repression and kept the struggle going. When our camp was under attack in the early months of Decolonize/Occupy Seattle, it was the homeless youth who were most clearly in danger and were also most courageous in their defense of our camp. The “good protesters” came along later, after seeing that a defiant stand off against the police successfully expanded the movement, drawing thousands of people into the streets.
- Confronting American nationalism within the movement
We see nationalism has been attractive to some people in your movement. This existed too in our movement, and we had to make a concerted effort to fight it. American nationalism and a false idea of US superiority were dominant in the rhetoric of Occupy, especially early on. In particular, Anti-Chinese sentiment oriented around the idea that “the Chinese are stealing our jobs,” was especially common, and did not distinguish between the wealthy Chinese ruling class and the Chinese workers who were fighting against the same economic injustices as us.
Along with this rhetoric was a romanticization of the history of America as a land of democracy. As a result of conversations with indigenous elders and comrades, many of us chose to call the movement Decolonize/ Occupy Seattle to emphasize that the US state is built off of slavery and theft of indigenous land.
A diverse group of internationalists, joining together through the camps and assemblies, were able to challenge American nationalist rhetoric. We coordinated with each other to fight it. In the first rally of Decolonize/Occupy Seattle, we supported one another in making speeches against American nationalism, and gave speeches about migrants’ movements, about resistance movements in Mexico, about strikes in China, about the need to have global unity against the ruling classes and oppressive forces of our global economy. Later on, we also organized various solidarity actions, including one for villagers in Wukan who were resisting government repression at the time. We maintained a strong internationalist, anti-racist bloc within the movement.
- Dealing with violence within the camps
In our camps, we dealt both with explicit force by the police and more subtle methods of attacking our movement. The police here, and we are sure for you too, are experts at sewing internal chaos in our movements. Methods police used in Seattle included dropping off drunk people and drug dealers at our camps. The police wanted to create mayhem and destroy our public image. They appealed to the anti-homeless, anti-poor sentiments of the mainstream public and some elements of the movement itself, by presenting our camp as dirty and dangerous. Our movement was not strong enough to deal with people shooting up heroin whom we were concerned would overdose, or of people getting in fights with each other while high or drunk.
Some people tried to set up a security force within the camp that would be capable of stopping fights and providing general safety, while also defending the camp against Neo-Nazis (some of them had come by one night and we were concerned more might show up). People wanted to establish security in ways that refused to scapegoat or criminalize all homeless people, all people with mental health issues, or all people with addictions. The focus was on stopping particularly dangerous behaviors, without demonizing people whose addictions are a product of this dysfunctional society.
Unfortunately, some people opposed this kind of approach and advocated that we rely on the police for safety. That was not a practical option, since the police were trying to destroy the movement. Debates over this issue made it more difficult to secure the camp, with pro-police peacekeepers blocking the interventions of our internal security teams when, for example, those teams tried to remove Nazi attackers from our camp without calling for the help of the police. People started to leave because they felt unsafe, making it easier for police and property owners to dismantle it. Our internal security force was essential for those most marginalized in our movement—the youth of color, homeless folks, queers and other people generally targeted by the police—to feel safe in our camps, but middle-class pro-police values obstructed their operation.
Security issues for us continued after the camps were destroyed, and this is something those active in your movement should be in alert for too. The police paid off infiltrators such as Robert Childs, a serial rapist and child molester, to join the movement. He had been hired on police payroll to do what he did best — be a disruption through his sexual violence and anti-social behavior. Sending misogynists into vibrant movements to break trust among protesters is a well-known tactic of state repression. When activists discovered his background, Childs was exposed to the community. He disappeared from Seattle soon after
It wasn’t only paid infiltrators who behaved this way, there were also activists who engaged in sexual violence against other activists, shattering trust the movement had painstakingly built. Many people tried to confront these perpetrators and hold them accountable, but were not always successful. We know how important it is to have means of dealing with such threats to the movement without having to rely on the police, because we see clearly that the police not only often do not deal with them, but create such threats in our midst. We must act as a community to handle our own security. This is easier said than done but immensely crucial.
All our movements will be fraught with the contradictions present in our society, in the form of racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. There is a tendency among some activists to silence critiques of differences and grievances under an illusion that we have to present a united front, not allowing dirty laundry to be aired. This is a losing strategy, because it is precisely our internal contradictions that will be used against us if we don’t confront them ourselves. We need to come together head on, and attempt to address these challenges together.
We see you continuing to hold the streets despite the repression attempted against you. It is clear that you are at an intense crossroads in your movement. We hope you win, and that your movement can confront these challenges better than we have here. We hope this letter can be part of an ongoing dialogue across the Pacific, strengthening all of our movements. May our paths cross as we struggle for freedom, wherever we are.