US: Mass Occupation Defeats Seattle Mayor and Police

Big Victory for Occupy Wall Street Movement

Below we publish a report, written on the weekend, of a big victory for the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement in Seattle on Saturday, 15 October. On Monday morning 75 Seattle police moved in to try and cut across this victory. They seized over 150 Occupy Seattle tents in Westlake Park and arrested 9 people. While this is a setback, it is not unexpected. Nor does it take away at all from Saturday’s huge victory, described below, when hundreds of people defied the police and the Mayor to re-assert their right to occupy central Seattle and protest Wall Street.

The key lesson is that the occupation can win if there are large enough numbers of workers and youth with well-organized mass direct action mobilized.

Night of 500 tents

The Occupy Seattle movement surged forward on Saturday. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people took part in the largest protest here since the demonstrations began a couple of weeks ago. This was followed by the largest General Assembly yet, with over 600 people in attendance. Afterwards, hundreds stayed for an action called “the night of 500 tents”, a mass overnight occupation of Westlake Park which is the symbolic heart of Occupy Seattle.

This successful mass direct action marked a huge victory for our right to protest and to build a powerful voice against Wall Street. For weeks the city government had chipped away at our ability to protest at Westlake in Seattle’s notorious wet weather, and the occupation was edging toward the brink of collapse.

“First the City took away our tents. Then they told us we couldn’t sleep under the awnings. Then they said we couldn’t have umbrellas or tarps” explained Kshama Sawant, an Occupy Seattle activist and member of Socialist Alternative. “We fought back by mobilizing a mass occupation with hundreds of people, and the City has backed down for now. So, we are staying. Westlake is occupied.”

Early in the day it was clear that the overnight occupation could succeed. Hundreds of people sat down in the middle of the street during an afternoon march to a local ‘Chase’ bank in downtown Seattle. Protesters made impromptu speeches using the “people’s microphone”, where the crowd loudly repeats speeches made by activists so the entire crowd can hear what is being said.

The crowd cheered loudly when speakers called on people to continue the movement and to spread it, occupying schools, banks and workplaces. But, the loudest cheers were in support of the mass overnight occupation of Westlake Park.

At 5 PM, tents were rapidly set up – in defiance of the Democratic Party Mayor Mike McGinn’s ban on tents who had warned protesters they would be arrested if they stayed at the park past 10 pm. Despite this intimidation, one activist counted 167 tents by midnight.

40 protesters had been arrested at Westlake in the preceding days. But on Saturday, just a handful of police stayed through the night in an unsuccessful effort to harass and intimidate protesters, with nobody being arrested.

What made the biggest difference on Saturday was our numbers. Before Saturday, the Occupy Seattle movement had only achieved a relatively small, but important, number of overnight protesters. Activists learned from the success of the mass occupation in Portland, Oregon where hundreds have camped every night since October 6. We made a huge effort to mobilize large numbers of people to force the city authorities to back down.

We could also count on the support and sympathy of wide layers of the public. While the protests in Seattle have involved no more than a few thousand people, thousands more have been following the occupation online, showing their support.

A diverse group of supporters that could not stay overnight donated supplies, tarps, and tents to those that could. A local pizza shop arranged a deal so supporters could donate pizzas to the occupiers and have them delivered.

Debate in the Movement

On one hand, Mayor McGinn denied us the right to occupy Westlake Park, the commercial hub of Seattle. On the other, he offered City Hall – a much smaller, less visible space – as a “legal” alternative to Westlake. A minority of Occupy Seattle activists have illusions in the Mayor and in the police and supported the move to City Hall. But the vast majority saw the move as totally unacceptable.

“The movement should decide for ourselves where to protest and when the protest ends – not the Mayor and not the police,” explained Philip Locker, a Socialist Alternative member. Philip helped to bring dozens of Occupy Seattle activists together on Saturday night to coordinate the defence of the Westlake occupation.

The debate over City Hall or Westlake had created bitter divisions, demoralizing many activists. A way to overcome this and take the movement forward was found on Wednesday night. Socialist Alternative members made a proposal to the General Assembly for a mass occupation of Westlake of hundreds of people with the bold name, “the night of 500 tents.”

The proposal found overwhelming support and helped rally the activists who were eager to defend our right to protest against Wall Street. The proposal received a boost from the favourable mood at the Wednesday General Assembly after more than 800 students walked out of classes from at least four different Seattle colleges and multiple high schools in support of the movement.

The most determined activists and most the hardcore occupiers themselves – the ones who had braved arrest and the rain to provide the backbone of the movement – immediately helped spread support for the action. Posters, handbills, and emails were immediately distributed amongst the protesters, and then en masse around Seattle and other nearby cities, helping to generate a buzz.

While we did not reach the 500 tent mark as we had promoted, we achieved the far more important goal of retaking Westlake on the basis of a mass re-occupation. We defeated the city’s attacks on our right to protest, and we took the growing movement in Seattle against Wall Street forward.

Socialist Alternative played a decisive role helping the movement in Seattle win this important victory. Socialist Alternative members have participated since the beginning, playing prominent roles in the General Assembly, and working with other activists to build Saturday’s mass occupation and make it a success.

We also got an enormous, positive response for our socialist ideas. This experience highlights both the tremendous opportunities ahead for socialists to help protest movements find a fay forward, and the opportunities to win a new generation to the idea of building a socialist future.

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October 2011