SEATTLE, WA - Tents are back up in Seattle as the Occupy Wall Street movement here scored another big victory this past weekend. After weeks of constant harassment from police at Westlake Park in downtown, Occupy Seattle successfully moved its occupation to Seattle Central Community College (SCCC) just up the road in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The new location offers a more viable base camp for the occupation and the movement. It also has the potential to strengthen the fight against budget cuts to education at Washington's struggling public colleges.
The big move was accompanied by another day of protest. Although not as large as the protest on the international day of action on October 15 when 3,000-5,000 marched through the streets of Seattle, the day did see hundreds of people come out. First, teachers led an action at Chase Bank in downtown. Later, a crowd of 400-500 marched without a legal permit from downtown to the new base camp at SCCC, chanting, “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!” and “We are the 99 percent.”
The move was a huge victory considering the organizing efforts needed to pull it off successfully. SCCC was proposed, first, because it is outside the jurisdiction of the Seattle Police Department, which has relentlessly harassed Occupy activists in Westlake Park downtown. They have kicked sleeping activists, torn down tents, and even arrested people for sitting under umbrellas propped up on the ground.
Second, SCCC has a park area suitable for camping, and it is centrally located in a busy Seattle neighborhood. But most importantly, the school has faced a series of budget cuts, tuition hikes, and layoffs, and Occupy activists knew they could count on support of the faculty and students to support the movement. “We have no shortage of friends here,” said SCCC student and Socialist Alternative member Jordan Martinez.
But, it was also understood that the school administration would not welcome Occupy Seattle. Some supporters of Occupy Seattle opposed moving on the grounds that we would not be able to get permission from the school administration and that the occupation at SCCC would be illegal. However, Socialist Alternative members and others made the case that we could mobilize students, staff, and faculty to pressure the administration to allow the move.
After a campaign to win a vote with 81% of the Occupy Seattle General Assembly supporting the move to SCCC, the college president put out a public statement saying Occupy Seattle would be illegal and completely unwelcome, even threatening legal prosecution. Corporate-controlled media outlets such as the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer widely broadcast the college president’s legal threats and opposition.
Nonetheless, we campaigned for the support of teachers, students, local labor leaders, and others to help put pressure on the administration. We sent out an appeal to Occupy supporters around the world to flood the college president with phone calls and emails. We also made it clear we would march on Saturday from downtown to SCCC whether we had a legal permit from the city government or not.
Two days later, under intense pressure from students, teachers, and labor leaders, the college president completely reversed himself, issuing a new public statement accepting that the occupation would take place after all! This 180 degree reversal shows that when workers, unions, and young people take a strong stand and mobilize hundreds of people, we can force people in power to back down, even when they have the mass media, the police, and supposedly the law on their side.
Undoubtedly, the decisive role in this victory was played by the faculty union at SCCC, represented by the American Federation of Teachers. Teachers led the march on Saturday from downtown to SCCC and welcomed the occupation at a jubilant rally. The president of the faculty union, Karen Strickland, told a local news station, "We’re excited to work with Occupy Seattle in recognition of the fact that the employees and students of the Seattle community colleges are the 99 percent."
SCCC faculty, students, and staff have been struggling against drastic budget cuts, tuition hikes, and layoffs. Community colleges in Washington were hit with a 22% cut for 2011-2012. Tuition was raised by 12% in 2011 and will go up another 12% in 2012. On top of this, Democratic Governor Gregoire recently announced another budget proposal with a 15% cut to higher education. Work-study programs are also on the chopping block.
If the new occupation lasts until school reopens on Monday morning, it has the potential to become a hotbed for organizing against cuts, tuition hikes, and layoffs. This is a potential game changer for the Occupy movement in Seattle, and it could even have an impact on the movement across the country.
In Seattle and across the country, there has been a lot of debate about the role of demands in the Occupy Wall Street movement, with many arguing against adopting any concrete demands. But now Occupy Seattle has to grapple with how to most effectively consolidate its support among the SCCC community. This sharply poses the need to take up clear demands against budget cuts, tuition hikes, and layoffs.
So far, a simple message against the inequitable distribution of wealth and power has been enough to mobilize tens of thousands of people behind the Wall Street protests across the country. However, sustaining the movement and taking it forward over the long term is only possible on the basis of winning a series of victories on issues that would make a real difference in the lives of millions. This requires clearly taking up budgets cuts that are devastating communities and calling for clear initial solutions, such as taxing Wall Street and the richest 1%, ending the wars, and cutting the military budget.
While fighting for these initial solutions, we also ultimately need to end the capitalist system which is at the root cause of the economic crisis and the lack of democracy. That will require taking the top 500 corporations and banks into public ownership and running them under the democratic control of elected representatives of the workers and the broader public.
Occupy Seattle now has some important victories under its belt. We have defended our right to protest against the police and mayor . We have forced the SCCC administration to back down, ensuring that the movement decides the location of our protest ourselves. Now, by taking on budget cuts in education and hopefully other programs on the chopping block such as Medicare and Medicaid, Occupy Seattle has the potential to set a positive example for how to broaden and strengthen the Occupy movement across the country.
Watch a speech by SCCC economics teacher and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant at the SCCC occupation rally.
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