Black Lives Matter: a view from the streets for Irish socialists

An interview with Paige Graffunder, Seattle 3 June 2020

“It’s going to escalate until the police are gone”: a massive revolt against murderous police racism rocks the USA.

Paige Graffunder is an activist in Seattle, involved with Revolution Books and Black Lives Matter Seattle.

For the benefit of us in Ireland, where many of us see events through official news channels, which never drill down enough, I’m hoping you can give our readers some insight into what’s happening on the ground. Maybe you could start by telling us who is actually organising the protests?

There’s a bunch of groups. Unfortunately, a lot of activism in the United States kinda exists in a ‘diaspora’, because as soon as you get too many people you immediately get labelled a terrorist organisation because we have a fascist in office. A lot of it has been Black Lives Matter, because Black Lives Matter is actually big enough in Seattle that they actually have an office. In general, it’s not really an organisation, it’s an ideal.

The primary motivation of Black Lives Matter is equality and equity for the black community: stop getting killed by a militarised police force; achieve more equal statistics for punishment on crime (63% of all violent crime in this country is committed by white people, yet 70% of the prison community is black). That’s their main focus but through that they’ve built this community system where everybody takes care of each other.

Black Lives Matter logo. A yellow image on a black background. A stylized left hand is clenched in a fist, around which like a halo is written: Black Lives Matter in an old 'zine font.
Black Lives Matter

So essentially, they’ve built socialism. Right now, for example, I’ve just got back from dropping off field medi-kits and water bottles and a bunch of other stuff to their office in Central District. They just provide so much to the community by way of support. Anyone who can help, does help.

And is Black Lives Matter aligned to the Democrats?

No, not at all, the Democrats hate us too. We’re leftist, without any particular political affiliation.

Roughly how many organisers would Black Lives Matter have in Seattle?

Personally, I know about twenty-five organisers for these particular protests but there are so many. And again, who is an organiser depends on who is stepping up to the plate. There’s no hierarchical leadership; it’s not really an organisation. It’s a community effort.

Presumably people who’ve never done anything like this before are getting involved.

Absolutely. As soon as they saw the first night of protest here (30 May 2020) in Seattle, which went very badly. There was four hours of totally peaceful protest; there was seven feet between the protesters and a line of police. The protesters were sitting down. Then, with literally no warning, there was no command, they just shot tear gas into it for no reason. That first protest was probably around a thousand people, but after seeing what happened, last night (2 June 2020) there were eight thousand people on the street. Bear in mind we had called May Day off – historically, Seattle has a riot every first of May, laughs – we cancelled that because of the coronavirus. But this is bringing people onto the street despite the virus.

Is there much of a socialist presence in these protests?

Here there is. We have the People’s Party and Socialist Alternative, both have a big membership and strong turnout. Councillor Kshama Sawant, has been out every day, she stays every day, which is awesome.

I was wondering whether this movement has been so explosive, not just because of the continual murders of black people by the police, but also because the black community has suffered more heavily from the virus, such as by not having access to the same level of health care?

Here’s the thing. This is one of those straw that breaks the camel’s back moments. The murder of George Floyd was awful and here, literally the week before, we had cops wrongfully and mistakenly enter an apartment building and kill a woman while she slept. This happens all the time. Plus, on top of five hundred years of slavery, segregation and oppression and coronavirus, the American medical system kills more black people than cops do. Their problems go largely ignored; they just don’t receive the same level of care.

Looking at this movement from the other side: are the authorities (with Trump at their head) going to regain control of the situation?

No. I don’t think so, because every time they escalate, it just draws more people. Nobody paid attention to the curfew. The curfew in Seattle is 7pm, although I need to explain more about this. The curfew does not apply if the protest is designated ‘peaceful’ because that would be a violation of First Amendment rights.

A line of heavily armoured police with batons is formed up on a street with shops in the background.
The more the police escalate the violence the more protestors take to the streets

There’s a lot of coverage of violence here. To what extent is that the work of protesters?

It’s not, not initially. And actually, they are caught on video and most of the time it’s undercover cops.

What steps are activists taking to try to cut down on arson and looting?

Seattle hasn’t had any arson around the actual protests since the first day. Protesters are not breaking into buildings or anything like that. Seattle is very good about listening; our whole thing here is anti-racist, anti-fascist, only Seattle. So the city is very good at listening to who needs to be listened to. When black organisers and people of colour say, ‘no, we’re not doing this and if you see someone doing this you must stop them,’ people listen.

Can we just focus on that? Because it seems to be a really important issue. Who has the authority to say to the demonstrators, ‘no, we’re not doing this’? And how do they communicate?

There’s not like a figurehead. There have been two people recently who have gotten in front of a megaphone more than others, but there have been some questions about their motives to do that because they have been unreasonably willing to listen to empty promises. The mayor, Jenny Durkan, came out yesterday and spoke to these two in front of the protest and they were like, ‘oh yeah we don’t want to see it get violent’. And the crowd were responding, ‘well then, deauthorise the use of CS gas, of tear gas.’ The Mayor turned around and she literally ran.

And when the crowd were, ‘fuck the police’, one of these ‘leaders’ told them to ‘shut the fuck up.’ So who is leading changes day by day and most of this information gets disseminated by social media. Enough people said, ‘listen to the black leaders,’ and now people listen. And they are listening to women, ninety-percent of the ‘leaders’ here are women.

And it’s really funny watching people get a crash course in revolutionary practices. I know more people who know how to de-arrest now than I ever did. I’m pretty sure that every housewife on my block knows how to put out a CS canister and what to do if you’re hit by a rubber bullet. I’ve personally instructed about a hundred people on how to do field sutures.

Please tell us more about your day, what’s your day like in this crisis?

I’m extremely medically fragile, so me being on the street is not a thing. I help in other ways. I’ve been making about a hundred to two hundred med kits every day. A wash kit, gauze, bandages, a field kit with sutures.

A friend and I built a script that takes all of the feeds from the traffic cameras. We can isolate certain blocks and streets so we can keep an eye on things aerially. Also we monitor the public scanner of the police. The cops here are covering their badge numbers and their body cameras are turned off. The National Guard were wearing their helmet cameras the first days they were here. They aren’t any more. So there’s not accountability. It’s our live feeds and traffic cameras against what they say and unfortunately, historically, that has gone very badly for us.

Is there anything you’ve seen that we wouldn’t have been able to view via our main TV channels?

There’s so much that you haven’t seen. For example in New York, cops have been mowing through the crowds as by orders of NYPD. I’ll share an audio file from a police scanner, of New York cops being authorised to drive through the crowd (press the image below).

And here’s a picture I took last night of a kid, probably sixteen or seventeen confronting some fifty cops. Sorry it’s not that clear because the camera was covered with CS gas.

It is night, a foggy camera (obscured by CS Gas) shows a young man facing a line of bright lights, which are being held by Seattle police.
Teenager confronts a line of cops 2 June 2020, Seattle

What’s happening with the activists who have been arrested?

Since Friday everyone who has been arrested has stayed in jail for the most part. They’ve closed the courthouse down and they are not holding bail hearings for non-violent offenders, so essentially people are being held, there’s nothing. Seattle doesn’t have a large jail so in the age of coronavirus, that’s really terrifying. We instruct everyone to write telephone numbers on their bodies, legal defence funds, but a lot of legal advocates are unable to get access to the courthouse. There are thousands of legal aid funds and people wanting to show solidarity with us can donate to https://bailfunds.github.io/.

Looking back at the late 60s, early 70s, the radicalised black movement, especially in the form of the Black Panthers, took bearing arms against the state about as far it could and ultimately got marginalised. How can it win this time?

Really, the Black Panthers were radicalised by the state. The Black Panthers started the free lunch programme. Everyone has this image of the Black Panthers running around with guns all the time, being intimidating. It’s not actually the case. The Black Panthers being armed was a response to the police state.

Yes, but if that happens again now, I think it will only ever be a small minority taking up arms and that it will lose.

I don’t think that’s actually the case. Even here, with our two socialist council members and $16 minimum wage, the logo for Seattle is ‘coffee and guns’. We have Starbucks and guns. Even here, if they start firing with live rounds instead of rubber bullets, well there’s more of us than there are of them. What are 700 cops going to do against ten thousand armed people?

Well, if the ten thousand are prepared to take over, that’s fine. My concern is that the strength of the spontaneity is also a weakness. What’s to stop it degenerating into something like the Weathermen?

Fair, but there is no way to overthrow something, to end a regime, without violence. Do you think the French walked up to Versailles and said, ‘pardon’?

I think there has to be a mass movement behind a successful insurrection. I’m trying to get a clearer picture of this movement. I’d just be worried that Trump will escalate the crisis and there will be saboteurs trying to create horrific examples so as to have a backlash. And in the past I feel that the American elite have learned to isolate radicals in this way. But your feeling is that if they start using live rounds the movement will hit back. Are we on the edge of such a scenario?

Any good will that the cops still have, if they take live fire at United States citizens, especially at the behest of the military and the national guard: it’s gone. Literally half of what Trump said yesterday was about using the Insurrection Act to deploy the regular military, not just the National Guard, into states without the permission of governors.

If that triggered a popular response and your ten thousand people swept away the police, what would happen next?

That’s a really hard question because of the diaspora of leadership. That becomes a problem because nobody has a single point to rally around. Seattle, however, has a pretty remarkable city council and more than normal activity when it comes to civic duty. Our voting is very high. So I can’t imagine that the city officials – who, with the exception of the Mayor, have been largely on the side of the protestors – would allow confusion to go on for too long.

What would victory look like? What would the protestors consider a victory?

Defunding of the police and a complete start from scratch. The cops in the US are descended from slave catchers and they haven’t stopped that. Enforcing a racist system makes you a racist. Without a complete dismantling of the system and rebuilding, this doesn’t get solved. I’m sure that’s not the goal for everyone but it is the goal for the majority of the people.

So jailing the cops concerned isn’t enough?

No, it’s too late for that. If they had done that at the beginning, most likely this wouldn’t be happening. But they didn’t.

A protestor holds up a green banner on which is written: We Demand Police Accountability.
The murder of George Floyd has triggered
a movement that challenges the entire
nature of the police

They waited until that cop’s life was in danger and then they arrested him to protected him. His wife left him to protect his assets. It’s so transparent that it’s almost laughable. Here, we were watching the protests last night and I had two live feeds, one from the ground and one from the air, plus the traffic cameras and every crowd member was staring down the cops, shouting, ‘you protect property, we protect the people.’

What’s going to happen next?

There’s big protests and there’s always little ones too. Today they are holding a specific rally to defund the police.

A flyer for a rally in Seattle to Defund Seattle Police, 3 June 2020

Are the police going to lose?

I honestly can’t imagine this going any other way. It’s going to escalate until the police are gone and it just gets worse every night they take unprovoked action, which is every night. And every day there’s more people on the protests.