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“It was a real rebellion on the streets of Seattle”

Testimonies of the popular rebellion; interview of Joaquín Cienfuegos, Seattle activist
Interview made by Guillermo Kane

Versión en español

We interviewed Joaquín Cienfuegos for Prensa Obrera. Joaquín has been a promoter of the CopWatch program in Los Angeles and is currently an activist in Seattle. the interview was done on june 4th.

-What’s the conflict been like in your area these days?

-The big demonstrations started on Friday (May 29th) and it was more like an uprising. What happened Saturday (May 30th) is the biggest confrontation people in our area have ever had with the police. There were like four cop cars on fire, and people where in the streets confronting the police. Basically they rose up in rebellion. There were several stores that were expropriated, particularly in what’s called the International District of Seattle where the malls and the big corporate stores are. Those areas were targeted.

Now, there’s been more discussion and there’s a dichotomy generated between good protester and bad protester or violent protester and non-violent protester. This is coming from the government but also from “professional organizations” that have taken those same positions. Now, the actions and marches here have grown, but have become more peaceful. There are still confrontations. There have been many arrests. These have been presented as only going against the violent protesters. There was a curfew in place for most of the week and, now it has been lifted, after the Seattle Police Department and the mayor said the protests had been more peaceful.

The first days it was real rebellion in the streets of Seattle. Hundreds of black youths, and youths of color, mainly. Working class youths that make up a big part of Seattle’s population. Seatte has a very big wage gap. You have a lot of the tech industry base here, like Amazon. You have very rich, wealthy people and then the majority of people are working class. There is no middle class here.

Now there are more demonstrators. Thousands and thousands on the streets. And the police appear to have stepped back. But you still see the National Guard and police in riot gear. The situation here is still militarized. I know in other parts of the US there is still looting and clashes with the police. Here the nonviolent message seems to be the leading sentiment now.

We are living in an interesting time because this is a time of rebellion and these uprisings are happening during a pandemic and there’s an economic crisis going on, which adds fuel to the fire. Especially the economic crisis, because people know these millionaires and billionaires are getting bailed out and getting millions of dollars more. And people have only gotten twelve hundred dollars and they still have to pay their rents and their mortgages, and they still have to feed their families and I think that adds to the anger, along with what the government’s been saying and the repression that’s coming down on these marches that were peaceful at first. 

In Seattle the first protests were peaceful and the police came out and they even pepper-sprayed children. There was a video of a young girl who was about nine or ten being pepper sprayed in the face by the Seattle Police Department. They started throwing tear gas and flash grenades at us. That spread the anger. There’s a lot of misinformation going around, conspiracy theories out there about who started these protests. Of course Trump and the people in power are spreading out that misinformation and blaming anarchists, Antifa. In their minds anarchists are white, you know?  So they’re saying that it’s white protestors who are instigating violence. Which kind of takes away from black and brown young people and their ability to organize themselves and defend themselves as well. White anarchists are coming in as outside agitators and creating all the disturbances.

-What are the main social and political groups active in the demonstrations?

-The first days there were no organizations leading. The first actions were called by community organizations in Seattle. It was mainly black and brown youths that have never been part of a protest before. And I think that makes it even more powerful. There are collectives doing mutual aid and support in the area. Sometimes you have a situation where these professional activists come in and instead of helping the uprising they police those youths and try to basically control the way that they’re resisting and the way that they’re protesting while they’re reacting to something that’s happening in their communities.

-What effect do you think Trump’s threat to call in the army has had?

-I think it created even more dissent. Even the curfews that were imposed in different cities made people want to go out even more. People who were on the fence before were able to see that there’s definitely a difference between people on the streets and Trump supporters. 

When there were all these white protesters demanding to open up the economy, Trump supporters a couple of weeks ago demanding to open up their businesses. There was a big difference in how the police and Trump reacted to those protests. They weren’t pepper-sprayed. They went up to these government buildings with guns, and they weren’t met with any resistance by the people in power. There was no tear gas. And they were in the police’s face, they weren’t wearing masks or protective gear. A lot of them got sick because they though Covid-19 was a hoax. I think that shows people on the fence that there’s a difference. It shows what sort of society we’re living in. It’s very militarized, it’s a police state in the US. 

On the other hand, I think it has helped to put an end to more violent protests. Even though eleven protestors were killed in these days throughout the country.

-What slogans and demands are strong among demonstrators?

-One of the main demands is to defund police departments. A lot of people on the other hand, a lot of people are calling for the abolition of the police department which is a more radical position. This is a way of putting in perspective the role of the police department and the police in general and the fact that people feel there is no need for them. 

And the other point of view, to defund the police departments, and do that through city councils and things like that. That’s what the main “professional” organizations and activists are calling for. 

-What do you consider “professional” organizations?

-Like nonprofits, NGO’s. In the US all these organizations see any revolutionary movement, people calling for the liberation of their communities as going against their interests. They’re getting money from the state apparatus as well. Their demands and program are aligned with the Democratic Party, even though a bit more reformist.    

-What sort of orgs. in the Seattle area fit this description?

– There aren’t many organizations I can think of like there in other places like LA, San Francisco or Oakland. But that is growing. Even though there aren’t many organizations, there are people that are on the pacifist side and they tend to side with the police when there are things like property damage. There even are cases when this people tend to get violent with those who choose to take action or being more confrontational or take part in property damage per se.

They are into taking the movement into working through city council action, and supporting local politicians and things like that. 

-And you said there is another current that support abolishing the police?

-Yeah, I think that’s the more abolitionist, the more anticapitalist kind of position out there is for the abolishing of the police and the prison system, because prison is a business in the US. There are too many people in prison and these prisons are a new form of slavery. People are working for corporations for $2 a day, which is more of an incentive to pack these prisons. A lot of people are in prison for crimes of poverty and that’s basically the system as a whole which is tied to a new form of slavery. The police isn’t there to protect us, but to protect private property. The history of police is related to capturing slaves and protecting plantations and white supremacists organizations.

-What role do you think social and economic concerns play in this rebellion?

-One of the main criticism from the government or the petit bourgeoisie is that there was looting and they associate it with violent protesters. The thing is that when there is a pandemic and they tell you to stay home, but most of these people have lost their jobs. And the fact that capitalism doesn’t care about people and only cares about profit. At the same time they’re taking care of the millionaires and billionaires, but once they start opening up the economy, people are really going to start getting sick and it’s us, people at the bottom. Young people understand this, that millionaires keep getting more and more money. So in my mind they were just expropriating from these larger corporations. This speaks to the fact that people understand this. Like we’re living in a depression and there’s no other way that people can get food, clothes… because there’s no money. How can they afford to pay rent? They’re in a situation where they have to do this to survive. So I think this presents an opportunity to lash out against the police and at the same time at these corporations and millionaires who are the real looters.

-Are you aware of any initiatives to coordinate the protests in the cities or set some sort of common platform between the demonstrations?

-You could say that a there a loose organization, which is Black Lives Matter. But, BLM isn’t an organization, but more of a network. I think they’re the ones that are more vocal in the movement, even if they aren’t coordinating. People aren’t necessarily following them, just going on their own.

-Would you consider them the leadership of the movement?

-I wouldn’t say so. They’re the more vocal and have been trying to take the lead but even then, when you go to these demonstrations, you have breakaway marches, you have all kinds of people. You could say that one good thing that’s happening is that usually when you have rebellions, they fade out once the national guard is brought in but these movements have not. There’re protest every day, which is a good thing.

-Trump has put all his cards into stopping these protests with repression. What do you think people out there can do to defeat Trump?

-I think these protests have done more in the last few days than people have tried to do for the last few years. All the pressure placed into Trump and the government has made changes. Minneapolis for example, the city council have voted to get rid of the Minneapolis police department and move into a community controlled security force. In Los Angeles the mayor said they were slashing $100 million out of the LAPD (which is only around 5% of their annual budget). This comes as a compromise to the demand of “Defund the police”. The same is happening in other cities. The question is whether these measures and compromises will vanish in a few months or weeks or if they will last. In terms of Trump’s agenda it’s not something that’ll go away when he goes away, it’s rooted in society. Obviously I wanna see a different world, but we need a movement that creates a foundation for a better world where people have mutual aid, autonomy and direct democracy in their community. When you have a strong community, police becomes obsolete. If people have everything they need, police won’t be needed to defend property. And I think that what’s happening at the White House, shows that people have seen that the Democratic Party is no different than the GOP. Because I think a lot of people had their hopes that someone like Bernie Sanders, that was a democratic socialist and was talking about all these things that people already have in different parts of the world: free education, free healthcare for all and things like that. And it was shown that even that is a threat to the Democratic Party and they’ve sabotaged him and it shows the system’s corrupt and there is no democracy here, the electoral system is corrupt as well. It’s gonna be interesting times, we have more work to do, to organize and to really build this world that we wanna see.

-We’ve seen levels of activism and militancy in the US not seen for many years. You’ve talked about how they see the Democratic Party as corrupt. What discussions do you see between militants and activist regarding a political organization separated from the political bipartisan system we have today?

– I think the entire debate is going around protest strategies like for example peaceful protest vs. more violent confrontation or property damage protests. But this debate needs to happen, democratic activists will try to show voting as the only solution, but this hasn’t worked, so we need to start looking beyond this system and create something different and it’s gonna take this conversation. I’ve talked to comrades about that, about being in the streets, engaging people there with brochures, with literature about how we can protect ourselves but also about engaging in political questions and the world we wanna see. Otherwise, we are gonna go back to normal in a couple months, with the promise of one concession or two and they’re going to continue killing us.

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