I have never before been to a meeting of radical political activists where part of the introduction was to announce “your pronouns.” Transgender people – and a certain segment of young people, in general – make an explicit choice to be called “she, her,” “he, him,” or “they, them.” Of the 80 people who attended a community meeting of the Block the Bunker coalition, Monday, Sep. 12, at least 10 of them announced their preference to be called “they, them,” a neutral designation that eschews gender norms.
For a conventional, old, white guy like me (“he, him”), this up-front concern with gender identity was a culture shock, and not the only one. The group was predominantly young – largely in their early to mid-20s – and half non-white. There was in the room a palpable feeling of solidarity born of alienation from conventional society. There was talk of being oppressed and the need to fight back. I had the unusual experience, for me, of being in a distinct minority. I wrote in my notebook: “It is perfectly appropriate for me to remain silent.”
National Roots of the Local Agenda
The Block the Bunker movement is about a lot more than stopping the construction of a single building. The agenda of the local coalition is derived from the national platform A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice, published August 1 by The Movement for Black Lives. One of the platform’s six principle policy demands is “Invest-Divest“:
We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. … This includes…a reallocation of funds at the federal, state and local level from policing and incarceration…to long-term safety strategies such as education, local restorative justice services, and employment programs.
On the local Block the Bunker website, this agenda is expressed in three specific demands: 1) “No to building a police bunker,” 2) “No to hiring new police officers,” and, 3) “No to building a youth jail.” Each of these issues is before the Seattle City Council, in various stages of the legislative process. Together, they form a comprehensive agenda to “divest from prisons and the police state” at the local level.
The Culture of Liberation
These demands are being pressed by a coalition of young people centered around the Seattle Black Book Club, which calls itself a “leaderless” group “focus[ed] on literary analysis and community organizing for racial social justice” (Seattle Weekly, 1/26/16). The Block the Bunker Facebook Page says they are “students, educators, professionals and activists holding the city of Seattle accountable to building strong communities.” At the community meeting, an organizer described the group as “led by and centered on people of color.”
I went to the meeting seeking ways to create an alliance between the white, middle-class people I work with on land-use issues and the activists fighting the police station. In my view, the white middle class must make common cause with communities of color to fight the concentrated wealth of the new oligarchy that increasingly dominates our economy and our society. What I discovered, though, is that the gulf between the two communities is wider than I understood. Conventional political alliance will not be enough to bring people together here; a deeper cultural investigation is required.
At the community meeting, an old white guy (not me) spoke up to say that the movement needs to reach out to other constituencies. He cited his long experience as an activist, and suggested that the coalition should be realistic about what they can do on their own. To my (old, white) ears, it sounded like conventional organizational wisdom, and decently good advice. The response from the meeting’s leader (a young woman) was to suggest that the “elders” in the room should show respect for the leadership of young people, who have thought through the organizational questions and really do know what they are doing.
Unwisely, the old white guy tried to respond at length. He was overwhelmed by a restless wave of muttering and hisses, and driven to silence. Another speaker subsequently advised him – to general acclaim – to “check his privilege;” that is, to curb his impulse to speak first, loudest, and repeatedly.
Finding Common Ground
With questions of gender, race, and privilege at the fore, it will require careful thinking and substantial effort to create the alliances we need so badly. I have heard from some of my (white, middle-class) colleagues that they support a new police station, because “we have to get crime under control.” This is a far cry from the young people of color who see the creation of an impenetrable North Precinct as a symbol and tool of “racism, patriarchy, and all systems of oppression.”
The way forward, I think, lies in a common commitment to the classic liberal agenda of government spending to support social services and education. The aggrandizement and militarization of the police force is not the way to safety, neither for the middle class nor for communities of color. The Vision for Black Lives platform says it this way:
There is no evidence that the massive spending on incarceration reduces crime rates or keeps communities safer. Studies do show that jobs and education make communities stronger and keep them safer. Investments in community-based drug and mental health treatment, education, universal pre-K, and other social institutions can make communities safer while improving life outcomes for all.
This is standard policy for old, white, liberals like me. We need to recognize that communities of color bear a horribly disproportionate burden caused by neglect of adequate social investment. We must join with people of color to fight for the proper allocation of society’s resources. #BlockTheBunker is a good place to start.
The Block the Bunker coalition is calling for people to attend the City Council meeting Monday, Sep. 19 at 2:00 PM. There will be a rally in front of City Hall after the meeting, at 4:00 PM. See the Facebook event.
Update, Sep. 15, 6:30 PM: Mayor Murray told KING-5 TV that he is putting the North Precinct building on hold and reevaluating the entire project. He blamed his predecessor, Mike McGinn, for the plan to build a single building for the entire precinct, and he justified the cost by saying that it would be built to high environmental standards. He said that given the tensions around race and policing, it’s appropriate to “back up,” to examine the cost, to potentially build more than one building, and to see how the new building(s) can contribute to police reform.
Update, Sep. 16, 7:30 AM: See our post Whither the Bunker?