Two Years Since the George Floyd Uprising: Lessons from the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest

Two years ago this month, the murder of George Floyd sparked mass protests nationwide. Years of pent-up fury over racist police brutality, as well as a huge amount of anger at the Trump administration and its handling of the early months of the pandemic unleashed in an inspiring and elemental movement, embracing 10% of the entire adult population.

In Seattle, one way this movement expressed itself was through the creation of the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” later renamed the “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest,” or “CHOP.” Widely reported on by the bourgeois media, it represented a surge of revolutionary energy, the likes of which Seattle hadn’t seen in a generation. Protestors took to the streets despite fierce police repression and crowds swelled into the thousands.

Demanding “police abolition,” release of arrested protestors, and other reforms, on June 8, 2020, after daily protests, the movement compelled the Seattle Police Department to outright abandon the East Precinct, one of its central headquarters in the city. In turn, some of the protesters, influenced by the strong anarchist traditions in the city, sought to “occupy” the area, by establishing a community garden, mutual aid programs, and other projects that reflected an honest, albeit ultimately naive attempt at establishing a more equitable society.

The right-wing capitalist press jumped at the opportunity to scaremonger about the “lawless anarchist jurisdiction,” but that, of course, was a lie and a considerable over-exaggeration. A small but notable layer of Seattle residents, disgusted by racist police brutality, were admirably attempting to run society on their own.

However, CHOP did not last long. On July 1, 2020, the Seattle Police Department resumed control of the East Precinct. Police outnumbered protesters 20:1, easily retaking the area once the movement started to ebb in Seattle and across the country.

How could a movement so intense that it drove the police off the streets in some neighborhoods die out so quickly? How could the city government, which had approval ratings as low as 30%, withstand a mass movement that brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets? What does this mean for the future of US capitalism and the fight for socialism?

As Marxists, we must consider these questions carefully. By studying the emergence and development of the 2020 upsurge, we can see a way forward to real change that can create a world where a largely unaccountable gang of armed, vicious police are no longer needed—one where capitalism no longer provokes racial division and constricts human progress.

How could a movement so intense that it drove the police off the streets in some neighborhoods die out so quickly? / Image: Derek Simeone, Flickr

What caused the unrest?

It is no wonder that the protests, which started in Minneapolis, found a strong echo in Seattle. The Seattle Police Department killed at least 16 people from 2017 to 2019, while working tirelessly to defend a system in which the capitalists continually seek to maximize their profits while standards of living decline, rates of homelessness and addiction multiply, and entire neighborhoods are erased in the name of “revitalization.”

Bourgeois pundits and “experts” never cease to be surprised that eventually, the working class will stop putting up with the abuse. Countless opinion pieces and articles reported that this movement emerged out of thin air. But Marxists explain such phenomena as being a result of the “molecular process” of revolution, as Trotsky put it. While the capitalist media can only see the surface of events, we know that strikes, uprisings, and revolutions are prepared by the countless small abuses that are suffered by the workers at the hands of the capitalists and their state. Eventually, just as heat eventually causes water to boil, this class anger emerges suddenly and can shake the whole world, as it did in the summer of 2020.

It is clear that the working class in Seattle—like everywhere else—was near a breaking point, even before the pandemic revealed to us all just how willing the bosses are to let us die in the name of quarterly revenue. While locally based companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Boeing have made enormous profits in recent years, the cost of living has skyrocketed for workers in the city.

It is no wonder that the protests, which started in Minneapolis, found a strong echo in Seattle, where the police have killed at least 16 people from 2017 to 2019. / Image: Mayopotato, Wikimedia Commons

CHAZ/CHOP established

Under normal circumstances, the state seems to be impervious, but the events of 2020 clearly demonstrated that a state is only as powerful as those willing to come to its defense. When faced with massive demonstrations, the police rely on brute force, confusion, and disorganization to control the crowd. However, when the protestors are determined and numerous enough, even the most militarized police force can be made to concede. A glimmer of this dynamic was on display in 2020 in Seattle.

The question as to who made the final call to abandon the East Precinct on June 8 has been debated, with nobody eager to take responsibility for the failure of the police to subdue the movement. But no matter who took the decision, we can see that the power of the Seattle Police Department buckled under the pressure of a few thousand dedicated workers and young people, despite the lack of a clear leadership or cohesive organizational structure.

Upon the police’s retreat, protesters began to construct barricades and gather supplies in the surrounding streets. A medical tent was set up, along with a free pantry that soon overflowed with food. Police “abolition” was temporarily realized. The atmosphere was one of jubilation.

While very limited in scope, the newly formed structures in this zone showed the natural solidarity of the working class, and underscored the ability of our class to take care of each other without the bosses. This is in stark contrast to the capitalist system, its state, and media, which promote the idea that humans are innately greedy and self-serving. The area was overwhelmed with donations of food, medical supplies, and volunteer hours from the local residents. Particularly in the beginning, even small business owners tended to side with the protesters, providing free water, food, and shelter for protestors.

While very limited in scope, the newly formed structures in this zone showed the natural solidarity of the working class, and underscored the ability of our class to take care of each other without the bosses. / Image: Derek Simeone, Flickr


After the victory in Capitol Hill, protests continued throughout other areas of the city. City councilmember and leading Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant led protesters in a brief “occupation” of City Hall, and there were other mass marches throughout the city. However, as the weeks went on, it was clear that the movement was losing steam.

After the atmosphere of success wore thin, it became more and more evident that the leading voices of the movement had no bearings or perspectives and didn’t know what to do with their successes. Some called to return the land to the Duwamish tribe who were native to the area, while others, including Sawant, called for the transformation of the precinct into a community center.

However, the quasi-leadership of the movement seemed to be more or less incapable of advancing the struggle in a meaningful way. Despite the terminological radicalism of the tactic of “occupying” the precinct and creating an “autonomous zone,” the actual conditions were far from that. In fact, while the police forces had abandoned the precinct at the height of the protest movement, the SPD was confident that it would be able to retake it in time.

In reality, the atmosphere at CHOP, which was a very small portion of the city, was that of a street fair or farmers’ market by day, and the vast majority of people would clear out before nightfall. At night, the area took on a dangerous character at times, with multiple shootings occurring. The details of the shootings were somewhat unclear, but nonetheless further isolated active participants from workers in the surrounding areas.

As the number of participants decreased, the failure of the movement to establish accountable representatives made itself even more apparent. Biding their time, the police chose the first week of July to retake the area. The CHOP had lived for less than a month before it was brushed aside and “normality” was restored.

The CHOP had lived for less than a month before it was brushed aside and “normality” was restored. / Image: Brian Gomes Bascoy, Flickr

What halted the movement?

From the beginning, there were multiple outlooks present at the BLM protests and by extension, within the CHOP. The dominant tendency, particularly at the beginning, was of a vague liberal reformism. Many believed that marches and demonstrations alone would be all that was necessary to bring about real social change. However, these folks were in for a rude awakening once the police started making use of tear gas and brutality.

The repression doled out by the cops only served to weaken this wing and to strengthen the other prevailing tendency: ultraleft adventurism. Some activists and groups took an approach which served to isolate them from the working class through their use of pseudo-radical tactics and aesthetics for their own sake, irregardless of the needs of the movement as a whole. This was exemplified by the “black bloc” groups which actively sought direct confrontation with the police, a tendency which emerged in and around CHOP, particularly at night.

Revolutionary Marxism is, of course, not opposed to confrontation with the state. In fact, a direct confrontation between the workers and the capitalist state is inevitable at a certain stage. However, to initiate such a confrontation before the workers have achieved political clarity and cohesion as a class is suicidal, and actually pushes most workers away from the struggle.

The real work of revolutionaries isn’t destroying property, nor is it getting arrested for the sake of it. Our task, as Marx himself explained, is to represent the interests of the movement as a whole. In the case of summer 2020, that meant explaining that socialist revolution is the only way to achieve the goals of the movement, and using the moment to prepare for the future by bringing newly awakened activists into the struggle to build a Marxist, class-struggle leadership.

Coupled with the counterproductive street tactics of the ultraleft tendency, we saw that the leaders were totally incapable of advancing past the stage of spontaneous and often performative struggle, towards a more conscious organization of the working class as a force capable of acting independently in its own interests.

Instead, the leading voices chose the tactic of “horizontalism,” declaring that there were “no leaders” in the newly “liberated” CHAZ. But as anyone can attest to, leaders emerge organically within all groups, usually consisting of the most dedicated, energetic, vocal, or respected members. The real issue is to ensure that our leaders are elected, accountable, and recallable by those they represent. The urge to eliminate the unjust hierarchy that we experience every day is a noble one, but the only way to do this is by organizing the working class into a conscious force capable of taking power into its own hands. Only the establishment of a transitional workers’ government and state can lay the basis for ending classes, the state, exploitation, and oppression once and for all.

In practice, the only result of the attempt to deny the existence of leaders was a total lack of democracy, responsibility, and initiative when it came to taking and implementing decisions.

George Floyd Protest in Washington, DC - May 30
The repression doled out by the cops only served to weaken the liberal reformist wing and to strengthen the other prevailing tendency: ultraleft adventurism. / Image: Geoff Livingston, Flickr

The need for a coordinated national and international struggle

We cannot forget that all of this was happening in the context of what was, in effect, a national uprising, which offered a glimpse of revolution. This movement, the largest in US history, had enormous potential, but lacked a cohesive leadership with clear ideas. Had a sizable Marxist leadership been in place, the movement could have created ties with the labor movement and the broader working class, and could have fought for clearer programmatic demands that addressed the question of police terror and explained the necessity of the socialist transformation of society. Such a leadership could have helped the working class escalate the struggle, while combating the Democratic Party’s efforts to co-opt the movement and fighting for the creation of a mass socialist party.

But the lack of such leadership, in Seattle and across the US, meant that within weeks, the movement dissipated. Looking at history, we see that the masses cannot stay furious forever. Even the most courageous and dedicated class fighters will eventually tire, and this process is only accelerated when workers see that the movement has lost momentum and purpose.

While some sizable organizations existed in Seattle, none were able to play this role. Unfortunately, Socialist Alternative, a self-styled Marxist organization with a considerably large presence in Seattle, did not use this opportunity to provide theoretical clarity on the questions raised by the movement. While the organization did publish some material about the class nature of the state and policing, in general, they highlighted the reformist demand to “defund the Seattle Police Department by 50%,” with Councilwoman Sawant even introducing legislation to that effect. The effect was to sow illusions that legalistic measures to combat the issue of police violence. The revolutionary Marxist approach, by contrast, would have been a bold and clear explanation that the only way to abolish racist police terror is to fight for a workers’ government.

Building a leadership that can take that approach and resist the pressures of bourgeois public opinion is no easy task, but it is a necessary one. The main contradiction of our era is the fact that capitalism is a dying system, but a working-class leadership capable of birthing a new world doesn’t yet exist. We must examine what a leadership like that would look like.

Far from undercutting the radicalism of the masses, as is the case with the liberal reformists, or scaring the masses away, as with the tactics of the ultralefts, a Marxist tendency must act as the counterpart to the masses: making the unconscious desires of the working class conscious and raising these impulses to the level of clear demands and slogans, while working to unify the most determined and conscious workers into a force that can eventually lead the class in a successful revolution.

A sizable Marxist leadership could have helped the working class escalate the struggle, while combating the Democratic Party’s efforts to co-opt the movement and fighting for the creation of a mass socialist party. / Image: own work

Now what?

Despite its incomplete and contradictory nature, the 2020 protest movement should be cause for optimism. It demonstrated in Seattle and across the country that the working class has a natural solidarity and desire to fight against the capitalist system—something that the more pessimistic voices on the left love to doubt. Defying the racial animus that is promoted by capitalism’s dog-eat-dog society, tens of thousands of workers from every race and identity turned out into the streets, risking arrest and brutality to stand with their fellow workers. In a handful of cases, there were even solidarity strikes from trade unions.

And despite the limitations of the “occupation” tactic and the small and ephemeral nature of the “autonomous zone” in Seattle, the fact that these ideas resonated with worker and youth activists is symptomatically significant, and an inspiring sign of the direction political consciousness is headed.

It is evident that the Marxist leadership that was needed in 2020 cannot be built during the intensity of mass struggle, just as the general staff of an army cannot be trained after the outbreak of war. We need to begin now, educating ourselves in history, theory, and organizational methods so that when workers and youth rise again to the challenge of taking their fate in their own hands, we can win their confidence and provide a revolutionary way forward.

For Marxists, the recent waves of unionization, protests for abortion rights, and an upswell in radicalism among the youth are all clear signals that the working class is preparing to rise to its feet once again. Our duty is to meet them where they are, win them to the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, and work diligently to build an organization capable of truly leading the working class.

Socialist Revolution in the US, and the International Marxist Tendency globally, are aiming to build such an organization. We’re organizing in Seattle and throughout the United States and the world to create a working-class leadership worthy of the name. If you agree with the need to build that leadership, we invite you to join us!

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