Occupy the Capitol: The Next Stage in the Occupy Movement in Washington State

Occupy the Capitol The Next Stage in the Occupy Movement in Washington State

Occupy the Capitol, Olympia, Washington. (Photo: Trevor Griffey)

Roughly two thousand people descended upon the Washington state capitol yesterday to expand the Occupy Wall Street movement to an “Occupy the Capitol” movement. The day’s events, which ended in an attempt to occupy the capitol building, took protests against budget cuts and corporate tax loopholes straight to politicians.

Students, teachers, advocates of the disabled, and local Occupy encampments each staged feeder marches that converged on the Washington state capitol in Olympia, Washington, in the early afternoon. K-12 teachers in the Washington Education Association and homecare workers from SEIU 775 each set up large tents on the capitol grounds where they held their own teach-ins in the morning, while unionized college instructors in the American Federation of Teachers hosted a teach-in in the basement of the capitol building that spanned the afternoon.

Occupy Olympia: in the shadow of the state capitol, not far from where the city's Hooverville was located during the Great Depression. (Photo: Trevor Griffey)

After rallying on the capitol steps at noon to hear music and speeches, the nearly 2,000 strong group dispersed to disrupt a legislative hearing with a “mic check,” march around the capitol grounds, as well as hold an occupation of the main foyer between the state house and senate chambers under the capitol dome. The day ended with an unsuccessful attempt to occupy the capitol building rotunda.

Tuesday’s activities marked the beginning of a weeklong series of events timed to coincide with a “special session” of the Washington state legislature that the state Governor, Christine Gregoire, has tasked with cutting $2 billion from a discretionary budget of $8.7 billion.

But there is much more at stake than local budget and tax policy.

Washington Education Association members march to join Occupy the Capitol protest on the steps of the capitol building, Olympia, WA. (Photo: Trevor Griffey)

The Occupy the Capitol events in Olympia, Washington this week could provide a unique fusion of the tactics developed in Wisconsin earlier this year during protests against Republican union busting with the Occupy movement’s protest against austerity politics imposed by both Republicans and Democrats. The Occupy movement made a step in this direction when it advocated that people “Occupy Your State Capitol” on October 29, 2011. But that action, which took place on a Saturday, when state government employees were not at work and many state legislatures were not even in session, was largely symbolic, and disappeared from public view afterward.

Now, one month later, and just a week before the Occupy movement plans to stage a massive “Occupy Congress” event in the nation’s capitol in Washington DC, Occupy the Capitol has the potential to be a catalytic moment in mobilizing opposition in the US to austerity politics.

(Photo: Trevor Griffey)

Washington State: Case Study of How Democrats No Longer Represent the Party of FDR

Though many of the Occupy the Capitol organizers—particularly those in the labor movement— are historic allies of the Democratic Party, the protest itself stands as a massive repudiation of Democratic Party rule in Washington state in the age of Obama.

The reason that Democrats stand in the crosshairs of Occupy the Capitol is simple. Voters didn’t just hand Obama a decisive victory over McCain as the economy trembled. Across the country, Democrats benefited handsomely at the local and state level from the tidal wave of support for Barak Obama in the 2008 election.

In Washington state, which has not elected a Republican Governor in thirty years, and where Democrats already controlled the state legislature by a thin margin for most of the past decade, the 2008 election was a rout. In both the state House and the state Senate, riding a wave of support for Obama’s presidential campaign, the Democratic party achieved a supermajority of over 60 percent of the legislative seats.

The story of what Washington state Democrats then did with their supermajority offers a parable of the failure of the Democratic Party to articulate or put forward a coherent and effective response to the economic crisis.

Because Washington state government relies heavily upon sales taxes and property taxes for revenue (it has no income tax), it was hit hard by declining consumer spending in 2008 and 2009. Revenues fell well below projections, creating billion dollar budget deficits that have undermined the long-term viability of state government programs, chief among them education and human services.

During the two years that Democrats held a supermajority in the legislature (2009-10), they faced a combined set of budget deficits of $13 billion. They filled 46 percent of the budget hole ($5.9 billion) with spending cuts, and only 7 percent ($920 million) with revenue increases. They used “revenue transfers” (ie raiding dedicated reserve and long-term construction accounts) and federal government stimulus money to make up the difference.

Because the state legislature raised so little money in new revenue, it chose to play different government services and their advocates off each other for a dwindling piece of the economic pie. In order to reduce the devastation to the state health care and income support for the poor and disabled, Frank Chopp (D), the powerful speaker of the House, directed a significant portion of the budget cuts to public universities. As a result, 4 year colleges in Washington state sustained 40 percent cuts and increased tuition by over 40 percent to make up the difference in just the last 3 years. At the college where I teach, The Evergreen State College, tuition will have risen 70 percent in 4 years between 2008 and the beginning of the 2012 school year next Fall.

Because state legislators used federal stimulus money to backfill their budget cuts, they ensured that new federal government spending during the first years of the economic crisis created essentially no net new jobs in Washington state. Dwarfing the stimulus with budget cuts not only suppressed the possibility for a quick economic recovery. It undermined the very foundation for Democrats’ electoral success by hiding the effects of Obama’s stimulus plan from voters. Instead of creating new jobs, they saved old ones. Instead of promoting “change we can believe in,” they patched up an unsustainable status quo that voters had come to take for granted. This all but ensured that the budget crisis would continue as their one-time fixes expired, and left the Democratic Party without a coherent vision for the future to take to the polls during the 2010 midterm elections.

During this era of supermajority power, when Republicans had effectively no say in the governance of the state, the Democrats in the state legislature passed an all-cuts budget in 2009, and refused to pass a Worker Privacy Act (WPA) that would have made it a violation of state law for employers to require their employees to attend anti-union meetings. When labor unions threatened to withhold campaign contributions to the Democratic Party for going back on its promises to pass the WPA, Democratic politicians had their own allies investigated for alleged extortion by reporting the state AFL-CIO to the Washington State Patrol. The State Patrol found no wrongdoing, but the criminal investigation silenced the AFL-CIO during a key comment period on pending legislation, and allowed the Democratic Party to get away with slashing government spending without effective dissent from its base.

In 2010, when the state legislature repealed a state initiative that required a 2/3 supermajority to increase taxes, it failed to close substantial corporate tax loopholes and then raised only one third of the projected $3 billion deficit that year in new revenue. The new taxes were almost entirely regressive—targeting the working poor with taxes on soda, candy, alcohol and tobacco—and left corporate tax loopholes largely untouched. During the 2010 midterm elections, voters struck back at these moderate reforms. They approved an initiative bankrolled to the tune of $20 million by the American Beverage Association that repealed the new soda tax. And they approved another initiative bankrolled by the oil industry to restore the 2/3 requirement for increasing taxes.

Protester against cuts to public education, Occupy the Capitol. (Photo: Trevor Griffey)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Democratic Party lost ground during the 2010 midterm elections. In Washington state, this meant losing seats but not control of the state government. But it was enough to throw the state government into near-paralysis, because a local caucus of blue dog Democrats— calling themselves the “roadkill caucus” for their supposed electoral vulnerability as middle-of-the-road politicians— now regularly threatens to defect from their own party and vote with Republicans to oppose new taxes. Instead of disciplining this rogue and disloyal faction in their ranks, state Democrats now cater to these anti-tax “moderates” in order to pass legislation.

As a result, after 3 years of economic crisis, no coherent vision for how to respond has come from any portion of the Democratic Party in Washington state even though it technically retains control of the state government.

Three years of economic crisis have brought a total of $18 billion in budget deficits, which the legislature has filled with $10.5 billion in budget cuts, and less than $1 billion in revenue increases. Yet Washington state, even more than the rest of the country, is not broke. This is a state where Amazon.com and Microsoft have their corporate headquarters and continue to make billions in annual profits, and where the region’s high-tech economy has produced over 68,000 millionaires in King County (which includes Seattle and its suburbs). But there is no corporate or personal income tax in Washington state. And state legislators, instead of proposing substantial tax reform, have only been able to pass minor increases in the sales tax and massive budget cuts.

Occupy the Capitol, Olympia, WA. (Photo: Trevor Griffey)

Now, with another $1.5 billion budget deficit, and the Democratic Governor asking for $2 billion in cuts, it’s no wonder that hundreds of K-12 public school teachers took the day off work yesterday to march en masse chanting “enough is enough” as they joined over a thousand Occupy activists on the capitol steps.

Just the Beginning

The state legislature called its special session to order yesterday but adjourned the session 5 minutes after officially convening. Most of the day’s business was conducted behind closed doors. A phalanx of state patrolmen prevented protesters from entering the Governor’s office, leaving them to demand that she come outside to hear their protests against her proposal to increase the sales tax for education and corrections while subjecting human services to the brunt of a new round of budget cuts.

A rowdy combination of labor union members and student activists then occupied the capitol building rotunda for hours, holding a mic check that echoed through the three story space. But by 6pm, much of the labor movement and students had gone home, and the state patrol locked the doors to prevent others from entering. Instead of using pepper spray inside the building, the state patrol resorted to tasers to either force or compel those who wanted to occupy the capitol to leave.

In less than two hours, the protesters were expelled, and a handful had also been arrested. But the question of whether protesters could actually hold onto the building against superior force was largely irrelevant. What is more important is that the union members and student activists who had come to the state’s capitol to lobby and rally were now joining together in direct action to protest austerity politics.

After protesters were expelled from the capitol, they tried to prevent the bus that contained three arrested activists from leaving. One person recounted that

“about 75 or so people (I’m bad with numbers, could have been 50 or 100) linked arms around the bus to prevent it from leaving. It didn’t take long for the cops to get really violent. There were probably about 20 cops at least. They pushed from in front of the line (on the bus side) and others grabbed us from behind and threw us down. They tried to hold us in place as the bus started moving but we broke loose and tried to regroup in front of the bus to stop it but there were so many police at this point it was hard to re-form a line. We were making scattered attempts to link arms, lie down in front, and lie down in piles. They cleared the way, trying to scare people by being very brutal. I watched my friend get tackled by a fat bald cop and get punched in the face. I got picked up and thrown down several times. I think everyone did. Several of us tried to move a picnic table to use as a barricade but it got overrun. Then the cops got their tasers out. Tasers, with their red laser sights and bright blue electric sparks, are incredibly intimidating. I watched at least 3 or 4 people get tasered right in front of me. One guy was lying face down in the road. 3 or 4 cops ran over to him, surrounded him, and wouldn’t let him get out for at least 10 or 15 seconds as one of the cops tasered him over and over. Eventually they got the bus out after traveling a couple hundred yards and us fighting the whole way.”

He concluded simply, “We will be back. Re-group for tomorrow.”

(Photo: Trevor Griffey)

Reprinted with permission from the author.