Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Malling of Seattle, Cont’d

I just got back from a profoundly depressing “Open House” below Pike Place Market, at which about 50 people politely listened to Parks Department staff wax enthusiastic about their plans to tear up and “completely redo” Victor Steinbrueck Park, most likely directly connecting it to the expansion of Pike Place Market now under construction. There was about a 40 minute presentation, with lots of references to “public safety” and absolutely none to the many homeless people now living in and around the park 24/7. Even today’s announcement of the city’s plan to clear The Jungle spared a bit of preposterous lip service as to where its current residents are supposed to go. For Parks, they don’t even exist except as code words.There *was* lip service to “honoring the park’s Native American heritage,” but that clearly doesn’t include allowing the many Native Americans who now use the park to stick around. Then, after a handful of audience questions (“Why is a uniformed SPD officer here?”), attendees were told to submit comments online (no URL was given,. and no handouts), and attendees were directed to white boards scattered around the room at which we could admire their work.

After Westlake Park’s transformation into an extension of nearby retail spaces, Victor Steinbrueck is the only remaining place downtown below 6th Ave. (the little-used Freeway Park) at which EVERYONE – not just tourists, shoppers, and the occasional office worker – is welcome. If Parks gets its way, kiss that goodbye. They’ll keep the (fake) totem pole, but not the actually living Natives who use the park; similarly, Parks says they’ll keep – for now – the Leaves of Remembrance memorial to homeless people who’ve died in Seattle, just not the ones who are still alive. As with the new Westlake Park, large groups of people will only happen with events designed to sell things. And, of course, since the homeless will still exist somewhere, the people worked up about “public safety” still won’t feel comfortable anyway.

The future of Victor Steinbrueck park is pretty clearly in the hands of people whose idea of a good time is a trip to Bellevue Square. If they get their way, another little piece of Seattle’s humanity dies, and Seattle takes one more step in its transformation into a city designed to be welcoming to only some of its current residents.

I suppose this is inevitable. I live a half-block from Victor Steinbrueck Park. I count seven major construction projects planned or underway within two blocks, including both immediately north and south of Victor Steinbrueck – and that’s with half of that 12-block area a protected historical district. Our neighborhood is now overrun by tourists at day and bar and brewpub patrons at night. Of *course* they want to turn the park into a play area for the mall. But that doesn’t mean they should do it without a fight. Here’s the online comment form they didn’t much want us to find:

RIP Cleveland Stockmeyer 1956-2016

I got the call yesterday afternoon. I’m still in shock, emotionally adrift. So are a lot of people, including many of the best activists and public officials Seattle has to offer.

Cleve Stockmeyer, good friend, generous soul, and a force behind the scenes on police accountability, the arena fight, neighborhood rights, countless successful progressive political campaigns (including, most recently, district elections and the new voucher system for local political contributions), and much, much more, died suddenly Sunday night. Apparently of heart failure. He kept his law practice in his home, and Lisa, his long time secretary, found him when she came into work Monday morning. He’d been feeling poorly for the last week, but to all appearances was in great health and working with his usual, enormous energy and passion. He’d just turned 60.

There are tentative plans for a public memorial service this weekend, details TBA. I expect a who’s who of progressive politics in Seattle will come, not just to pay respects, but because we’ve all lost a friend.

I and many others have lost a friend. Seattle has lost a fierce and irreplaceable force for justice. I’m crushed.

May Day’s Roots

For some older Americans, “May Day” brings to mind images of phalanxes of Soviet soldiers, goose-stepping through Red Square behind massive tanks, while millions of onlookers obediently cheer. For some, “May Day” is a pagan holiday, Beltane, more known (and loved) for maypoles or other fertility rituals than for political struggles. For many of us, it means nothing at all.

But May Day, the political version, is an American holiday–one celebrated for the last century everywhere in the world except America, and one whose origins are well worth remembering. Because May Day began as a strike for basic workplace rights we’re now in the process of losing. And that strike was, originally, largely by immigrant workers, which is exactly why immigrants chose May Day, here and around the US, for their annual march.

Chicago, in 1886, was a rapidly growing city, a polyglot of immigrant languages and cultures. On the first May Day–May 1, 1886–“International Workers’ Day” began as a series of general strikes in Chicago and other Midwestern cities for the eight-hour day. Some 340,000 workers participated; it was a campaign that had already been going on strong for quite some time. But the strike took on particular significance when, two days later, police attacked striking workers at McCormick Reaper, on Chicago’s south side. Four workers were killed and over 200 injured. And at a demonstration on the following day, May 4, to protest the police riot, a bomb went off at Chicago’s Haymarket Square–the infamous “Haymarket Massacre” that killed eight police and wounded 60. The bombing led to death sentences for eight leading anarchists, including several German immigrants, convicted with no evidence at all for conspiracy to commit murder.

Three of the anarchists were pardoned before their deaths, the other five posthumously. But the public and police hostility to organized labor that was whipped up over Haymarket meant that, in turn, May Day became an international labor rallying cry for the right of workers to organize in general, and for the eight-hour day in particular. By the end of the decade, May Day was a holiday celebrated by workers and workers’ movements in every industrialized country in the world.

It still is–now, in fact, it’s observed globally. Except, ironically, in the land of the holiday’s birth. The holiday’s burgeoning popularity led Congress, in 1894, to establish “Labor Day” in September to honor American workers–a holiday established, not by ordinary workers themselves as an expression of empowerment, but by big business and their Congressional apologists as a way to try to dictate what workers were and weren’t allowed to celebrate. One day belonged to the workers; the other 365 to big business, and we were to work as many hours of those days as business pleased.

The strategy failed, of course. Eventually. It took another entire generation of struggle, but by 1912, federal workers were granted the eight-hour day; and in 1917, while America was desperate for the cooperation of unions in the war effort, the Eight Hour Act became law. And there, one would think, the matter was settled.

Okay, quick: Do you actually work only eight hours in a day? Only 40 hours in a week? Five days?

Not very many of us do, any longer. We stay longer in the office, we take work home with us, we take work everywhere with us, because at some level we fear that if we don’t, either the company will fail or it will replace us with people who’ll make those sacrifices. Nor, in the land that gave birth to May Day, do workers here get anywhere close to the vacation or sick day benefits we get in other industrialized countries. And let’s not even talk about health care coverage, which isn’t even linked to one’s workplace in most of the industrialized world–it’s accepted as a universal need and right. Here, our system has already rendered health care too expensive to obtain without insurance. Now, it’s denying more and more of the workforce health insurance that covers meaningful parts of the cost of actually getting sick – or, for millions, any health insurance at all. A health care “reform” that chipped away at a few of the edges of this catastrophe was bitterly fought by the corporations who most benefit from this mess, and their allies in Congress and the courts. Meanwhile, Income for most working families has been dropping for over a generation. And for all of these effective losses in compensation for our work, we’re still working harder and longer hours than our grandparents.

And that, of course, is for the few of us who still have regulr jobs.

It’s not too different now, really, from 1886. Then, as now, big business was exploiting the desperation and relative powerlessness of cheap immigrant labor, and in the process trying to depress the wages and establish exploitative precedents for all workers. Then, as now, much of the rest of the public feared and distrusted a part of the labor force that often didn’t even speak English. Then, as now, the immigrants had finally had enough. And marched, and struck.

May Day is a day not only to reclaim a holiday, but to make linkages: between immigrant rights, economic and trade policies that have destroyed the economies of Mexico and other poorer countries, and the policies that have massively enriched a few elite Americans while screwing the rest of us; between illegal and unpopular wars, the lack of government money for basic social services, the high cost of housing and food, the privatization of the military, the erosion of educational opportunities, and (once again) the enrichment of that same elite; and between all the various movements that require resistance and grass roots solidarity with each other in order to challenge the power those elites wield.

Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never has; it never will. Happy May Day.