How Seattle's Ferguson protesters got the holidays right

Ferguson, Missouri is half a continent away but the protests strike at issues that have meaning for the holidays. Particularly in Seattle.
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Protesters gathered in Seattle near Westlake Center on the night a grand jury's decision against indicting an officer in Ferguson was announced. Westlake was again a focus on Black Friday.

Ferguson, Missouri is half a continent away but the protests strike at issues that have meaning for the holidays. Particularly in Seattle.

This time of year we're usually thinking about partridges in a pear tree, not pepper spray. But protests about Ferguson have overlapped into the holiday season, giving us the image of Seattle police officers circling the Christmas tree at Westlake to protect it — and the crowd of shoppers — from chanting protesters. According to a real-time account on The Stranger's Slog, "Men in black hoods shout at shoppers, 'Enjoy your slave labor goods!' "

Black Friday, the kick-off of the consumer-buying season, was the occasion for protests, turned into Black Lives Matter Friday. Protesters managed to shut down the Westlake Center mall a few hours early. More protests are planned and will likely blend outrage with Christmas shopping.

This isn't the first time Christmas and protests have overlapped. This week marks the 15th anniversary of demonstrations that shut down the WTO summit on Nov. 30, 1999 and launched a week of protest, civil disobedience and arrests. Then-Mayor Paul Schell had sought to ensure that the trade protests didn't disrupt downtown shopping. That didn't happen. We got tear gas with the mistletoe.

In a sense it was the perfect juxtaposition: Protesters targeted free trade in a trade-dependent town, some turned their anger on places like Starbucks and Niketown as representative of an economic system that is unjust and, worse, flourishes on injustice. In the cacophony of WTO, there was an overarching, coherent message: Free-market capitalism is not an inherent good and must be reined in for the sake of humanity and justice.

Does it make sense for protesters to disrupt the holidays for an event that happened outside St. Louis? The killing of a young African American by a white police officer in Missouri? Isn't Ferguson about race, not economics?

It does make sense because the two are inextricably bound. The Ferguson debacle has raised issues that are deeply embedded in the growing economic inequality and enduring racial inequality in this country. Isolation, racism, unemployment, crime, the consumer economy and its winners and losers: It's all interconnected. Besides, now that the holiday season has been turned into a gross consumer spectacle, how else can you get attention with a sit-in these days? And isn't calling it "Black Friday" a kind of enticement to anarchists? It's almost as if capitalism is begging for a critique of its excesses.

Jesse Jackson is in town to confront some of the economic aspects of the issue: He's encouraging peaceful protest, not punk violence. But he wants to pressure the engines of Seattle's economy (and the nation's) to pay attention to bringing everyone along for the economic ride. Joel Connelly, reporting on Jackson's talk at Mount Zion Baptist Church, quotes the Rev. Jackson: "'We must re-imagine where we are tonight,” he said. "We must have one eye on Ferguson and one eye on Microsoft, one eye on Amazon, and one eye on Nintendo.'"

One individual doesn't have that many eyes, but collectively we have more than enough. Jackson has encouraged his followers to buy stock in these companies to gain shareholder leverage over policy regarding hiring and social responsibility. He's not against capitalism, he wants everyone in America to have a fair share of it, and he's targeting the tech sector.

That won't satisfy many of the hardcore protesters who are marching around downtown and Capitol Hill. But if everyone's solution isn't the same (and it wasn't at WTO either, which saw temporary coalitions of the far-right and the far-left — Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Jello Biafra, Teamsters and turtles) it does help put focus on race and economic justice with which the nation and Seattle must wrestle.

Seattle especially because we hold ourselves to high, progressive standards — often with an unbearable smugness. We also keep electing leaders who insist on transforming Seattle into an international role model (see Schell, Greg Nickels, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray). Basking in the global glow of progressivism is good politics, even if it doesn't always reflect reality, as when Murray declared last week that Seattle was not Ferguson and Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat rather neatly refuted him in a column entitled “We’re not better than Ferguson; maybe worse.”

Self-images are hard to change. So are comfort zones. The protesters are appealing to our consciences, to our ability and willingness to redefine our civic goals, to our basic humanity. Throwing rocks and bottles is lousy. Protesting peacefully amid downtown holiday shopping is on point and can be effective. At root, many of the protesters are appealing to us to remember the very values this season is supposed to be about.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.