Seattle's Tax Marches: A Case Study in Discomfort with Black Leadership

You should read this article from the Stranger for background info on this post, but if you don't:

Some basic facts: 

This Saturday in Seattle there are two downtown marches, organized by different groups. One starts at 11, and is connected with a national series of "Tax Marches".  The other starts at 2, and is organized by Seattle Black Lives Matters activists. Both have similar stated goals, with a slightly different focus. The Tax March rally is focused on demanding that Trump releases his tax returns, with a secondary goal of calling for economic justice in tax policies in the US. The BLM rally has a primary goal of drawing attention to regressive structures in the tax system that disproportionately impact people of color, but that affect all low income Americans, while also demanding that Trump releases his tax returns.

I'm guessing you, like me, wonder why Seattle is having two marches with very similar goals. If I understand the history correctly, the idea for the marches rose independently of one another at around the same time, soon after the Womxn's Marches in January, and both groups threw up Facebook events around the same time. For a period they tried to work together, but couldn't agree on some logistical details, so decided to organize separate events. They played nice and organized at separate times and locations so people could attend either or both. Currently about 18,000 people say they're attending the BLM march on Facebook, and 3,000 the Tax March Seattle event in the morning.

Those are the facts. Now some basic interpretation:

I'm going to be out of town and not attending either, so I'm no one to judge, but, well, here goes:

The fact that the smaller Tax March is happening is painfully corny, and their leadership should have thrown their energy into supporting the BLM March.

Early on in the organizing process, as it became clear that the BLM March and the Tax March weren't going to happen together, it also was clear that the BLM March was going to be larger, more broadly focused, and (maybe this is obvious) led exclusively by people of color who've been engaged in activist work for years. The Tax March would be smaller, more narrowly focused on Trump's tax returns, and headed up by a white dude who works at Microsoft and has no previous organizing experience beyond making 50 pancakes for marchers in January (though also supported by a racially diverse group of other activists).

The Tax March leadership isn't all as green as the guy heading it up, and it seems like they've put together a decent event on the face of things: Pramila Jayapal and Jesse Hagopian are going to be there, whatever - it's standard local political fare. But the way its all shaken out, and their decision not to figure out how to defer to, or partner directly with, the larger BLM March gives this all the flavor of a Kendall Jenner Pepsi.

The narrow focus on Trump's tax returns itself makes the march seem trite - it's an important enough issue, but in a context where progressive activism is finding its greatest strength in its intersectionality, it is hard to take this March seriously when it is happening a few hours prior to a BLM march with the same (but broader) goals. And they've uncritically welcomed the same UW College Republicans to participate who sponsored Milo Yiannopolis' riot inducing visit in January, making this thing seem remarkably tone deaf.

By contrast, the BLM March is run by experienced activists, and has a message that combines opposition to the budding Trump family oligarchy with an attempt to draw attention to a developed progressive economic platform focused on combating economic injustice. They've done a better job at getting a crowd together, and they've maintained good PR by not calling out the Tax March publicly, and working with them to develop parallel events. And they've built an event that is driven by, and focused on, the black community, but is promoting the cause of marginalized groups more broadly. It's a well organized event that obviously has broad appeal in the Seattle progressive community.

The Tax March should have just folded their energy into the BLM March. BLM is doing the same thing, they're better at what they're doing, and they have more moral authority to do it.

A Case for Black Leadership

But beyond being just corny, the real reason this is so painful to watch is that it seems to so transparently illustrate Seattle's, and by proxy the USA's, ongoing resistance to letting black people be in charge of things.

There's an ambient American concern that black people will screw things up if we let them be in charge, and it is as old as the Union. It's taken different forms through our history, but is rooted in a rational fear that people who are pushed down will want to push back if given the opportunity. It's a background assumption of American culture, and one not often voiced openly in places like Seattle. But it's hard to see a reason not to view the parallel Seattle Tax Marches as being influenced by this deeply American sentiment. Things aren't black and white - the Tax March leadership is racially diverse even if the head organizer is a white guy. But human dynamics never are.

In any case, that concern is, of course, false. Black people in charge are no more likely to screw things up than people of any other race. And on the contrary, in the political realm, the black community is the first place that America should be looking for leadership on many issues - including issues of economic injustice - because black communities, broadly speaking, have had a more intense education in the way political structures contribute to injustice than any other group, To this degree, I think that the lie that black leaders are more likely to screw things up than leaders from other racial groups is related to a truth: that black leaders, broadly speaking, are more likely to affect meaningful, progressive system change than leaders from other racial groups. Not because of their race, but because of their direct education in the impact of unjust systems.

It's hopeful, maybe, that six times as many people are planning to go to the BLM March on Saturday than the Tax March. Maybe it indicates that a decent number of Seattleites recognize that progressive white leadership is best served by giving real power to leaders of color. At best though, Saturday's Tax March seems like a missed opportunity to provide support for BLM, if not a tone deaf insult to Seattle's black activist leadership, and a strong indicator that progressive Seattle still has a long way to go in sorting out how to accept black people in positions of leadership.

Comments

Popular Posts