Showdown at Suncadia

Tom Larsen reports on a recent protest in Washington state that took on the business elite and called for the rich to pay their fair share.

ROSLYN, Wash.--Some 200 activists turned out on September 21 as the Association of Washington Business (AWB)--a sort of chamber of commerce for big business in the state--held its annual policy summit at Suncadia, a sprawling 6,300-acre resort that sits on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains.

The AWB's legislative objectives for 2011 include advocating for policies that favor charter schools and policies that seek to eliminate Washington laws that are "more protective of worker rights" than the less protective federal laws. Regarding health care, the AWB opposes "measures that establish government-run programs as competitors to the private market."

With respect to renewable and alternative energy resources, they write that Washington State "must level the playing field" with other states with less forward-thinking renewable resource policies. In the spirit of the aforementioned objectives, the AWB opposes new policies to regulate greenhouse gases saying that they supposedly "threaten capital investment." The AWB states that their summit goals are to "hear what Washington CEOs are doing to maintain their profitability in lean times."

Just who showed up to the AWB's summit? For starters, Bill Ayer, CEO of Alaska Airlines; Kimberly Harris, CEO of Puget Sound Energy; "Gubby" Barlow, CEO of Premera Blue Cross; Gregory Seibly, CEO of Sterling Financial; and Phyllis Campbell, chairman of Pacific NW JP Morgan-Chase. The summit's keynote address was given by a different kind of CEO, Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire. In the context of these difficult economic times, Chase's Campbell led a seminar entitled "Where will the money come from?"

Washington Community Action Network (CAN), a progressive grassroots lobbying and activist group, had an answer ready: "Make Wall Street banks and wealthy CEOs pay their fair share."

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JUST BEFORE sunrise, CAN organizers gathered about 100 people in a church parking lot in Seattle. Ten vans were filled people from all around the Seattle area. They drove two hours to a campsite near the Suncadia resort. Here, they united with another 100 people who drove their own cars from Spokane, Wenatchee and the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington.

Earlier that morning, CAN activists posing as vacationers at the resort, distributed at the hotel room doors of the summit attendees, a fake AWB agenda which included the statement, "It's only natural that the symbolic head of state government would want to spend time with the real leaders of the state--the prosperous few here in Suncadia who set the agenda and make the big campaign contributions." CAN activists also made "wake-up" calls to summit attendee rooms to tell them how Washington families are struggling.

CAN organizers split the group into two: about 50 were going to attempt to disrupt the summit, while the remaining 150 would protest at the entrance to Suncadia.

At the entry to the resort, CAN activists had constructed a graphic suspended about a 100 feet in the air by balloons that had a huge arrow pointing up that read "Top 1%" and another arrow pointing down that read "Rest of us." Protesters held signs and banners that had slogans such as "Your greed is destroying America" and they had printed 17 yellow T-shirts that spelled out what was the dominant theme of the protest signs: "Cut tax loopholes."

The protesters also chanted for almost two hours. Chants included, "Schools are closing, it's not fair! Time for banks to pay their share," "We pay taxes, yes we do--we pay taxes how 'bout you!" and "Corporate criminals have got to go! Handcuffs for the CEO! No more social service cuts! Tax the bankers! Jail their butts!"

The Cle Elum Sherriff's department and the State Highway Patrol were also there in force. CAN's strategy was to cooperate with, not confront, the police. The timing of the protest was to coincide with the arrival of and keynote address by governor Gregoire. At one point, a protester asked one of the police officers if the governor had arrived yet. The officer responded by saying: "I don't know, I have been out here chanting with you!"

One of the governor's aides did come out to address the protesters. He said that the governor was glad that people are concerned with the issues. But he was unwilling to answer protesters' questions about the slashing of education and social service budgets. He said that the governor would very much like to have met with them, but that she had rush off to mediate an agreement between striking Tacoma teachers and the Tacoma school district.

At this point, CAN organizers had the protesters return to the campsite to debrief the day's action and have a "people's summit." Besides recounting their successes in confronting the AWB, CAN organizers had individuals tell their stories on how austerity is affecting them.

One woman, a home care worker, talked of how her elderly client couldn't afford as much of her services so she had to take on a second job. Another--who, until the day before, had worked in a homeless shelter--learned that the shelter had lost its funding. This meant that she and her co-workers were now out of a job and those homeless persons the shelter served were out of luck.

One CAN activist had made a giant letter, some 5-feet square, to be signed by all those who participated. It was to be given to Governor Gregoire and read: "Our communities continue to suffer while the wealthiest in our state set the corporate agenda. Here governor Gregoire, is The People's Agenda: Quality health care, quality education, quality jobs here and now, racial equality and close corporate tax loopholes."

The "Showdown at Suncadia" was not a singular protest. Simultaneous protests were held in downtown Seattle, where about 200 people protested and 11 were arrested. Others were held in Spokane, Vancouver and Olympia.

By 3 p.m. it was time to go home. Cordy Cooke, one of the Roslyn residents who organized to fight the Suncadia development, noted that there is historical continuity between the protest at Suncadia and his activism to protect the community of Roslyn. Washington Community Action Network recognizes that we must organize to fight corporate threats to all of our communities.