Early in May, US trade representative Katherine Tai released a statement announcing US President Joe Biden’s support for waiving off COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property protections per the TRIPS waiver proposal put forth by India and South Africa before the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Issued on the day of the WTO general council meeting, ambassador Tai’s statement came two weeks after ten US Senators wrote a letter urging President Biden “to get the vaccine to the rest of the world”, when international efforts, “like the WHO’s so-called COVAX effort, are falling woefully short of increasing the global supply to a level that is needed to stomp out the virus”.
As India reported a daily record number of 386,452 cases a week later, US Congressman Ro Khanna followed up with his own press release, echoing the senators and additionally asking the US “give India our stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccines that won’t be used in the US and have already opened up to Mexico and Canada”.
As national elected representatives exerted epistolary pressure, councilwoman Kshama Sawant of Seattle – a socialist elected as a n independent candidate – passed a first-in-nation policy resolution supporting the lifting of the TRIPS waiver, co-signed by over 400 local and national community organisations.
Like Sawant’s policy achievements from her ongoing City Hall stint, including $15/hour minimum wage and a $500-million yearly tax on the top 2% of wealthy corporations, the TRIPS resolution has inspired other cities such as Cambridge, Massachusetts; Illinois, Chicago; and Burbank, California to put forth similar resolutions.
“We should take this momentum forward once the waiver is won to begin fighting for Medicare for All and an end to the domination of Big Pharma altogether, which cynically profits off human sickness and misery,” Sawant writes in an article that appeared on her activist organisation Socialist Alternative’s website shortly after ambassador Tai’s announcement.
To learn more about the “internationalism” with which she says we ought to replace the currently imperialist public health crisis response model, I sat down with councilwoman Sawant for an explosive hour. Below is a condensed version.
Thank you for talking to me. I’d like to begin by giving you a chance to say your piece about Sheikh Jarrah, Palestine, and the Israeli attacks, especially pertaining to the positions of the US politicians – Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.
In the Seattle area, activists are planning to do an action and I’m going to be speaking at that rally tomorrow. As activists and Left leaders internationally have said, what’s happening in this Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is forced evictions of Palestinian people. Even the headline of an unusually honest editorial from an opinion column in The Washington Post, authored by Noura Erakat and Maryam Bardouti says, “Sheikh Jarrah highlights the violent brazenness of Israel’s colonialist project”. As the authors point out, the forced exclusion and expulsion of Palestinian people taking place in Jerusalem echoes scandalously throughout West Bank, throughout Gaza, and among Palestinians who and whose families have been forcibly exiled, and who live as immigrants in other countries including the US.
Ultimately, this has to be recognised for what it is, which is the continuation of extreme policies by the Israeli regime against the Palestinian people. One of the sister organisations of Socialist Alternative is located in the Israel-Palestine area, and as socialists there are saying, the situation calls for serious effort to unite Palestinian and Israeli working class people against the regime, the Israeli state, and the system of capitalism and imperialism at the root of what has been going on for decades.
The Seattle City Council was the first in the US to pass a resolution in support of the TRIPS vaccine waiver. The Biden administration has announced that it also supports the waiver that was proposed by India and South Africa to the WTO. Is this full-throated support?
By itself, the WTO TRIPS waiver – lifting of patent restrictions to allow generic versions of the COVID-19 vaccine to be produced by countries like India and South Africa – is not going to result in overnight production of vaccines, but without it, the production of generic vaccines can’t begin, so this is a necessary first step. Also, when the WTO regime comprising the US, Germany, EU and Big Pharma industry executives say that patents aren’t the obstacles, or that countries like India don’t have production capacity, they are completely lying and it’s important that activists in this struggle relentlessly clarify that. It’s so stunning because India happens to be the largest manufacturer of generic medications. The struggle for COVID-19 vaccine access for billions around the world is hardly the first time we’ve come to this point, right?
Remember the struggle for AIDS medication to be made available to billions of people? Again and again, what you see highlighted is that as long as you have a global system of capitalism and imperialism, you will see the billionaire class, the ruling class, and the political parties that represent the interests of those billionaires and multi-millionaires as obstacles to having the basics of a humane society. Here we are, talking about allowing billions of people access to the vaccine to save the lives of potentially millions of people. Public health experts have told us that this won’t be the last pandemic, climate scientists warn us that we will have massive crises in the near future, and capitalism so far is showing to be completely incapable of dealing with them.
To the point that the TRIPS waiver only seems to apply to the COVID vaccine and that too only for the “duration of the pandemic”, I have to ask – reports say that at the current rate of vaccination, India is unlikely to achieve herd immunity until 2024. Can you talk about the split-screen reality of this pandemic experience, in the West vs the Global South, and what the US Left politician’s role should be in bridging this divide?
As you correctly describe, the statistics are damning, and globally indeed we have a split-screen situation where nearly 90% of vaccine access has been restricted to US and Europe. Vaccine access for people in the Global South, including India, Brazil and South Africa – where billions of poor people face the double tragedy of capitalism in general, and as it affects people in neocolonial countries – is abysmally low. It’s something like one in 500 have access to one vaccine when, in some cases, you need a programme of two vaccines to fully cover you. This tremendous divergence in the access to vaccines is absolutely correct to be called “vaccine apartheid” by activists around the world. Vaccine nationalism is going to be the norm under capitalism, with divisions in terms of nation states. How can we resolve the oppression of people in Palestine or India? We need internationalism.
I have a lot of criticisms of the UN, but it’s important that they have taken the step to say we need a “people’s vaccine”. We are up against a system that’s preoccupied with protecting the profits of Big Pharma executives and billionaires such as Bill Gates who are directly benefiting from the patents after public funding developed the vaccine technology in the first place. They are so fiercely opposed to this TRIPS waiver not only because they have to protect their profits right now, but because if they concede to this demand, they know it will only embolden ordinary people around the world to make and win other similar future demands. There’s no end in sight with this obsession, with today’s, tomorrow’s or the next day’s profits, unless the US Left politicians take clear positions.
In Seattle, when we brought our resolution to the city council and got a 7-1 vote, it was the first of its kind – all credit goes to organisations in Washington state, nationwide and globally who have been fighting with us. It’s an honour for myself and Socialist Alternative to have been part of this struggle as I have no doubt that our organising has played a small role in the global activism that has pressured and forced Biden to concede, but now we see, of course, that’s not enough. We see Germany and the EU still opposing it.
Vaccine imperialism is only one-half of the story as, on the other hand, India’s right-wing government is more interested in covering up its COVID-19 response after committing blunders that led to the horrific loss of lives. What role does the international Left play in exposing this cover-up and the stubborn incompetence of strongman regimes?
It’s crucial that socialist elected representatives in the US are outspoken in condemning the Narendra Modi regime’s complete mishandling of the crisis in India, which is a criminal act. The lives that have been lost and the suffering people are experiencing are entirely at the doorstep of Modi, and it’s not just me saying this as a socialist. We have seen the Indian Medical Association issue a public statement condemning the BJP regime for their failures, and calling Modi personally a super-spreader because of the irresponsible positions they took. When public health experts globally were saying that there are going to be second and third waves, in the face of scientific evidence, Modi, the BJP regime, and the upper-caste and upper-class elite in India engaged in months of chest-thumping, making unscientific statements like, ‘Oh, all these deaths are happening in the US and Europe’, but India has beaten COVID. It’s deeply unfortunate because now you see an apocalyptic scenario unfolding in India. It’s the moral and political responsibility of Left-elected representatives in the US, especially socialists, to speak out about this.
What’s scandalous about this to me is the question of why it is that a City Council resolution from my office was the first in the nation, rather than one by representatives in US Congress such as “the Squad” or other so-called “Progressive Democrats” who have far bigger platforms? They murmured things in support of a waiver, but as an elected representative, you need to go much farther, using your office to put real pressure on the Biden administration. The fact that we won a resolution at the Seattle City Council and it ended up playing a role nationally shows that you can move mountains if you have the political clarity.
That’s a powerful statement, and on that note, can you give me a glimpse into the evolution of that political clarity for you, especially connecting it to growing up in India?
My husband and I have close ties with my family in India. My early politicising happened growing up in Mumbai where you see an ocean of poverty and misery, and a sliver of wealthy society. My parents were part of the sandwiched middle class, where we were not well-off or wealthy, but as children, my sister and I didn’t want anything because my parents worked long hours to maintain our economic stability. Coming to the US was the second step of the politicisation process, as I naively expected – because this is the richest country in the world – that you wouldn’t see the kind of widespread problems that weren’t solved in India. Still, you’re seeing massive, massive problems remaining unsolved on the basis of capitalism, such as malnutrition, the rates of anemia among women in India.
But in the US, you see, in a different way and to a different magnitude, problems of poverty, under-funding of services like public transit and education, and racism and oppression in society, and all that combined helped me reach the conclusions I reached. Basically, it was that a lot of what we’re seeing is connected to the system of capitalism itself, and you can’t find answers to these questions by nationalising the context, but understanding that as long as you have a class-based society, you are bound to have this kind of exploitation, the consolidation of wealth among the very few. These individual statistics tell you the story of a complete failure of capitalism, despite 21st century technological advancements. If you look at it logically, you’ll see that we need a fundamental shift.
Of course, any experience of growing up in India is also not removed from the question of caste itself, which is also tied to the overall question of oppression, so growing up in a Brahmin family, one of the first debates that I had in my life involved arguing against my grandfather trying to get me to accept caste differences, rejecting the disrespectful way in which he addressed the young Dalit girl who came to do household chores in their home, and rejecting the idea that she was any different than me even though she was the same age as me. These experiences, I share not in any way to express them as unique, but precisely the opposite, to help relate to millions of young people in India who probably have a similar feeling, but maybe feel that they are the only one. No, you’re not the only one. Millions of young people worldwide are understanding that this society isn’t working for us.
With COVID-19, as with every other capitalist horror story, the political-economic narrative seems to be the same – liberal democrats self-congratulate for minimally moving the needle on public policy, and the right-wing boils policy down to individual responsibility. We see this neoliberal pessimism masquerading as pragmatism and conservative austerity feigning to be populism rinse and repeat. How do we break this cycle, especially if Left politicians use right-wing excuses to justify failings?
You see this globally in some shape or form under capitalism, but in the US, Republicans and Democrats as representatives of the two-wings of capital have enjoyed relative stability where the right-wing is more blatantly pro-capitalist and anti-worker, and the Democrats also serve Wall Street interests but have different rhetoric and allow crumbs here and there to maintain the idea of stability, so as not to allow revolts. What has changed, I would say even dramatically, over the Obama era is that a lot of the younger generations in the US are simply not buying that this is the best you can have in politics.
Remember, there was a televised discussion in which a young DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] member asked [US House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi about capitalism and she says so unabashedly, “Listen, this is a capitalist society.” They are unabashed representatives of capitalist interest, and there’s no hope out of this unless the socialist left takes upon itself the monumental and historic task of putting forward a new party for working people. What Socialist Alternative has done in Seattle has shown a small example of that. I did not run as a Democrat. I ran as an independent socialist, and we have seen that it can work.
I want to you to shine light on your political strategy. For measures in Seattle such as 15 Now, Tax Amazon, and recently the TRIPS waiver resolution, you get the support of 400 local, national and international organisations, pass them at the City Council, and push them forward to gain national mileage. Can you speak about this strategy, how you have seen it play out, and what impact it has had?
This political strategy very importantly relates to your earlier question about how we can break out of the stranglehold of Republicans and Democrats where working people are not really represented by either. Obviously, it has a lot to do with the fact that we ran independent of the Democratic establishment, and that’s not to make a symbolic statement. Actually, if you are part of the Democratic party, you would not be able to accomplish what we have accomplished in our office. As I said, it’s not just about taking a political position and having that enshrined in ice for the rest of time, but relentlessly fighting to build movements and win victories for the working class. At the end of the day, the biggest legacy that we would have left from our City Council work – we have been seven-and-a-half years in office – is the emboldening of working people through organising and winning concrete victories. I’m not here for navel-gazing purposes. This is about proving to people that this is the strategy we need to go forward and actually build a society of the kind that would work for us, and not to mention ensure the planet’s survival.
When we won a $15/hour minimum wage, we won it precisely through the kind of activist strategy you’re describing. We took office, immediately launched the 15 Now grassroots movement, and organised ordinary people, workers and progressive labour unions. We held rallies, marched on the streets, and brought hundreds of workers to City Hall, which used to be this ivory tower. Most people didn’t even know who the nine council members were. The City Council was completely dissociated from the lives of ordinary people, and we shifted that entirely, organising 15 Now action conferences, where we brought in thousands of ordinary people not just to listen to speeches by a few speakers but to debate the actual priorities of the movement and vote on them democratically and act on them collectively. We brought real accountability to the leaders of the movement themselves by striving for rank-and-file democracy. That’s how we won 15 Now, and that’s how we won Tax Amazon, which is a tax on big business to fund affordable housing and Green New Deal projects, because we had clarity on the tactical approach needed. How do you force a City Council that’s 8 Democrats and 1 Socialist, where I’m a “Yes” vote on all these things but should have to be able to turn a City Council that’s full of Democrats who are opposed to what we want on Day 1, to supporting 15 Now with a unanimous vote, Tax Amazon with a majority vote? We organised a ballot initiative. We collected tens of thousands of signatures each time, and that became a credible threat against the City Council – if they didn’t vote yes, we were going to take this issue directly to the voters and win an even stronger measure, and it’s that which forced big business and their council members to concede.
Can you speak about Socialist Alternative, clarifying how the organisation’s politics and tactics meaningfully differ from others such as Justice Democrats, DSA and the Democratic party?
Socialist Alternative is an organisation of social and economic justice activists throughout the country. We have branches nationwide, and as I said, we are part of an international movement called International Socialist Alternative. Our sister organisations are on many continents. For example, the Socialist Party of Ireland is our sister organisation.
What we believe is that the problems facing humanity – whether it’s the exploitation of workers, or the oppression of women, the Black community in the US, or lower-caste and Dalit people in India, and not to mention the climate crisis – none of these problems can actually be addressed on the basis of capitalism, and we need a fundamental shift. The kind of society that will be able to solve these problems necessarily has to be one in which resources, and decisions made about those resources and wealth, has to be in the hands of the majority of workers. That’s socialism in the way we define it, which is a society that’s able to harness the incredible wealth, creativity and resources of humanity and our planet, to deliver high standards of living for everybody in a sustainable manner. Making this abstract idea concrete is not going to happen without fighting to take the commanding heights of the economy, the biggest 200 corporations, into democratic public ownership by workers. We don’t have any hope of solving or beginning to solve the climate crisis unless the fossil fuel industry is taken over by workers so that we stop drilling, and begin the retooling of the economy towards clean, renewable energy.
To give you a scary statistic, despite historically reduced energy usage during the pandemic year – people weren’t flying, which is a big source of carbon emissions and so on – the biggest 60 banks globally underwrote nearly $4 trillion’s worth of new fossil fuel projects. I mean, there is no end in sight under capitalism. So, Socialist Alternative stands apart from many other Left organisations where we are very clear that taking the top corporations into democratic public ownership by workers is a necessary component of where we need to go.
Having dealt with Amazon and other large corporations in the Seattle area, you well know about the relentlessness of capital. From fielding candidates against your movement to the recent recall effort, can you tell me about the ways in which right-wing forces have interfered with you electorally, and personally?
From the moment we took office – we won our first election in November of 2013, and I took office in January 2014 – it was clear that big business and the Democratic party establishment assumed that I would either sellout and come over to their side, or remain principled but ineffective, marginalised and silenced. Neither of those things happened. That’s why I think it’s important that the lessons from our work in Seattle are shared widely. We have shown that it’s possible, and necessary, to remain principled and unwaveringly in support of working-class interests and the interests of the marginalised communities, at the same time not getting marginalised but forcing the Democratic establishment, which controls the entire city, with socialist politics.
With one seat on the City Council, we have forced the entire political establishment to reckon with the demands that we were fighting for. We have to recognise the latent power that exists when we get organised with the clarity that big business and their representatives are not on our side. That’s the approach we have used consistently and it’s no surprise that in the years that we have been in office, we have been under constant attack by big business and the Democratic establishment in many, many different ways.
I have lost count of the lawsuits and ethics complaints against my office and me personally, including a complaint about using City Hall resources to print leaflets and posters for the movement – which is completely legal, and of course, we do that proudly. As far as I’m concerned, taxpayer money should be used to benefit the majority of working people who are suffering even though it’s a wealthy city. But it’s unbelievable, the lengths to which the ruling class has gone in order to undermine us.
In 2019, when we were running for our second reelection, the third on the whole that we were winning despite the onslaught of opposition, including Amazon and other corporations, that spent a lot of money, and sent mailers to the voters with overtly racist and sexist attacks. The familiar “angry brown woman” trope was used. The Democratic establishment in the city, which comprises self-described “Progressive Democrats,” a supermajority of women and majority women of colour, go around all over media saying, “I agree with the policies Sawant stands for; she just doesn’t know how to build relationships.” We should recognise these personal attacks and “civility politics” as actual political disagreements with the policies I’m fighting for, and the approach I use. I don’t rely on insider negotiations and relationships and then come out and tell the people who rely on me, saying, “Oh you know, I talked to these other council members.” We’re not going to win $15; we have to settle for $11/hour. This is not a hypothetical example, but is actually the pressure that my office was under, but we never backed down because after that it’s a slippery slope towards completely losing your objective of representing ordinary people.
The only way you can withstand the relentless pressure is – and the pressure to bend never ends, and the attacks never go away – so you have to be very clear that these are not personality attacks but political attacks against working people having the courage to fight for a different kind of society. The only way you can stand strong and win elections and all these victories if you empower yourself with the movement. My office empowers the movements, but the movements also empower my office, and it’s the movements that the establishment fears.
Seattle was an important site of the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s murder. As it fast becomes fashionable for Democrats – I know tangentially because I live in New Jersey and the New York City mayoral race is on – to disavow “Defund the Police”, three Democratic Socialists recently let an increased funding Bill pass by 1 vote, how do you ensure that you’re not only standing by it without losing political capital, but also implementing these defunding programs?
The primary role that the police fulfills in a capitalist and imperialist context is upholding the interests of the state, so it’s no surprise – I mean, it’s completely scandalous, but it’s no surprise that the peaceful protests of the Black Lives Matter movement came under so much repression. In addition to Minneapolis, Seattle was an important site of action, and you had tens of thousands of courageous people going out to protest night after night for weeks on end. It was so ironic that these people were out there protesting police violence and what were they met with? Police violence. I mean, the amount of tear gas, rubber bullets, and sonic and ultrasonic weapons – it’s insane, the weaponry that was targeted at these peaceful protests. Under the pressure of street protests, you saw Democrats make all kinds of promises that they walked right back once the protests subsided. So, how do you actually win in this context and keep building the movement?
First of all, we have to understand, 1) that protests are extremely powerful, and 2) the kind of multiracial working-class unity that you saw in the BLM protests is what put fear in the heart of the ruling class. That’s why you had all these empty promises. The promises were empty, but the fact that they felt pressured to make those promises is to be noted. The establishment fears the kind of massive unity that had 26 million Americans coming out to the streets. This was the largest protest in US history. It was tremendous, but at the same time, we have to draw sober lessons such as that the victories won aren’t commensurate with the protests. That shows you we can’t build a protest movement for a few weeks, then think that the politicians will do the right thing; you can only win victories under the pressure of an organised movement. The other sober lesson also is that there needs to be genuine discussion and debate about how to organise the movements themselves, and how you actually build movements with rank-and-file democracy, where movement leaders are held accountable.
It’s not a coincidence that the Amazon Tax was won in Seattle at the heat of the protests last year, by the way. It ended up becoming one of the major victories of the nationwide BLM movement, even though it was not the most obvious BLM demand. We got tremendous support from the rank-and-file protestors of the BLM movement, and tremendous support in the black and brown community, for taxing Amazon to fund affordable housing. They understand clearly that racism comes in many forms and is tied to economic exploitation such as lack of affordable housing, which hits the black community the hardest. So, we have tremendous support among the rank-and-file of the movement, but several of the leaders of the movement didn’t agree with us, and didn’t think we should be campaigning for “Tax Amazon”. Some of them even said this isn’t a Black issue. We disagreed with them and said, You know what? Ordinary people will decide for themselves. If we don’t get support for our ballot petition, then we know that they don’t support it. But it was incredible. We collected 20,000 signatures for our Tax Amazon petition in 20 days – thousand signatures a day, at the protests.
Working people from black and brown communities stated clearly that they were supporting the Amazon tax, but my point is that Socialist Alternative and the movement had to have this debate without taking the word of some self-appointed leaders – we instead go to the rank-and-file. That kind of empowerment is necessary in order to win victories.
What are some policies/initiatives that you and Socialist Alternative are working on? What are issues in Seattle and nationally in the US that you see as animating socialist organizers at the grassroots, and what is your strategy to win them?
Obviously, we are fighting against the recall attack on our office. This month, we launched the Kshama Solidarity Campaign, which is a campaign against the recall. It’s really, really important that socialists and the Left nationally stand with us, because as we know, this is not an attack against me personally or just my office, but a chilling attack on protests, labour movements, and the socialist left. If we allow the ruling class to succeed in recalling me, they will use it as a template to go after other sections of our movement, and attack all movements.
Have you received any vocal support from elected representatives in the US?
In Seattle, we have over 16 labour unions standing with us, which is extremely important because labour unions and members represent the interests of the working class that we have consistently stood for, including the $15/hour minimum wage. Nationally, we have the support of labour leaders such as Sara Nelson, who is the elected president of the Flight Attendants Association. We have the support of Jane McAlevey who is a prominent left labour organiser, and also of Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist and activist. But we need to keep building support. No matter which city they live in, we need Left leaders and Socialists to stand with us publicly. We need financial contributions as well because, obviously, billionaires are not supporting this campaign. The recall campaign and the Supreme Court ruling in favour of it going forward is a shameful attack on the democratic rights of the voters, and an attempt by the wealthy to have a do-over of election results they did not like. With all kinds of false charges against me, the recall campaign is of fundamentally undemocratic character, and it’s not just us saying this – the managers of the campaign itself are very open about it. They say things like they don’t want the recall election to be on the November ballot because the November ballot has a high voter turnout.
This is basically garden variety voter suppression tactics, and others have pointed out, the more that housing becomes unaffordable in Seattle, the more effective gerrymandering tactics will be, because working class people are pushed out of the city. I hear from so many working people who say I really support what you stand for and I’ll march for you, but I can’t vote for you because I’ve been priced out of the district. The district that my Council office presides over, is in the City core, and it’s gentrifying like nobody’s business. We know this is happening in metropolitan areas throughout the country.
So, all of the activists who are fighting for affordable housing and against gentrification need to stand with us, because ultimately what the ruling class is trying to do is roll back not only the $15/hour and Amazon Tax victories, but also the renters rights victories we have won over the last seven years. While we’re fighting against the recall, we’re not running a solely defensive campaign – we’re continuing also to fight on the demands of working people.
Last Wednesday, for example, I held a big press conference with over 40 people, announcing the launch of our fight for rent control in Seattle, to make sure rents don’t increase beyond the inflation rate. Rents are insane here, and already, since January, landlords have begun increasing rent. So, we’re fighting for rent control and stronger renters rights as a whole. Also, we know we’re going to need to build a nationwide movement to cancel Covid debt. It’s scary, the tsunami of evictions that are going to happen unless we fight to cancel the debt, for which we have to be crystal clear. This crisis is not of our making. This is capitalism’s crisis, so big banks, corporate landlords, big corporations and the wealthy should pay for this crisis, and not working people.