As I rode the rumbling, creaky 49 bus up to Seattle Central Community College to witness firsthand the annual Seattle May Day anti-capitalist protest on Capitol Hill, I hoped that this year would be different, yet couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that events would play out exactly as everyone expected. Arriving at my destination to be greeted by a growing crowd of demonstrators, massive police presence, the relentless drone of news helicopters overhead, and various real life superheroes mugging for the camera, did little to assuage my reservations about what was surely to come. Despite two peaceful May Day marches earlier in the day, the anti-capitalist protest has a history of exploding into violence and mayhem. This year was no different, and quickly devolved into a display of isolated rioting, along with the completely expected overreaction by police. Nearly a week later I’m still trying to understand what, if any, message was conveyed by this increasingly cliche annual public display. Is there not a better way?
Don’t get me wrong, I think the right to peacefully assemble is one of our most important and empowering freedoms. Many people will happily vote, sign online petitions, and engage in minimal effort forms of slacktivism, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Fewer people will attend public hearings on various issues, volunteer in their communities, or attend protests and marches for the causes they believe in. In my experience it has always been exhilarating to meet other individuals in the real world who not only care about the same causes, but are willing to publicly stand up and help to spread awareness about those issues. Such assembly is vastly more rewarding and uniting than getting yet another hashtag to trend on Twitter. But when the “peaceful” part of the right to peaceful assembly is discarded, so is much of the intended message. Some people would argue that violent protests are what draws attention to certain issues, and in some extreme cases they might have a point. In the case of Seattle’s May Day protests, violence seems like the only story. None of the news media outlets seemed to asking about the issues the marches hoped to raise awareness about, only the potential for violence.
Speaking of issues, what were the causes highlighted by this year’s circus? I witnessed a lone gentleman handing out flyers outlining the history of May Day. I saw a few anti-capitalist signs and some signs about police brutality, but anarchy symbols seemed to be the most popular “message” by far. Talk about a completely squandered opportunity. There are so many vital current issues which could and should have been the focus of this protest: economic inequality, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), Shell using the Port of Seattle to launch their Arctic oil drilling efforts, corporate substudies… and countless others! I didn’t hear a peep, see any petitions, or even a single flyer about about any of these issues. I witnessed no discernible education or outreach efforts of any kind. To me, that in itself is the most damning indictment against this particular group of demonstrators (who, for the record, were overwhelmingly white and in their 20s). I remember being impressed by how many WTO and Occupy protesters seemed fairly educated about their issues and wanted to raise awareness. A disturbing number of these May Day protesters seemed to only be concerned with playing on their phones, taking selfies, and scrawling anarchy symbol graffiti. Much to the disapproval of almost everyone in attendance, a few open carry protesters were even in the crowd. At least a dozen confused passersby stopped to ask me what was going on. I tried my best to offer explanations, focusing on the reasons I was there, but ended up conceding that I didn’t think most people at the protest really knew for sure themselves.
After ongoing fallout from a damning DOJ investigation into the Seattle Police Department, a new mayor and police chief, and a relatively restrained response by the SPD to the protest last year, everyone was curious to see how it would go this year. There was a massive build up of police forces in set staging areas just beyond the perimeter of the rally at the college. This was, by no means, the SPD’s first rodeo. Over the years they have amassed quite a supply of equipment to respond to such events. Their tactics have evolved too, usually deploying a very effective strategy which utilizes bicycles and mobility. The bikes serve two purposes: they can be used as makeshift barricades to herd and isolate protesters from the greater force of police trailing behind, and they are used to help wear down the energy of a walking mass of demonstrators. The the entire block of the SPD’s west precinct, located three blocks from where the protesters had gathered, was on complete lockdown. So far, it was business as usual.
Even though this was an unpermitted march, Mayor Murray had conceded that it would be allowed to proceed, and even hinted that access to the downtown retail core could be allowed. Everything changed minutes into the actual march. Despite what many people claim, from what I saw it was a small handful of protesters breaking car windows, vandalizing, and throwing things at the trailing cops that caused the initial escalation. Instead of immediately arresting these individuals, as usual, the police quickly took a volatile situation and ignited it–lashing out against the entire march. The all too familiar scene unfolded from there. Pepper spray soaked clothes and faces. Round rubber balls were shot. Gas canisters and deafening “blast balls” were (against SPD policy) deployed directly into the largely peaceful crowd of people.
From there the mob was pushed in a loop around the hill, with some protesters throwing debris at police, and cops firing non-lethal weapons seemingly indiscriminately into the march. In the end, by the latest count, 16 people were arrested, while 9 police officers and countless civilians were injured. As Jello Biafra observed during the WTO protests:
“It only takes one rogue attacking Starbucks to taint a whole protest, and it only takes one rogue cop to fuck shit up even worse.”
Some things never seem to change. Apparently the lesson above is one that the protesters and police of Seattle have repeatedly failed to learn. So what should be done moving forward? There is already talk of just fencing the college off next year. That would mean access to Cal Anderson Park a block away would probably need be restricted as well. Should citizens take to trying to preserve the peace between protesters and cops, similar to what we saw during the protests in Baltimore? Personally, I think the best solution for individuals who just want to break stuff and put their rights above everyone else’s is to simply stay the hell away. The only real message this protest in particular seems to produce is the undeniable fact that we live in a police state.
If that is indeed the intended message, then I see little benefit in diverting more funds from the city budget to the police so they can buy more toys to be used against city residents every year, while getting what is essentially nice overtime bonuses in the process. To the average Washington citizen, watching at home as the mayhem unfolds on the news, the police are the ones viewed as the heroes, not protesters breaking things. These acts of violent civil disobedience, far from making people sympathetic to you and your causes, are in fact helping to maintain the status quo and continued militarization of the police at this point. If those results are what violent protesters want, then congratulations, you are actively and intentionally contributing to the problem. The volunteers out cleaning up the graffiti and mess the next morning quietly sent a more powerful message than the march which took place the evening before.