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Peaceful May Day march overshadowed by ‘black bloc’ protests

Peaceful May Day marchers in 2014. Credit: scottlum vis Flickr

The once-a-year celebration of May Day in Seattle has for years now been two days in one — the permitted march for human and labor rights in the early afternoon and the gathering of “anti-capitalist” protestors as the sun goes down. While the festive atmosphere of the former is celebrated on the day of May 1, it is the latter that dominates the news cycles, City Council committee meetings and press conferences for weeks before and after the event.

So it was in advance of Sunday. And after another tense evening march — complete with broken glass, fireworks, bottles, pepper spray, blast balls and batons — so it shall almost certainly be in the days, weeks and months after.

Discussion of last year’s May Day seemed to have only just subsided. Following the chaotic 2015 evening on Capitol Hill, both community groups and the monitor charged with overseeing federal reform of the Seattle Police Department raised questions about the department’s management of demonstrations, reporting of officers’ use of force, and truthfulness. The scrutiny of police tactics was heightened this year because of the department’s precarious progress under the settlement agreement with the Department of Justice.

The day began at Judkins Park in the Central District, where representatives from groups like El Comite, Entre Hermanos, the Socialist Alternative and a slate of local and national unions gathered before marching a planned route through First Hill to the downtown courthouse. In the eyes of city officials, this is the demonstration upon which all demonstrations should be modeled. It is organized, well planned, festive and makes a clear point.

That point tends to focus on immigrant and labor rights, but as Pamela Navarro, a high school student who’s been marching in the May Day demonstration for five years, noted, it really rolls all basic human rights into one. “Immigrant rights are human rights,” she said. “It’s an inspiration.”

Roman Sontoyo, a cook in Seattle, said, thanks to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant position, this year’s protest had people “more mad.”

That may have been, but that anger did not get in the way of the march proceeding peacefully, as it has in recent years, ending with a concert and rally downtown. In a 4:30 press conference at the East Precinct police station, Assistant Seattle Police Chief Steve Wilske had little to say about the day. Nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

But the tone was already changing. Even before the immigration rally had finished at the courthouse, police could be seen donning heavier duty riot gear. Police presence in the blocks surrounding the protestors appeared much greater than in years past. News cameras drifted toward Westlake Park, in the heart of downtown, where this year’s “anti-capitalist” gathering began.

For weeks, social media posts had forecasted the intentions of the so-called “black bloc” protestors: where they would gather and, for some, what they hoped to see from the evening. In fact, the intentions were so well-known that FBI agent Frank Montoya Jr. said Sunday evening that the local branch of the bureau had served search warrants on several homes suspected of stockpiling “incendiary” objects for the march. No one was arrested.

In 2015, what chaos occurred was preceded by hours of wandering marches through Capitol Hill. That was not the case this year. Clashes between protestors and police sprouted within minutes of the black bloc protestors leaving Westlake. A barrier of police in heavy duty riot gear blocked protestors from heading east on Pike, into the shopping district, where windows have been smashed in past years. Several officers shot long streams of orange pepper spray. Soon thereafter, the air was sharp with pepper spray and tear gas, rubber bullets stained the road as they skipped across concrete, and shouts of “get back” from the police echoed for the rest of the evening.

This issue of police restricting protestors’ movement was a big point of concern after last year’s march. The Community Police Commission, Seattle’s civilian advisory committee on police reform, expressed in a letter to Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole: “A critical mass of participants and observers report marches and marchers being herded or directed away from their intended destinations, particularly downtown Seattle, often toward Capitol Hill,” read the letter. “This practice is experienced as frustrating the legitimate speech goals of the demonstration, and as elevating business interests downtown over the free speech rights of demonstrators.”

Leading up to this year’s May Day, Wilske told press that protestors would be allowed to walk wherever they pleased, so long as the march was peaceful. When asked why movement was restricted so quickly this year, SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb said protestors had been seen with weapons, including batons with spikes and fireworks, so the demonstration was no longer considered a peaceful protest. “Unfortunately, it got off on the wrong foot,” said Whitcomb.

Of course, not everyone saw it this way. Several representatives from the National Lawyers Guild, serving as “legal advisors” to the protests, called the restriction of movement a “blatant violation of first amendment rights.”

Despite several minor skirmishes, the protest was eventually allowed to proceed south on Second Avenue through downtown. Along the way, what conflict occurred was often the result of police attempting to move forward and protestors blocking their path.

But at about Second and James, the second major point of discussion from last year’s protest again came roaring to life: officer use of blast balls, the pocket sized grenades that resonate in your chest as they explode. After a Lieutenant ordered officers to deploy them to “move them south,” about 25 explosions could be heard.

Blast balls are a sensitive item because, while their intention is to simply scare people into moving this way or that, many have complained they do real and indiscriminate damage. Only officers trained in their use may throw blast balls and in advance of this year’s protest officers were given a sort of reminder training. Regardless, their use will almost certainly be a topic of discussion yet again, as several people reported injuries from their use.

Alex Kasheyev, a young Russian man not wearing the normal black balaclava garb of many of the protestors, walked with a heavy limp and showed off a large welt where he’d been struck with the cap of one of these blast balls. This reporter was struck with a piece of an exploding blast ball on the face.

After the most tense moments downtown, protestors were moved down fourth into SODO. The goal, said Lieutenant­­­ Philip Hay was to “tucker them out” in an area where there were few “financials” and other sensitive businesses might reside. It seemed to work. By the time the protestors reached Costco, the group was down to maybe fifty protestors. The group eventually walked home on the sidewalk.

By the end of the march, officers arrested nine people. Five officers were hurt, two of which were transported to Harborview medical center. It is unclear how many protestors were injured. In a press conference outside of Harborview, Mayor Ed Murray lauded the permitted protests while criticizing the “small group of individuals” he blamed for inciting violence. He said the Seattle Police Department used restraint, a point seconded by Chief O’Toole.

Still to be seen, though, is the wrap-up. In the fallout of last year’s May Day, the department was heavily criticized by the independent monitor for poor type II use of force reporting, the most common type at protests. When and why the order to use pepper spray or blast balls, wrote the monitor, was poorly documented. And interviews with subjects, aka protestors, were sparse and often inadequate. As a result, who was accountable for what proved difficult to prove.

Once again, the expectation should be much discussion about anti-capitalists and little about immigration rights.

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