A tale of two May Days: peaceful demonstrations followed by scenes of chaos.

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Bikes, meant to aid in crowd control, sometimes made the scene messier during the 2015 May Day demonstrations.

Seattle’s May 1st, 2015 began with an optimistic Mayor Ed Murray in Cal Anderson park, evolved into a tightly organized permitted mid-day march into downtown and, finally, became a chaotic and, at times, violent demonstration on Capitol Hill.

The lasting images of the day will almost certainly be of police tossing flash grenades and masked protestors toppling streets signs and dumpsters. In the coming days and weeks, the city and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) will have to answer: Who started what and was the police response appropriate?

In the week before this Friday, the mayor, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, and Captain Chris Fowler, pledged the city was prepared. In a press briefing last Monday, Fowler said the department would model its tactics after last year’s May Day, which was largely peaceful and uneventful. The biggest concern, it seemed, was how badly traffic would slow.

As the city’s leaders spoke confidently in public, SPD’s bicycle officers brushed up on their crowd management training in a facility in Tukwila. The bike force, developed by SPD Sgt. Jim Dyment, has been the staple of SPD’s approach to events like May 1st and last fall’s Ferguson protests since 2000, officers using their bikes as transportation, protection and blockades. “Our main tactic,” said Detective Drew Fowler (no relation to Capt. Fowler), “will be to put ourselves and our bikes between the demonstrators and property.”

Before Friday night, Seattle had seen few violent demonstrations in the last couple of years. Det. Fowler credited the bike program as well better de-escalation training and O’Toole’s “supercharged” efforts to reform the department.

Of course, a lot has changed over the last year. A series of highly publicized incidents, including the most recent death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, has sparked hundreds of protests across the country, ranging from peaceful gatherings to riots. The events on Capitol Hill Friday night resembled the latter.

In a press briefing on the morning of the 1st, before any marches had begun, Murray pledged support for peaceful protestors, calling the demonstrations a “healthy” reaction to a “failed system.” He also acknowledged that, due to the State of Emergency in Baltimore, things could be more volatile in Seattle. But Murray showed great faith in Chief O’Toole’s preparations for her first Seattle May Day: “Her level of expertise is unprecedented and the level of training is much higher than last year.”

Because of concerns that 2015 could turn aggressive, Lieutenant Bryan Grenon said SPD had raised the number of on-duty officers during demonstrations. Although he couldn’t say exactly, he estimated the bike force at around 135, up from closer to 100 in years past. Capt. Fowler said earlier in the week that no officer could take a vacation on May 1st.

The increased force was especially obvious early in the day when, at MLK memorial park in the Central District, about 100 people gathered for a “Black Lives Matter” protest. As the gathering began marching toward Judkins Park, the police to demonstrator ratio was close to 1:1.

Although the gathering was critical of the country’s police, several demonstrators, including a man who called himself “Wandering Joe” and a woman named Debra Santos, said they were optimistic that Chief O’Toole and the federal monitor were improving SPD for the better.

Judkins Park was the starting point for the annual sanctioned worker and immigrant rights march. The march was made up of a large number of organizations with varying messages: Casa Latina, SEIU 775, $15 Now, Transit Riders Union, Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees and Communities of Color and more.

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.