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

Crosscut archive image.

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.

Crosscut archive image.
Dancers led the annual labor march into downtown. Photo: Dan Bassett

Diakonda Gurning, one of the organizers of the annual march, called the wide range of voices an example of democracy. “These people are the core activists,” he said. “They know why they’re here. Our causes are much more connected than they’ve been before.”

The march left Judkins Park, followed Jackson Street and Boren Avenue into downtown where a rally was held in front of the federal courthouse. As promised, police lined the edges of the march, pausing in front of storefronts along the way. As speakers called for boycotts of produce growers like Sakuma and Driscoll’s, the energized and peaceful crowd dissipated.

The difference between the sanctioned labor march and the un-permitted “anti-capitalist” gathering at Seattle Central Community was immediately obvious. The colorful dancers and Dixieland bands from earlier in the day were replaced by maybe 400 mostly young people in black, wearing bandanas, gas masks and Guy Fawkes costumes. Two men, one named Shane Butts, the other simply calling himself “Rogue Reflections,” were openly carrying firearms, promising to protect 1st Amendment rights in whatever way necessary.

The evening march unfolded organically: no one, including the three or four protestors who led the group away from Seattle Central up Broadway, could say where they were heading. Decisions to turn or walk straight were spontaneous. The police, dressed in protective gear, followed.

When asked how they would proceed, one officer shrugged. “We’ll follow them around all night if we need to,” she said.

After doing a loop back to Broadway, the evening suddenly turned violent near Dick’s Drive-In. An officer could be seen lying on the ground, underneath his bike. The other officers quickly formed a circle around him and threw several deafening flash grenades.

What set off the conflict depends on whom you ask. One young protestor named Eric (he didn’t want to give his last name) said that “there were individuals who deliberately provoked the police by throwing street signs and trash cans.”

However protestor Nicholas Johnson, a Seattle-based audio producer, said the police officer simply fell off his bike, prompting his fellow officers to become defensive.

A third man, Thumper, said the officers started throwing the flash grenades out of nowhere, although Thumper would go on to say that he "absolutely" supported using violence as a means to get a message across.

Crosscut archive image.
16 people were arrested and three officers were injured Friday. Photo: Dan Bassett

Regardless, the next two hours were a chaotic game of cat and mouse between demonstrators and the police. Officers formed lines with their bikes, shouting in unison, “Move back!” as they advanced. But on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood with oddly angled streets and alleys, the officers’ strategy to quarter off the protestors was not immediately successful. Lines of bike cops desperately tried to stay ahead of and direct the loudening marchers, using more flash grenades as well as pepper spray and tear gas. But, like the demonstrators themselves, it was hard to see a plan for controlling the escalating scene. When asked what came next, one SWAT officer simply shook his head. “We follow them around until they disperse, I guess,” he said.

Somehow, the police cornered the majority of protestors in the Seattle Central courtyard where the evening began. And as quickly as tempers flared, the desire to riot seemed to evaporate. A trashcan was burned and several protestors spray-painted the community college campus, but by 10 p.m. the night was over. Sixteen people were arrested and three officers sent to the hospital with minor injuries.

Crosscut archive image.

In a statement, Murray came out strongly against the violent demonstrations. “Tonight,” it read, “we saw assaults on police officers and senseless property damage, which cannot be tolerated.”

In a late-night press conference, O’Toole and Murray stood by SPD’s handling of the situation. “It became violent and destructive and we had to make a move," said O’Toole, according to King 5. "I think [officers] were very professional about how they handled the situation."

Not everyone is so supportive. The Seattle Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) accused SPD officers of singling out legal observers for harassment and arrest. A statement from NLG read, “It is completely unacceptable to single out legal observers for arrest and such conduct constitutes a direct assault on core values of a free society.

One Crosscut user shared a video of an arrest made on Capitol Hill, calling it “brutal and ridiculous.”

In the messiness of Friday night, finding a consensus on how the events played out was nearly impossible. But O’Toole pledged she will attempt to hash out those details in a review of the department’s use of force. Regardless of what she finds, however, O’Toole’s first May Day surely did not go as she hoped.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

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