Losing the Moral High Ground, One Molotov Cocktail at a Time

You can make an argument for breaking windows to protest capitalism. But you can’t make one for throwing Molotov cocktails.

May Day 2016. Photo by Casey Jaywork

Scenes from Sunday night’s May Day anti-capitalist march: A young woman reaches over her comrades’ shoulders and smacks a riot cop on the helmet with a dowel. An officer in a bike helmet and mountain-biking armor sprays the crowd of black-clothed protesters with a stream of orange pepper spray. Police lob blast ball after blast ball into the crowd, injuring several people and sending one man to the ER for surgery. What look like rocks, bricks, and glass bottles sail through the air before landing amid a line of bike and riot police. A fist-sized object sails through the air, smashing a head-sized hole in the glass windowpane of a Bank of America.

And then the situation ignited, literally. SW’s reporter on the scene, Casey Jaywork, says he looked back and saw something on fire on the pavement, behind the line of police following the march. It was a Molotov cocktail, according to police. Yes—an improvised firebomb. The Seattle Police Department says one officer was hit by one, though not burned.

Last week we published online an interview with anarchist and scholar Shon Meckfessel. He suggested that one rationale for May Day’s reliable vandalism is that smashing the window of a Bank of America is a kind of public theater aimed at rousing on-the-fence dissidents. Protesters at the march claimed that by eliciting a heavy-handed police response, they’re exposing the brutality which is integral, but usually just implicit, in policing.

We’re not sure if we accept these arguments, but in a world as fraught with the casualties of capitalism as this one, we’re not quite able to reject them, either. Mega-corporations and their coffers really have subverted our democracy. There are compelling arguments that the scope of our culture’s social corruption does call for extreme measures. “[The protesters’] bigger concern is that a huge number of people are very desperate and frustrated about the severity of a lot of the problems that we’re facing, and don’t feel like there’s space to act,” Meckfessel told us. “That’s the real issue, and that’s who this is addressed to” as a political gesture.

But as public defenders of May Day vandalism never tire of saying, there’s a big difference between smashing a window and smashing someone’s face.

As such, we’re unable to find any justification for the protesters who on Sunday lobbed heavy, flammable projectiles at police. These actions seem motivated purely by the machismo thrill of “putting wings on pigs,” as May Day marchers put it last year. This shit needs to stop. Now.

Symbolic or petty violence against riot cops is one thing. Earnestly trying to injure them is quite another. Both as residents of Seattle and its chroniclers, we condemn the use of firebombs and heavy projectiles against police.

That’s not to say the cops did a good job, either. As we wrote last week, it’s possible for both sides to be wrong. Seattle police were wrong on Sunday when they repeatedly launched blast balls into the middle of—not behind or next to, as dictated by SPD training—marchers. One ball tore open the face of photojournalist Sam Levine, sending him to ER surgery. Our reporter witnessed police pepper-spray protesters for not running away quickly enough. Videographer Andy Ribaudo, who was filming but not protesting, was pepper-sprayed twice by police. The second time, he says, “When the SPD was asking people to back off and as I was just filming, one of the officers had just pulled out the pepper spray without warning and just sprayed it directly into my face. And then went right and sprayed everybody else.” Ribaudo says street medics had to wash “chunks of pepper spray in my eye.”

We’ve written before about the sometimes-brutal tactics Seattle police employ to contain protests they believe dangerous. We’ll continue to note, for instance, that as a small, well-trained army, Seattle police should be held to higher standards of conduct than a motley band of protesters. But SPD’s brutality does not justify attempts at seriously assaulting police officers, any more than marchers breaking windows justifies police violence. “They started it” is a child’s defense, whether the belligerent party articulating it is clad in black or blue.

As of press time, no one appears to have been permanently injured in Sunday’s annual orgy of violence, though Levine will have a scar. Unfortunately that is due more to luck than restraint. And if this unrestrained ritual continues year after year, that luck is sure to run out.

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