May Day 2016: Pepper Spray, Blast Balls and Molotov Cocktails (!) in SoDo

A first person account of this year’s May Day melee.

Photo by Casey Jaywork

From 6:30 to 9:00 or so last night, anti-capitalist protesters and police sparred from Westlake to SODO. At times, the fighting became intense: marchers threw full plastic water bottles, glass bottles, rocks, and Molotov cocktails (!) at police. The police directed the march like a pipe directing water through Downtown and SODO’s streets, all the while liberally applying pepper spray, coordinated bicycle-shoving, and blast balls on protesters.

Unlike in previous years, the anti-capitalist march began in Westlake plaza, which had been home to a permitted “Solidarity Concert” earlier in the day. Many dozens of black bloc marchers gathered in a circle in the plaza, partly fencing themselves in with wide banners proclaiming “Whoever you elect, WE’RE UNGOVERNABLE” and “FIGHT BACK!”

The march began with the banging of dowel rods (from which hung black flags) on the ground and chanting: “All cops are bastards, ACAB!” The protesters took to the street and immediately ran into Seattle police in Darth Vader riot gear, who blocked the marchers from moving northeast.

Standing at the front, between the line of riot police and the front of the march, the first piece of violence I saw was a young woman who bonked one of the riot cops on the helmet with a dowel rod. Police immediately responded with pepper spray across the front of the crowd.

Things went downhill, figuratively and literally, from there. Per usual, marchers found some windows to smash downtown. Police directed the march north and then south, ultimately ending in the Costco parking lot in SODO, followed by a tired trek along the sidewalk back to downtown, with bike cops riding alongside the whole way.

Because I generally stayed at the back of the march when police were hustling marchers down 4th Ave past SODO, I’m able to report that the receiving end of their use of force is not pleasant. Worse than the prospect of physical injury, at least for me, was the infuriating impotence I felt when I had to literally plead with an officer not to spray me or to please stop shoving me. It does not feel good to be helpless. On the other hand, I had moments of human interaction with SPD: one officer who picked up and offered to give back a phone he thought I’d dropped, and another who, even while charging and shoving me with her bicycle, seemed to lower her impersonal mask of professionalism and urge me to back up for my own sake.

Police say nine people were arrested, five officers were non-seriously injured, and they have no idea how many march attendees were injured. Several journalists were injured, including me. A blast ball exploded by my foot, burning off the hair around my ankle. It was pretty gnarly.

But I was quite lucky (even though I’m also typing this with a sprained finger from getting knocked over by SPD) compared to photographer Sam Levine, who had to get surgery after taking what appears to be blastball shrapnel to the face. He’s fine but will likely have a scar, according to his Twitter handle.

Last week, I spoke with anarchist and scholar Shon Meckfessel about the possible rationales for the kind of vandalism seen on May Day. He suggested that many protesters feel that this kind of destructive spectacle is a way of rousing (some of) their peers to action.

Protesters I spoke with corroborated Meckfessel’s claim. “I’m here because capitalism is killing millions,” said one young man who wanted to remain anonymous. “[This march is] kind of symbolic.” He pointed out that this is only one of many strategies for effecting change. Still, he stood by the march’s tactics: “When people see others outside [in this march]…it can convince them to question things.”

Another anonymous young man told me, “People don’t break windows just for fun. It’s a tactic for hurting the profits of big corporations.” And property destruction is not the same thing as violence against another person, he points out. “Why is breaking property such a sin,” he asked, but leaving the homeless to die in our streets is accepted? The values that place profits above human beings, he said, are evidence of the “incredibly unjust society” we inhabit. “It’s sort of political theater,” he continued. “A performance in a political space that shows people who the police really serve.

“They’re standing in front of the windows of banks and corporations.”

After the march, Mayor Ed Murray and SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole spoke to reporters outside Harborview Hospital, where they said they’d just visited two officers who’d been injured in some way. Murray thanked the department for its “restraint” and “incredible courage in protecting both individuals and property…I want to thank all the individuals who earlier today [that is, before the anti-capitalism march] engaged in a really constructive protest,” he said.

O’Toole added her thoughts: “The Seattle police department works hard to protect the First Amendment rights of those in our city…Unfortunately tonight we had some violence, we had some property damage, we had officers attacked…so we had to take action. Thankfully no one has been seriously injured…but one officer was injured by a Molotov cocktail…We’ve said all along we will march all day around town with people as long as they’re peaceful.

“Once assaults started and property destruction, we took action. It’s that simple,” she said.

Frank Montoya, the FBI’s top G-Man in Seattle, said that his bureau had worked with Seattle police to seize smoke bombs that would have been transported from Eastern Washington to the march: “We went out there to talk [to] the individual about potential threats against law enforcement here during the protest tonight. We were able to retrieve some items and have a fruitful discussion…They were possibly incendiary devices, perhaps similar to some of the things we saw tonight…Smoke bombs, perhaps, and other items of that nature.”

Photo by Casey Jaywork

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