At around 5 p.m. it started to sink in that this year's May Day might turn out to be an absolute treat.
Up until that point, the festivities had been more akin to an incredible Summer street festival than a protest. People were dressed like clowns, strangers were standing atop ledges and gleefully tossing free oranges and water to parched revelers, and children were eating tamales and mangos from sponsored food vendors. A man wearing a Statue of Liberty costume walking around on stilts waved a book with 15 emblazoned on it. A beautiful group of traditionally dressed dancers led the way from Judkins Park to Westlake Plaza downtown, spinning and twirling to the beat of groovy Latin drum rhythms the entire time.
El Comité and El Centro De La Raza, the two local Latin American rights groups that organized this first march of the day, managed to make talking about immigrant rights and stopping family-wrecking deportation the-most-fun-thing-you-could-be-doing on the first day of May. On an 81 degree day in sun-starved Seattle, it’s hard to compete for people’s attention. But to get people to march in your parade and think about the immigrant hunger strikes going on at the Northwest Detention Center, that’s a feat. It’s something the parade pulled off handily—almost every unwitting stranger the procession came into contact with was bewildered by the joyous mass of humanity passing by.
“We were going to the store to get dish soap when we saw all these cops and were like what the hell is this?” two young, white university students told me. When they took a second to orient themselves, their eyes lit up. “Oh awesome! Is this for the $15/hour campaign? Sign me up, we’re in.” The two then jumped to the front of the march, and proceeded to educate themselves about immigrant issues by chatting with the Latinos next to them for the following four blocks.
In that moment, I felt as though I were witnessing a civic wet dream. In many ways, I was.
The $15/Hour minimum wage campaign, an issue that started with fast food workers but quickly became a Latino and black rights issue as well by proxy, had reached groundswell that morning when Mayor Ed Murray somewhat unexpectedly announced his plan to make $15 a reality. By the time we reached Westlake Plaza and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant took the stage to deliver the capstone speech for the march, the crowd that had begun at Judkins had almost doubled.
“The proposal by the mayor today is a result of the direct pressure of our movement,” the socialist leader said as people clapped and cheered. While she went on to criticize the Mayor’s plan, which includes long phase-in periods for businesses and tip credits, Sawant did essentially declare victory, and the people in the crowd were ecstatic. When you step back for a moment, the speed at which the $15/hour mimimum wage movement spread is somewhat astounding. As outlandish as the proposal seemed at first, the momentum it achieved from its start as a Socialist Alternative issue to an actual proposal by our Democrat mayor has been breathtaking.
“This is the power of a unified worker movement,” Kshama Sawant said. Everyone in attendance looked around, nodded, and seemed like they couldn’t agree more. Then everyone went home on buses that had already been arranged for, and the police biked over to Starbucks for some drinks.
The Juvenile Detention Center on 12th Avenue had an almost 1 to 1 ratio of cops to black-clad “anti-capitalists” around 6:45 p.m. The protesters, whose signs announced their dreams to “burn down the detention center” with giant drawn-on flames, were half engaged in a staring contest with the line of police and half engaged in a conversation about what to do next. After milling about for a bit, someone took to the mobile P.A. that had been installed in a baby carriage and announced “alright guys, let’s get out of here!”
Thus began what would become a 6-hour-long meandering, lurching procession with literally no direction (more on that later).
From the get go, the dubstep music blaring from the P.A. (which was full of bass drops following a sample of a voice saying “REVOLUTION”) went on the fritz. The small gaggle of initial protestors looked around awkwardly and silently tried to fix the machine. Attempts to interview the protestors about their purpose and their issues were met with resistance and long lectures on the evil of us “media pigs.” Small leaflets that were later distributed announced that the march was “For The End of Capitalism & Gentrification.”
“Gentrification is the social and economic process that transforms neighborhoods from mostly working class communities of color to wealthy white areas. It is made possible by developers, investors, business owners, yuppies, and politicians,” the leaflet read. Throughout the march, the only time anyone alluded to gentrification was when the group shouted “die yuppie scum” to some folks in Belltown drinking on the second story balcony of a restaurant. The “yuppies” screamed back, “Oh look! The Seahawks parade!”
Beyond that, it was hard to discern the meaning of the march. The most consistent message and chant was “fuck the police,” and “fuck media pigs.” One KIRO TV cameraman was silly stringed and had water thrown at him while protesters stuck their own cameras in front of his camera and blocked his view with their hands.
“I’m just trying to give you guys space,” the man mumbled over and over as he tried to shuffle away.
“YOU BETTER BE RESPECTFUL. WE DON’T EVEN WANT YOU HERE,” a masked protester yelled. “FUCK YOU.”
As the march continued downtown, it began to rapidly fall apart. “TIGHTEN UP!” the protester with the mobile P.A. screamed over and over. “SERIOUSLY FUCKING TIGHTEN UP—COME ON GUYS THERE ARE PEOPLE BEHIND US.”
Other instructions included: “DON’T FUCKING SIT DOWN YOU FUCKING IDIOTS, STAY MOBILE” and “TURN RIGHT. HEY FUCKERS, TURN RIGHT HERE! LET’S GO TO AMAZON. SERIOUSLY, FUCKING TURN RIGHT.”
By days end, the protesters managed to get in a fight with El Caballero, an ex-Rain City Superhero who recently had his helmet stolen by Phoenix Jones. El Caballero was accompanied by a man in a Power Ranger suit. The police had to fence the “superheroes” off to prevent the protesters from ripping El Caballero’s helmet off once again. I watched protesters spray paint some anarchy symbols, shout at the police during the three main scuffles that resulted in arrests, and in a culminating feat, light off a few firecrackers and later, a small bonfire at Pine and Broadway.
But by the time the mob snaked back up to Capitol Hill around 10 p.m., many of the original protesters had tuckered out and peeled off to order hamburgers at Dick’s. As I sat inside Z Pizza after the whole affair, a man from the protest holding a very large cardboard box with nothing in it came in and began rambling to the employee at the cash register.
“I swear man, one of those cops who was yelling at me was on mind altering substances man. Like shrooms or some shit. He doesn’t know he’s bought into the machine that has uh… that he has become a part of the… oppressive structure that is fuckin’ destroying the fabric of our lives, man.”
The Z Pizza employee nodded and continued to serve the next customer while the man kept talking.