Seattle May Day 2016 Analysis


by Sophia Burns

Seattle May Day started with an open-air punk show outside the tourist-trap mall downtown. I found a couple of comrades from RATPAC (Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism) reading zines behind a Rojava solidarity group’s table. Progressively larger clusters of protesters started to appear. While I made a sign and chatted with my protest buddy about last year, we saw cops gather both on bikes and on horseback, glaring at the growing Black Bloc. Nearly every slogan I saw was explicitly anarchist, as were almost all of the organized groups; in fact, the entire time, only one person attempted to push a socialist newspaper on me. A few of the self-declared “real life superhero” vigilantes associated with Phoenix Jones hung around in spandex and body armor, carrying heavy sticks and stun guns. They’ve shown up for May Day rallies before, roughing up protesters alongside the police.

When the Black Bloc started chanting “A-C-A-B, All Cops Are Bastards,” we moved. Within a block, the cops had already diverted us away from our initial trajectory. Even after the evening’s first violence – an officer pepper-spraying someone without provocation or warning – we stayed mostly calm and mostly peaceful.

Every protest I’ve attended in downtown Seattle has ended the same way. The police use a couple of basic kettling techniques – bike cops blocking sidestreets and plenty of pepper spray. They herd protesters away from downtown, towards the low-traffic warehouses and sports arenas in the district immediately to the south. The only difference in the script last night was the unusual intensity of the police violence. In addition to using enough pepper spray to produce a visible cloud hanging over the sidewalk, they threw flashbang grenades and broke out the wooden cudgels. I got bruised in the leg by some sort of projectile; I later found out they’d been using rubber bullets as well.

The demonstrators got to express a lot of cathartic anger, with plenty of signs and chants calling the police murderers and pigs and such. While most protest crowds in Seattle are disproportionately white, cisgender, and male appearing, this one was more so than most. The Black Bloc accounted for well over half of those present, and those who appeared to be people of color, trans, and/or female seemed to be concentrated in the non-Black Bloc contingent. Alongside “No Rest For Murderous Pigs,” Black Bloc taunts included “fuckin’ pussies!” and “I made your mom scream last night!” Among Seattle leftists, the May Day march has become stigmatized as glorifying confrontation for its own sake and toxic masculinity. Last night left that reputation secure.

Eventually, they corralled us where they wanted. While protester violence and property destruction remained sporadic and low-level compared with the sustained violence of the police, there were a few marchers throwing around small firecrackers and rocks. Someone broke windows at a Starbucks downtown and at a Bank of America branch. According to the mayor’s press conference later, five officers ended up injured (one of them apparently got bitten), and nine protesters got arrested. Of course, the number of injured protesters was uncounted and enormous. After we peeled away from the demonstration, my protest buddy gave homemade liquid antacid wash to a stranger who was screaming in pain in a parking lot after getting pepper-sprayed point-blank. His companion could only open her left eye partially, but had avoided the brunt of the spray. Others we saw leaving had blood, torn clothes, or burns from flashbangs; with a four-inch rubber bullet bruise, I got off easy.

In the end, the police outmaneuvered us with little difficulty. They picked our route and penned us, messed a few of us up, and then let us disperse through attrition (while making arrests and continuing to hurt us). We didn’t have a clear goal or plan – no route or destination worked out beforehand, and no target for disruption except “the system” or maybe “the pigs.” We could never have matched the cops in direct conflict, given their numbers, elaborate weapons, and virtual legal untouchability. Good strategy means setting a particular goal and coordinating with each other to reach it. Good tactics involve concentrating your strength against your enemy’s weakness. We did neither. We should have picked an intersection, a business, or a building to shut down. However, we lacked any intention more specific than wandering around with signs and flags. The only goal that most participants seemed to have was to confront the cops. Well, they got that – on the cops’ terms, leading to the cops’ chosen outcome.

The police used the same tricks they use every couple of months against the same regular demonstration attendees. By not having a strategy, we squandered the knowledge that their tactics are utterly predictable. We ought to have set a goal and planned together to achieve it. But instead, we got cathartic violence for “revolutionaries” with a deep investment in toxic masculinity. Next time, we ought to aim for something more productive than that. Both the traditions International Workers’ Day represents and the acute strain capitalism places on working, disabled, and oppressed communities here in Seattle demand better.

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