Day of song, night of conflict
Thousands advocated peacefully for labor, jobs and immigrant causes in Seattle. Then a few hundred protesters engaged in vandalism and clashes with police.
By Tom James // Published May 2, 2012 on Crosscut.com
Sitting on the curb, weeping, the young woman asked for water.
“They told me to move,” she said later. “I didn’t have anywhere to move to and I asked them where they wanted me to move to and they tear-gassed me in the face.”
The woman, who would say only that her friends called her Cake, had been sprayed with the burning chemical by police who turned to force to disperse unruly protesters near Westlake Center late Wednesday.
The drama came at the end of an otherwise peaceful day of marches commemorating workers rights, including a procession of nearly 2,000 that made its way from Judkins Park to the Federal Building downtown.
At that march, protesters bearing signs and banners shut down Jackson Street, then Third and Fourth avenues before converging on the Federal Building. Led by a group of dancers in Central American indigenous dress and carefully directed by radio headset-wearing coordinators, the march was peaceful, even friendly, except for a few people who shouted profanities at watching police.
As the workers' rights march came into downtown around 4 p.m., the scene was idyllic. Under a beautiful northwest spring sky, parents pushed strollers and young men in slacks and dress shoes carried signs in Spanish and English calling for immigration reform. Both at the march and at speeches that came later, union members from at least three local branches joined in with signs of their own, walking in colorful matching T-shirts.
Police watched from bicycles, horseback and cars, lining the route and clearing the streets ahead. On Second Avenue in front of the Federal Building, speakers from immigrants’ rights organizations and several unions addressed the crowd from the back of a parked flatbed truck. After gradually thinning, the last of the crowd left the street around six o’clock
“It’s sad that families get torn apart,” said Yolanda Contreras of South Seattle, who followed the large march from Judkins Park to Downtown to support immigration reform. “They need to come up with some kind of reform that makes it for human beings.”
Jose, who refused to give a last name but said he had marched with Contreras, held a small dog in his arms and spoke quietly. “I wanted to be a part of it,” he said, referring to the protest.
The next gathering — the last of the day — could not have been more different.
After convening on Capitol Hill, a much smaller group, numbering at most a few hundred of mostly young people, with some dressed in all black, headed for downtown on Pike Street. Closely flanked by police, the protesters shouted obscenities, waved smoke flares, and made profane gestures at the officers. As the crowd crossed the Pike overpass and headed into Westlake plaza, the police hemmed them in, lining the streets and pushing toward the center’s plaza between Third and Fourth Avenue.
On the way downtown, someone in the crowd broke at least one window, in Sun Liquor on Pike, just outside of the city center. A few minutes later, a pipe coursed through the air, bouncing off a parked police car.
Stopped at Westlake Park plaza, the crowd milled expectantly, tension in the air. With the arrest of two marchers, the tension broke. People surged north, following and blocking in the police cruisers carrying the arrested protesters. A block later – around eight o’clock – the cruisers pulled away, while the remaining bicycle police formed a line in the street, using their bikes as barriers.
Again, the crowd bunched, milling in front of the police line. A plastic bottle arced through the air, followed by other objects. One officer was helped away from the line, limping. Then, an object arced back, from behind the police lines into the group of protesters, and exploded with a deafening bang – a flash-bang device. Amid shouts and screams, the crowd surged away, only to regroup. Several more times, the small explosives went off, bouncing through the crowd or lighting up the air above.
Soon after, the police began moving forward, using their bikes and batons to push the protesters through the streets, and firing volleys of stun grenades both above and into the crowd, and occasionally spraying pepper spray. The tear gas grenades that were common at the World Trade Organization riot did not appear to be used.
Among the volleys of stun devices, one young man fell to the ground screaming, clutching his leg. As the police line approached, others picked him up and ran with him in the opposite direction. Turning a corner, they carried him down a side street and laid him in a doorway away from deafening booms. As protesters with medical kits arrived, two others pushed onlookers back, and with their own bikes – a small BMX and a pink beach cruiser-type, formed a line of their own.
The young woman who called herself Cake said she joined the protest after marching in the earlier peaceful rally. Because of the history of the date as a day of protest, she said, she expected something like the evening’s events. Herself dressed in black, she came as a member of the so-called “black bloc” – partly for anonymity, and partly to signal to others in the march which side she was on.
“Property destruction can be an effective medium of communication,” she said. “I’m not the one throwing bricks or whatever, but I’m not just going to comply.”
A man who would give his name only as Carl helped the young woman to the curb. Carl said he had never taken part in any protest like Wednesday’s before, but that he thought the extreme tactics were justified.
“That’s the only thing they’re going to feel,” Carl, 29, referring to large corporations in general.
Carl said he hadn’t planned to join the protest, but when he saw it leaving Capitol Hill, it reminded him of some of the points made by the Occupy movement. When things began to get violent, he said, he stayed, “part because I didn’t want to stop just because it got hard.”
“If it got really bad … if someone got hurt, I wanted to be there to see it, to bring out the truth.”
“People are angry,” the young woman said. “The cops are people, they have family and lives. … But corporations aren’t people, so where do you direct your anger?”
Having eventually pushed the crowd almost back to the Pike overpass, the police split the protesters into two groups, driving one in one direction, one in the opposite. The crashing booms of the stun devices lessened, and finally, at the overpass, police simply formed a line, and — amid some window-breaking — the protesters mostly melted away into the night, toward Capitol Hill.
It was there that Cake emerged from the dregs of the crowd, stumbling, disoriented. The man who would give his name only as Carl helped her to the curb, where she cried that her eyes burned. A few minutes later, one of the last police officers on the scene walked over to her. “Pour milk on it,” he said. “It helps.”
Tom James has helped cover the 2013 state legislative session for Crosscut through the University of Washington journalism program. He also writes for Crosscut on other subjects. Born in Seattle and raised in Kitsap, Tom worked for the Kitsap Navy News and Central Kitsap Reporter before heading to the UW for a double-major in journalism and economics, which he hopes to finish in 2014.