Monday, May 1, 2017

In the Field - May Day 2017, Seattle

          It's that time of year again: May Day. Yes, May 1st, that day where members of the working class and disillusioned activists organize themselves in protest against those societal institutions from which they believe injustice, inequality, and oppression spawn, from capitalist economic systems to gender discrimination. Dating back to the 19th Century, May Day protests and celebrations have become an international phenomenon, with demonstrations having taken place in locations as far apart as Minneapolis and Moscow, from Canada to the Middle East. As such, given their revolutionary message, many May Day events are very politically charged, and are oftentimes at odds with the status-quo.
          It's no secret that, in the United States and Canada, May Day protests tend to tilt towards the left side of political spectrum, with many activists advocating for policies ranging from the rather innocuous expansion of social welfare programs to the more extreme implementation of socialist or communist economic systems. That said, May Day is not an exclusive event, having been frequented by anarchists in the past and even used as an excuse for those whose ideals tend toward the right side of the political spectrum to organize.
          In recent years, May Day protests have become a topic of controversy as they have become increasingly violent, and have put many American cities on edge. Video from May Day 2016 shows that police in Seattle utilized flash bang grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray to keep marchers corralled in a shopping center in Downtown Seattle [1]. Meanwhile, as calls from Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant to push the envelope of civil disobedience for May Day 2017 intensified, some critics have pegged the councilwoman as "dangerous" [2]. In 2012, May Day protesters in Portland marched through a mall downtown while simultaneously trying to keep the mainstream media out, claiming that the media is "bought" by "the corporations" [3]. Also in 2012, activists in Oakland were greeted by riot police with tear gas and zip-tie handcuffs [4]. A splinter group of protesters stormed a GAP store while white supremacists lined up for a confrontation with activists in Washington D.C. for May Day 2013 [5][6]. Indeed, there hardly seem to be a May Day that goes by without some kind of chaos somewhere.
          And at the end of the whole mess, there are always questions about who the martyrs were and who the antagonists were amidst the maelstrom. Were police displaying excessive force when apprehending protesters and stifling their 1st Amendment rights? Did protesters devolve from organized activists into an unruly and violent mob? Were activist groups responsible for the vandalism that occurred, or was it a lone-wolf who decided to take advantage of the situation and frame the protesters? In order to uncover the truth behind the answers to these questions, I decided to witness these events for myself first-hand. Seattle has a reputation for vibrant social activism, and has arguably had some of the most...exciting...May Day events in recent history. As such, I left my apartment this morning on May 1st, 2017, and ventured out into the city. Here is what I found:

My journey began at the University of Washington, where small groups of students were scattered throughout the university's Red Square in protest of unfair labor practices.

Squads of police were stationed around Red Square in the event that student demonstrations got out of hand, but...

Events at UW were so peaceful that many police ended up just relaxing inside, drinking coffee and playing with their phones.

I next made my way over to Judkins Park, just as the largest event of the day, the Immigration and Labor March, was emptying out of the park and making its way toward Downtown...

While still at Judkins, I caught a glimpse of this anarchist slogan on the side of a building.

While following the march, I sometimes had to cut several side streets in order to get ahead of police barricades. At one point, I came across these really curious characters...

The march eventually made its way into Downtown Seattle.

Even Antifa activists took part in the larger event (this image catches only some of them sprinkled throughout the larger group).

Speaking of Antifa, one of them had created this very intriguing sign, seen here at Judkins Park.

          By the end of the day, I had been following these events from about 10:30am to 6:00pm and had walked halfway throughout the city, from Judkins Park to Queen Anne. And, despite the reputation that May Day has in Seattle, May Day 2017 was much more mellow than previous years. There were no instances of violence during the time that I was running around the streets, but there were several tense moments when pro-Trump/pro-government activists led a counter-rally that crossed paths with the larger event, but these moments took place much later in the evening and were quickly handled by police, resulting in only 5 arrests [7]. That said, reports indicate that events in Portland, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, were not as peaceful, and were in fact more in line with what one might have expected based on previous years, with protests in both cities being declared a "riot" [8]. As such, since events in Seattle were, well, uneventful, I still don't know what to make of the May Day protests, and the questions I had at the outset of my inquiry still remain.


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