A day of mostly peaceful protests across the world, May 1 has a complicated political history. In Seattle, it has drawn peaceful labor and immigration marches — and, more recently, anarchist and anti-capitalist demonstrations that have erupted in violence.
For more than a century, advocates have demonstrated on May 1 in support of labor rights. A day of mostly peaceful protests across the world, the date has a complicated political history.
International Worker’s Day, also referred to as May Day, marks the date of the Haymarket affair of 1886, when industrial workers in Chicago went on strike as part of the movement for an eight-hour workday. Police tried to break up the strike, clashing with demonstrators. During the violence, someone detonated a bomb, killing a police officer. More strikers and officers were killed in ensuing riots.
Unions commemorate the day as part of the eight-hour workday movement, and political groups see it as a rallying cause.
In recent history, pro-labor movements across the United States have used May 1 to demonstrate for better wages and working conditions. Immigration groups in 2006 began to use the day for rallies calling for immigration reform.
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In Seattle, strikes on May 1 date back to 1919. Demonstrations in recent years have been mostly peaceful, with labor and immigration groups holding festive marches.
But for four consecutive years, black-clad protesters, who have identified as anarchists and anti-capitalists, have clashed with police and vandalized areas of Seattle. Police are preparing for this year’s events by holding training on demonstration management and reviewing how previous May Days went.
Here’s a look back at the recent, more lively May Day protests in Seattle:
El Comité Pro Reforma Migratoria Y Justicia Social planned a May Day march on Wells Fargo Banks. The group said Wells Fargo profited from immigrant detention and invested in campaigns of politicians who sponsored anti-immigrant legislation.
Meanwhile, the Occupy movement called for a rally in downtown Seattle.
Those plans were disrupted when about 75 anarchists moved through downtown, blending with nonviolent protesters. The anarchists, wearing black, smashed windows of banks, retailers and a federal courthouse on a noontime vandalism spree. Seattle police arrested a handful of people after dozens of buildings were damaged, and felony charges were eventually filed.
The anarchists’ tactics reminded many protesters of the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests.
At first, Mayor Mike McGinn and Police Chief John Diaz praised the police response. But months later, an internal memo criticized the tactics, focusing on the role of Assistant Police Chief Mike Sanford in managing the protest. Sanford, wearing a white dress shirt, had at one point run toward protesters to confront them and stumbled. Police officers in riot gear had to pull Sanford away from protesters.
An independent report released nearly a year later slammed the Seattle Police Department for its crowd-control efforts, confusion over use-of-force expectations and lack of planning before the demonstrations.
Daytime marches, rallies and protests promoted worker rights, rallied against capitalism and pushed for immigration-law changes during peaceful gatherings.
But at night, demonstrators wearing black began to smash windows in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Police were better prepared and vandalism was much lighter than in 2012. Seventeen people were arrested and eight officers were injured downtown.
Police used pepper spray, blast balls and, for the first time, bicycles to contain protesters, as a coalition of people dressed as superheroes also followed the protest. Police considered the night a success.
“I sure hope this doesn’t become a tradition,” McGinn said of the violence.
After peaceful daytime demonstrations sponsored by El Comité and the May First Action Coalition, an unpermitted march of protesters led police on a five-hour walk around Capitol Hill to downtown Seattle and then back to Capitol Hill. Police showed restraint, contained any violence and made 10 arrests.
Once again, peaceful marches for immigrant rights went without incident during the day. At night, an anti-capitalist march turned violent on Capitol Hill. Demonstrators smashed windows, overturned trash bins and threw bottles and rocks. Police used pepper spray and blast balls to contain the crowd (they later took criticism for heavy-handed tactics; a December 2015 report found officers sometimes shot blast balls into areas with peaceful demonstrators).
Officers eventually corralled protesters in an area at Seattle Central College, where the night had begun.
“This is no longer demonstration management; this has turned into a riot,” tweeted police Capt. Chris Fowler, who was leading the department’s response. Several protesters were injured. Sixteen people were arrested. Fowler said protesters were more aggressive than in years past.
City Councilmember Bruce Harrell chastised police officials in a council meeting days later, suggesting their actions had “created a melee.” Commenting on a video that showed an officer launching from a bike to tackle and arrest a protester, Harrell said police actions seemed “idiotic.”
Hundreds of people began the day with the annual May Day March for Workers and Immigrant Rights, beginning at a rally in the Central District and ending at the U.S. Courthouse downtown. They called for changes in the laws that make it difficult for immigrants to gain citizenship here.
The daytime event was peaceful and orderly, in contrast with the evening’s anti-capitalist protest that turned violent and left five police officers hurt and nine people under arrest.
Unlike in previous years, police quickly herded the mob of several hundred black-clad protesters out of Seattle’s business district, using a choreographed rolling blockade of bicycle officers and vans to shuttle cops in riot gear ahead of the crowd to cut off escape routes.
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