During normal times, May Day demonstrators in Seattle march shoulder to shoulder and shout chants to show support for workers and immigrants. This year, they drove bumper to bumper and blared their horns.
Though a statewide ban on crowds prompted changes Friday, the coronavirus crisis didn’t completely stop protesters from taking to the streets. Members of the El Comité social justice organization, who have organized May 1 marches in Seattle for more than a decade, headed a vehicle caravan to Olympia, while proponents of a new City Hall tax on large corporations circled the Amazon Spheres in cars and on bikes, waving signs.
“We’ve never had a mechanized rally, and never left Seattle,” May Day caravan participant Juan Jose Bocanegra said, waiting to rev up his motorcycle and ride to the State Capitol. “Now Olympia is the target because of the lack of stimulus money for the immigrant community.”
Moments later, Bocanegra led about 65 vehicles through the Central District to Interstate 5. Though undocumented workers pay taxes, they aren’t receiving the same level of assistance during the pandemic as other workers, he said. “The way this is being dealt with is criminal,” he added. “We need to take advantage of this moment and declare what’s right.”
Washington residents worried about lost work and groceries during the coronavirus crisis should remember the challenges that many immigrant households were already grappling with, El Comité’s Jorge Quiroga said.
“It is a good opportunity for the public to understand, in general, the plight of the immigrant community,” he said. “The scare that you feel today, the anger that you feel today, the insecurity that you feel today is what the immigrant community feels every single day. Because when they get up to work, they don’t know if they will be picked up by immigration that day. Or if it will be the last day they will see their children when they get back from work.”
About 150 people registered for the May Day caravan, including participants from as far east as Yakima and as far north as Mount Vernon, Quiroga said, urging Gov. Jay Inslee to made unemployment benefits available to undocumented workers. “We are not asking for charity. We are asking that they give us back what is ours. That’s all,” he said. “Don’t exclude us.”
Celine Sanchez, 21, a case manager who works with people experiencing homelessness, joined the caravan with her sister, brother and dog, Bruno. “We know [undocumented] people who have been affected, who have lost their jobs, and we’re hoping to help them,” Sanchez said.
Across town in Denny Triangle, the streets reverberated with car horns. Demonstrators in about 40 vehicles and others on bikes circled the block around the Spheres to show support for a big-business tax under consideration by the Seattle City Council.
Some cars had “Tax Amazon” painted on. Red signs distributed by City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office read, “Unionize Amazon, Tax Bezos,” referring to the retail behemoth’s chief executive. Homemade signs included slogans such as “expropriate Amazon.”
“People need their needs met,” Steve Leigh, a retiree from the Central District, said before climbing into his hybrid sedan to join the caravan. “People are suffering and Amazon has plenty of money.”
The car horns, accompanied by a demonstrator playing the trombone in a station wagon, were ear-splitting. “It’s so loud,” said Abhi Rajp, who strolled outside to watch the hubbub rather than try to work in his apartment nearby. “But the [Amazon] buildings are empty. There’s no one here listening.”
That wasn’t quite true. Tech worker Clay Church walked his dog to the Spheres to see the protest play out. Church called the event effective and said he’d like to see a tax passed because many of his friends are out of work and need help. “I’m all for this,” he said.
The demonstrators briefly stopped their vehicles, blocking traffic along Sixth Avenue between Blanchard and Lenora streets for about 20 minutes. The trombonist and a trumpet player struck up a tune while police officers on bikes looked on. Then the caravan motored to Eastlake to rally for rent relief at a Capitol Hill apartment building. They blocked traffic along Eastlake Avenue East, again for about 20 minutes.
Before the rallies, Sawant had urged participants to wear face coverings and stay inside or next to their cars. She and Councilmember Tammy Morales are championing legislation that would impose a 1.3% tax on Seattle payrolls for businesses with annual wage bills over $7 million. Amazon would likely pay the most, but an estimated 800 other companies also would pay.
The tax would take effect immediately but the payments wouldn’t be collected until 2022. Under the Morales-Sawant plan, the city would borrow $200 million from existing funds, send coronavirus relief checks to households this year and use the new tax to repay those funds at a later date, with interest. In the longer term, the tax would raise an estimated $500 million a year for affordable housing and “Green New Deal” projects, such as converting existing homes from oil and gas to electric heat.
During a declared emergency, the council can only discuss routine legislation necessary for the city to function and emergency legislation. Sawant and Morales have included a coronavirus-emergency clause in their legislation.
Emergency legislation can only pass with support from at least seven of nine council members and the mayor. Councilmember Alex Pedersen has criticized the tax as wrongheaded and poorly timed, as have many business leaders, and Mayor Jenny Durkan has raised concerns about the plan.
In Olympia, the roads immediately approaching the Capitol were closed by the Washington State Patrol. Facing that, the motorists who arrived with the May Day caravan from Seattle streamed up and down the Capitol Way thoroughfare, sounding their horns. They were joined by a local caravan.
Demonstrators in the back of one vehicle chanted “Fire your bosses,” and “Seize the means of production.” Another vehicle tried to get onto the Capitol campus by driving along a pedestrian walkway, but law enforcement officers and state workers blocked that path.
The caravans arrived just as a protest against Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus stay-at-home order was winding down on the Capitol steps. Those demonstrators — bearing Trump flags, signs calling on Inslee to lift restrictions and some firearms — watched from the sidewalk as the May Day caravans honked and chanted. No major problems were reported at either rally, State Patrol Sgt. Darren Wright said, and troopers made no arrests.