Police restraint limited May Day violence, city officials say
Seattle police top brass on Friday called their handling of Thursday’s May Day protests a success, even though members of an unpermitted evening protest led officers on a more than five hour circuitous route and caused property damage.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle police brass on Friday praised the department’s handling of Thursday’s May Day protests, although some questioned the strategy of allowing unpermitted marches to lead officers on a nearly five-hour circuitous route around the city.
A permitted afternoon march for immigration and wage reform went off without problem, police said. But unpermitted evening marches from Capitol Hill to downtown then back to Capitol Hill resulted in property damage, minor injuries to an officer who tussled with a protester and 10 arrests for crimes ranging from felony assault to malicious mischief and property damage.
Through the evening, officers repeatedly demonstrated great restraint when dealing with the demonstrators, resisting taunts, pulling back to avoid conflict and making targeted arrests. They credited the strategy with keeping arrests and property damage down when compared with previous May Days.
Asked by reporters Friday about why officers let the mostly mask-clad protesters take over city streets at night, Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey and Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh said that allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights, whether they have a permit with the city or not, is how things are handled in Seattle.
“We had some choices to make and we could have gone hands on,” Bailey said. “As a chief, I’m proud of the way officers handled themselves.”
On Friday, Kate Joncas, president/CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, wondered whether stricter controls might be possible on disruptive, unpermitted and potentially dangerous marches.
“We need to sit down and say, ‘Is there something better we could do?’ ” she said.
Joncas said she would like to see an exploration of ways to discourage and disperse such unpermitted events, which she said go on for hours, causing disruption through the city core and costing the city money in police time and cleanup.
But Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said it is the job of the police to “accommodate” people exercising their right to free speech.
“This is what people should expect for any demonstration,” Whitcomb said.
But because of the damage and violence that has been associated with the Seattle’s May Day events over the past two years, many businesses in the downtown corridor hired private security and even closed up early to avoid any trouble with protesters.
Since May Day 2012 the downtown protest has been associated with property damage and violence. In 2013, police arrested 17 people — more than double the number of arrests in 2012, when windows on downtown business were smashed.
“May Day historically in our city has not been a celebration of violence,” Whitcomb said. “Do we think this is going to carry on as part of Seattle culture? No, we think this will fizzle out.”
Detective Ron Smith, Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president, said he is thankful no officers were seriously hurt, but questioned why city leaders allow unpermitted protesters to roam the city as they wish. According to police, the city spent $115,000 in overtime for May Day 2012. Overtime costs were $192,000 last year. Figures on how much was spent this year have not been released.
“I do not understand why the groups who marched earlier in the day in the immigration march are made to jump through hoops to get the proper permitting when other groups were allowed to do whatever they wanted to do all night long,” Smith said.
The permitted May Day march, sponsored by El Comité and the May First Action Coalition, wound from Judkins Park to Westlake Park and produced no problems for officers, according to police.
Socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant was the keynote speaker at an afternoon rally at the end of the parade. Earlier this week, she criticized police handling of previous May Day protests, saying the department has acted in “a repressive, anti-democratic manner along with the corporate-owned mass media who are attempting to whip up a polarized state of fear.”
Smith said he took exception to Sawant’s remarks.
“Nothing is further from the truth,” Smith said. “She should examine whether she wants to remain in a legislative role or return to her true calling of an activist.”
On Friday, Sawant declined to comment on how police handled this year’s May Day events. Mayor Ed Murray, in a statement, said officers “conducted themselves with admirable patience and professionalism.”
Speaking alongside Bailey and McDonagh on Friday, West Precinct Capt. Chris Fowler recounted what officers encountered Thursday night. He said officers putting out fires in trash cans, one was scratched in the face by a protester, an incident that resulted in the only time in the evening that police deployed pepper spray.
Describing one confrontation, Fowler on Thursday night said officers were “able to escalate and de-escalate based on the crowd’s actions.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Erik Lacitis and Steve Miletich contributed to this report, which includes information from Seattle Times archives.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.