Thousands of people are expected to march in annual May Day demonstrations Thursday, as Seattle police prepare for the possibility that protests could once again turn violent.
In Seattle, festivities will begin with the 14th Annual May Day March for Workers and Immigrant Rights. The permitted march is scheduled to start at 3:00 p.m. at St. Mary’s Church and end in a rally at Westlake Park.
In previous years, the labor and immigration march has remained peaceful, with only minor traffic delays as demonstrators move through the city.
Two unpermitted marches are expected to take place later in the day.
According to posts on anarchist websites, demonstrators will gather for a May Day Anti-Capitalist March at 6:30 p.m. at 12th Avenue and Spruce Street, near the King County Juvenile Detention Center. Other posts indicate that a second anti-capitalist march will take place at 6 p.m. at Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill and proceed downtown.
Flyers for the events have depictions of protesters dressed in black, armed with sticks and rocks. Similar weapons have been used in previous years to commit vandalism and assault officers.
On May 1, 2013, Seattle police made 17 arrests and treated eight officers for injuries sustained when May Day protests turned violent for the second year in a row.
Police in riot gear were bombarded with bottles, hammers, and rocks while using pepper spray, tear gas and percussion grenades in an attempt to disperse protesters who had turned violent.
Captain Chris Fowler, head of the department’s West Precinct, will once again serve as incident commander for this year’s events. He will be in charge of planning and the deployment of officers on the ground.
“I think we’re as ready as we can be given how much time we’ve had to plan for it, the resources we have available, the message that we’ve gotten out,” Capt. Fowler told KIRO Radio Tuesday. “The people that come downtown and march and get their message out have a vote in how it goes. We want everybody to come out, enjoy the day, and leave peacefully and safely.”
Captain Fowler said the department has no intention of preventing anti-capitalist demonstrators from gathering on Capitol Hill, despite the fact that those marches have turned violent in previous years.
“Seattle has a historic culture of allowing people of many different opinions to be able to express those, and we’re not going to prevent somebody from doing what’s constitutionally protected because we’re afraid of what they might do,” he said.
Until crimes are committed, Captain Fowler said protesters will be allowed to march through the streets, with or without a permit.
“If we see weapons or if they take rocks, bottles, or sticks and start turning those into weapons then it changes our response and clearly there’s an indication that they want to commit crimes,” he said. “But, until that happens they have just as much right as anybody to protest or march or get their message out.”
Thursday’s events are expected to be bolstered by supporters of a $15 an hour minimum wage, a movement that has gained momentum in recent months with the election of Socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant.
Earlier this year, during a controversial interview with KIRO Radio On Assignment, Sawant blamed the Seattle Police Department for the “overwhelming amount of violence” during previous May Day demonstrations.
“We do not condone violence as part of any protest. However, it has to be noted that flash bang grenades, pepper spray, tear gas, these are not weapons brought out by protesters. These are weapons brought out by police. And if you look at any incident of political violence, the overwhelming violence comes from the police,” Sawant said. “It is problematic for the media to send a message that it is always vandalism and violence from protesters and the police reacting to it. It’s not that simple.”
City leaders denounced Sawant’s statements, with Councilman Bruce Harrell calling the comments “a cheap shot.”
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray called Sawant’s comments unfair, but said he is committed to making sure officers use force appropriately when, and if, it is necessary.
“I’m interested in making sure protesters can protest. I am interested in also ensuring their safety and the safety of property and acting to arrest individuals who are doing something other than protesting, who are being destructive. I think those are very distinct things,” he said.