By the time night fell on May 1, 2013, Seattle police had made 17 arrests and eight officers were being treated for injuries sustained when May Day protests turned violent for the second year in a row.
In the early morning hours of May 2, outside the department’s west precinct, Assistant Police Chief Paul McDonagh showed reporters a display of objects used to assault his officers, including bottles, hammers, and rocks. He said police in riot gear responded to the attacks with pepper spray, tear gas and percussion grenades to push the crowd up to Capitol Hill.
“We did not start to take action until that group started to act violently towards the officers and the community at large,” said McDonagh, referring to a group of so-called anarchists who tore through the downtown core, vandalized businesses, and clashed with police.
While many saw the riots as blatant acts of violence committed by protesters, newly-elected Socialist Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant saw something much different.
“We do not condone violence as part of any protest,” she said. “However, it has to be noted that flashbang 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.”
The comments were made as part of an extended interview with KIRO Radio about how her role as an activist could conflict with her responsibility as an elected official should violence break out on May Day 2014.
Asked how she would respond if demonstrations took a turn for the worse, she repeated her belief that the “overwhelming amount of violence comes from the SPD.”
“We are always calling for non-violent political action,” she stressed. “It is problematic, though, 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.”
Her comments were not received well by fellow councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee and has been heavily involved in May Day preparations in previous years.
“I think it’s a cheap shot to suggest that the officers are out here just aggressively committing acts of violence,” he said.
Harrell said that councilmembers have a duty to protect downtown businesses, many of which have been vandalized during previous riots on May 1. At the same time, he said Sawant’s role as an activist could help the city reach out to those who plan to participate in demonstrations that day.
“All of us – councilmembers, the protesters, the police department, civilians, – we’re all interested in making sure that it’s peaceful. So let’s look at these participants as our allies and our eyes on the ground and let’s work with them,” he said.
On March 6, Harrell sent a memo to Interim Seattle Police Chief Harry Bailey to encourage him to reach out to permitted organizers, including the 15Now minimum wage campaign, for which Sawant has been a driving force.
“It is critical for the Seattle Police command staff to prove clear, unequivocal instructions for specific enforcement and performance during the May 1st demonstrations and advise other vested stakeholders, as well,” wrote Harrell, who asked that Chief Bailey prepare a memo about the department’s plans for May Day and present it to the Public Safety Committee by April 1.
While he called Sawant’s comments about the police
department unfair, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said he is committed to making sure officers have the training and direction they need to use force appropriately when, and if, it is necessary.
“Do I believe that most violence comes from the Seattle Police Department? I don’t,” he told KIRO Radio. “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. If a city councilmember has a different position, that city councilmember is absolutely entitled to their different position. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility.”
When it comes to her allegiances, Councilwoman Sawant is unapologetic about her role as an activist and her support of mass protest.
“Nothing was ever accomplished unless there was a vibrant dynamic, mass movement demanding something better,” she said. “If I don’t come into work every day with a sense of burning urgency, then I would be failing at my job.”
The Seattle Police Department declined an interview request for this story.