Hundreds of sign-carrying, flag-waving demonstrators jammed downtown streets Wednesday in a series of May Day marches and rallies — some at the peak of afternoon rush hour — protesting capitalism, promoting worker rights and pushing for changes in federal immigration laws.
From the Central Area to Capitol Hill to downtown, the daytime marches and rallies were peaceful. But by 8 p.m. the scene was starting to show signs reminiscent of May Day 2012, when groups of demonstrators, including black-clad anarchists, broke free from a march and smashed windows in businesses, a courthouse and cars.
By evening’s end Wednesday, police were pushing the mob back using pepper spray, there were 18 arrests and eight officers injured — mostly scrapes and bruises — and the streets were littered with debris.
From the start, police seemed determined to carry out their main goal: Let protesters peacefully move about the city while not tolerating lawbreaking affecting property and safety.
The march in support of immigration reform drew the largest crowd — between 3,000 and 4,000 people who rallied at Judkins Park early in the afternoon before taking a circuitous route through the Chinatown International District for a later rally at the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle.
From along sidewalks and inside stranded cars, from downtown overhangs and in the windows of office and apartment towers, onlookers crowded in to watch as marchers chanted and waved flags and signs.
One read “No human is illegal.” Another said to heck with weed, ” … legalize my mom.”
This year’s march took on a certain urgency, coming just two weeks after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill that, among other things, would grant legal status to an estimated 10 million people in this country unlawfully. “This is it,” Mauricio Ayon, legislative director for Washington Community Action Network, said as he marched down Fourth Avenue. “The tide is turning on this issue, and I don’t think anybody wants to be caught on the wrong side of it.”
At the rally in Judkins Park, Pablo Alvarado, of Shelton, Mason County, wore long sheets of sketch paper over his clothes, scrawled with marker: “We are not immigrants, not criminals … not foreigners” it said on the front. And on the back it added: “We are original inhabitants of this continent.”
Alvarado, who said he was an undocumented worker originally from Mexico, said he wanted to achieve legal status and to be treated with dignity. The spectacle of these marches by people — some of whom entered the country illegally — doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“The irony here is that a day that has been set aside around the world to celebrate labor has been co-opted by people who are undermining the interest of American workers,” said Ira Mehlman, Seattle-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
During the afternoon march, police flooded the streets with bicycle officers, who moved with the march ers in staggered groups in what clearly was the main strategy for marshaling the demonstration. Police put more officers on the street than last year, when violent protesters took advantage of poor preparation by the department, mixed messages on what force could be used and undermanned ranks.
Two reviews found fault with the Seattle Police Department, leading to highly detailed planning this year.
Some protesters during various marches Wednesday taunted officers, but police did not respond.
Among those in the crowd at Judkins was Seattle attorney Peter Ehrlichman, who is the deputy monitor overseeing a court-imposed settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice to address a federal finding that Seattle police too often resort to excessive force.
As the immigration march moved through downtown, the route was watched not only by police on horseback and bicycle — but also by a crew of self-described Seattle “superheroes” dressed in costumes. They stood together watching for trouble.
One of them, wearing a blue and red mask and going by the name El Caballero, stood in front of a Wells Fargo Bank branch as marchers paused in front and shouted anti-bank slogans. They quickly moved on, and El Caballero said: “It’s been pretty mellow so far.”
As the evening wore on, the tone changed. Most of the immigration ralliers dispersed, and by 6 p.m., what appeared to be a new group of protesters took to the streets, and the tension began to mount.
There were a few signs of mischief during an evening march downtown — one person jumped up and ran over a row of parked cars, smoke devices were set off — but the mood got more intense as the group walked into the Westlake Mall area chanting “Let’s go shopping, let’s go shopping.”
A row of security guards came out of NikeTown and planted themselves around the storefront.
The crowd stalled out at Fourth Avenue and Pine Street while people tried to decide which direction to go. One woman said jokingly, “This is the downside of anarchy. We need a leader.” A few men started talking about going over to “mess with the cops.”
Protesters, many dressed all in black, eventually began setting off fireworks and throwing things at officers.
By 8 p.m., the cops got serious about clearing the street — and the crowd sometimes pushed back. Officers told protesters to disperse or risk arrest. \When some declined to move, officers used their bicycles to push them back. They used concussion grenades and pepper spray, as well. “What we saw was a gradual evolution that turned into an escalation. It was slow but steady,” said police spokesman Sean Whitcomb.
People broke windows at Capitol Hill’s Sun Liquor, a Walgreens and Bill’s Off Broadway, as well as on various cars. “I sure hope this doesn’t become a tradition, because this doesn’t reflect the best of Seattle by any means,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. “We’re a bigger, better city than this.”
By 11 p.m., at least 18 people had been arrested on suspicion of crimes ranging from assault to vandalism. The crowd began to dwindle, and some people were out in the streets picking up garbage from the overturned trash cans.