Is SPD Prepared for May Day ‘Ruffians?’ Who Knows?

The Seattle Police Department held a series of media briefings today in anticipation of a May Day that, as my colleague Kelton Sears tells us, is certain to be hot in more ways than one. Pointless violence by fringe protesters has marred the last couple of May Days, and Thursday’s expected 81 degree temperature may not help things this year.

Is SPD prepared? It was hard to tell from a short question-and-answer session with Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh, who will be serving as May Day field commander, and West Precinct Captain and May Day Incident Commander Chris Fowler. McDonagh, who spoke with SW at greater length while Fowler left to prepare for a meeting on the matter with SPD brass, obviously intended to reassure the public. But he said he couldn’t discuss tactics, including what measures the department is taking to prevent more May Day mayhem.

Indeed, at one point, he said that “you have to be careful you don’t infringe on someone’s rights” by engaging in preventative strategies. McDonagh and Fowler both seemed very, very eager to stress that they supported free speech. Asked for the overall message he was trying to convey in the briefing, McDonagh responded it was that SPD “supports the lawful assembly of people expressing their First Amendment rights.” He also pointed out that “there’s more to” May Day than the “couple of ruffians who come out late at night,” citing the annual immigration and labor march that “has a lot of history to it.”

Perhaps this emphasis is no surprise given accusations of excessive force lobbed at the department over its handling of previous May Days and in general, leading the DOJ to investigate and mandate reforms. According to KIRO Radio, socialist City Councilmember Kshama Sawant recently observed that it was police, not protesters, who at last year’s May Day brought out flashbang grenades, pepper spray and tear gas. “The overwhelming violence comes from the police,” Sawant told KIRO.

That view, however, doesn’t capture the aggressiveness on display by some of the marchers. From a dispatch filed by SW’s Matt Driscoll, who was on the scene at last year May Day “anti-captialist march:”

The crowd was feisty and antagonistic, and though many of the officers on duty seemed to handle themselves well, the confrontations mounted as the event progressed – which only seemed to embolden marchers. Without a doubt, the way SPD handled itself will be dissected over the coming days, as will the actions of the marchers, a handful of whom seemed hellbent on enticing police into the use of force.

Not long later, shortly before 8 pm, things got seriously dicey as police pushed the crowd toward 5th and Olive, using pepper spray and bike blocking tactics in an effort to keep people moving. By this point, protestors were flinging glass bottles and expletive-laden insults at police, with frequent chants of “Fuck the police!” and “ACAB! All Cops Are Bastards!” ringing in the air in the moments that weren’t filled with that startling pops of the flash bang grenades being launched by a clearly irritated police force. There was no shortage of flash bang grenades; at points downtown sounded like a war zone. It was legitimately frightening.

For all that, the scene was less chaotic than the year before, when police officers seemed to be MIA as the black-clad crowd went nuts. Fowler, who was the incident commander last year, has gotten much of the credit for that. So that may be the worst we can expect at a similar anti-capitalist protest planned for this year.

All he and McDonagh would say is that if the ruffians get out of control, they will “develop probable cause” to make arrests. And if they can’t make the arrests on May Day, they will form a task force, as they did last year, to identify the perpetrators.

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