The C Is for Crank

Last Night

On SPD, the May Day protests, and getting pepper sprayed.

By Erica C. Barnett May 2, 2013


The C Is for Crank

Last night, heading back from a CityClub "Civic Cocktail" event at the Palace Ballroom (Josh was on a panel with city attorney Pete Holmes, Crosscut editor Mary Bruno, and OneAmerica director Rich Stolz), Josh and I headed over to the May Day protest, which was just starting to get ugly, a few blocks away at that octopus intersection where 4th and Olive and Stewart come together. 

I wasn't planning to report on the protest—frankly, after being a reporter for more years than I care to admit, protests just aren't my beat—but like last year, I couldn't resist getting sucked into the action. 

Shortly after we started wandering around Westlake, Josh and I got separated: He was on the west side of the protest, where police were telling people to disperse to the west, and I was on the east, where they were pushing people up toward Capitol Hill, using a wall of bikes as a moving shield. Police were shouting "Move back!"; protesters were responding, "Our streets!"  

But everyone within a block-or-so radius of me was moving eastward as requested, if more slowly and belligerently (plenty of folks were shouting, and some shot  fireworks in the air) than the officers wanted. SPD flash bombs were going off every few seconds (and man, those things are loud), and pepper spray was in the air. 

Here's what happened next: I saw police officers shoving a young woman onto the ground. I, along with many other members of the media and other folks with cameras, hustled over to document what was going on. As I tried to take a photo of the woman on the ground, an officer behind the bike wall looked at me and yelled, "Move back!" (which I, along with the rest of the crowd, was already doing), and then, a split-second later, opened a red aerosol can of pepper spray in my face at point-blank range. It hit me directly in the eyes, nose, and mouth and hurt like hell.

The officer responded to my protest, "But I can't see," by threatening to arrest me. Blinded, I tried to make it onto the sidewalk, but was shoved forward (along with all the other protesters, bystanders, and media in the street) by the bike-wielding phalanx of cops, one of whom responded to my protest, "But I can't see," by threatening to arrest me and shoving me hard with his bike.

Eventually, with the help of a very nice young, bandanna-clad  protester, I was able to sit down, but officers quickly grabbed me and forced me to keep walking up Olive Way until I was able to duck into an alley near the Olive8 hotel.  

But I don't want to dwell on that. My main takeaway from last night's downtown protests—and, to reiterate, I only witnessed the downtown portion of the protest between about 7:30 and 8:15, and didn't catch what sounded like mayhem on Capitol Hill—was that the police were raring for a fight—first issuing a confusing and vague order to "disperse!", then screaming indiscriminately at people who failed to move quickly enough, then wielding batons and bikes to force the crowd away from Westlake.  

In the runup to the protests, Mayor Mike McGinn said he believed officers were ready to deal with the crowds, and, in a sense, I guess they were; SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says officers, 500 of whom went through special training on crowd dispersal, were told to react aggressively to any lawlessness. "I would say it was a very deliberate and methodical action to disperse a crowd using the tools that we’ve been equipped with and trained with," Whitcomb, who watched last night's events from the city's emergency operations center, told me today.

"After a dispersal order is given, the mere fact that you’re there is problematic. If I was shopping and I walked out of a pub or store into that [protest], I would have been able to find a quick and easy way out of that."  

Leaving aside the fact that officers were actually forcing most of the crowd up Olive Way toward Capitol Hill, and the fact that the protesters I personally saw were breaking no laws: What about the impulse that so many people have to document, to create a record that this happened? I don't know about you, but my instinct when I see a burning building is to run into the fire, and that's hardly an instinct that's limited to journalists with badges.

Whitcomb told me the cops probably wouldn't have sprayed me if they'd known I was a reporter. That's probably true, but that isn't the point. Documenting an event (while following orders to move) is not a crime. I don't sympathize for one single second with the so-called anarchists' "cause" (and plenty of the protesters were acting obnoxiously), but I now understand on a visceral level what it's like to feel betrayed by the people we pay to protect us—perhaps more so, actually, because my sympathies tend to lie with police, who do one of the toughest and most dangerous jobs I can imagine. 

Tonight, Mayor McGinn will participate—along with current city council public safety chair Bruce Harrell and former chair and ex-cop Tim Burgess—in a mayoral debate in North Seattle. I hope he'll have something deeper to say about the cops' performance last night than "they did what they were supposed to do."

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