On May Day, Seattle police threw dozens of flashbang grenades—what the department calls "blast balls"—into crowds of protesters. One man showed me a welt on his back that he said was caused by a flashbang. A photographer named Scott Lum suffered a bloody injury to his face. He said he wasn't sure what caused it, but that flashbangs were going off around him.
Video shot by freelance photographer Alex Garland with a shoulder-mounted camera shows a flashbang exploding next to Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell. Cornwell was injured—her right foot burned and bruised—and went to the hospital that evening (it happens at the 13 second mark).
"The whole thing was very confusing," Cornwell told me today. She didn't want to elaborate on the injury or her experience on May Day because of pending insurance and workplace injury claims.
A ProPublica investigation published in January found that flashbangs can cause injury—even death—and that police use them with little oversight. They are primarily used during raids by SWAT teams. "When these modified hand grenades explode on the human body," the investigation found, "they can cause severe injury or death. The flash powder burns hotter than lava."
Office of Professional Accountability Director Pierce Murphy, who investigates police misconduct, said he is looking into how Seattle police are trained to use the devices and the policies governing them. "It seemed like they were getting thrown in the middle of crowds," said Murphy, who observed some of Friday's events firsthand.
In this SPD training video, Officer Chris Myers warns officers that the flashbang grenades can cause burns. He described a scenario where officers are vastly outnumbered, and instructed, "You don't throw it into the crowd, because that will cause mayhem and confusion."
The SPD has not revealed how many flashbangs it used on May Day or what the manufacturer or make of the device is.
Murphy also said he's considering opening an investigation into why an officer is seen on video shoving somebody as he biked past. "It's hard to imagine what the context is," he said, "in the one [video] where the officer shoves the guy in the back of the head as he's flying by."
This is the second time in three years that police have used force on reporters during May Day events. Seattle police officers pepper-sprayed journalist Erica Barnett, reporting for PubliCola at the time, in 2013.
In 2014, Seattle police showed restraint. Commander Chris Fowler allowed anarchist protesters to march for hours, until a group burned a trash can in the street on Capitol Hill outside Seattle Central College. "They want to have a street party, that’s fine," he said at the time.
This year, what began as a peaceful anticapitalist march turned into a tense standoff when police tackled a masked protester from behind, arresting him or her and scattering the anarchist Black Bloc into the street. The march had left Seattle Central at about 7 p.m. and wound its way north, then south, until police charged into the crowd and made the arrest, at about 7:30 p.m.
At this point, the police, who had previously been following the march on the sidelines on bicycles (as they patiently did last year), deployed officers in riot gear, formed into lines, shouted at people to "move back!" and blocked off the street. SPD has not told me why they singled out the individual for arrest, or offered an explanation for what transformed the march into what it calls a "riot."
Immediately after this arrest, a small number of protesters smashed several windows, including those of KIRO 7's vehicles, threw dumpsters in the street, and lobbed rocks and glass at police. Later on, protesters set a small fire in the Seattle Central College plaza and spray-painted anarchist symbols on a public art installation, people who tried to protect the art installation, and windows.
Police were also seen firing rubber bullets. The National Lawyers Guild said that its two observers—UW law students Nikkita Oliver and Claire Sullivan, who were wearing bright green hats marking them as observers—were targeted by Seattle police. Sullivan said a rubber bullet left her with a bloody leg wound. Later, according to an NLG statement, officers grabbed Sullivan by the backpack and handcuffed her, before releasing her ten minutes later. Oliver told me she heard police shout an order to arrest her and Sullivan.
As I walked away from police on Broadway on May Day, I was grabbed without warning by the back of my shirt and shoved forward by a police officer. Later, I dodged a fragment of a flashbang grenade that spun past my head.
I've asked the SPD whether the indiscriminate impacts of its use of force during May Day on reporters and legal observers is considered acceptable, but I've received no response so far. Police made 16 arrests and say all use of force will be reviewed. Some of those arrested have been charged with assault and obstruction.
After the protests dissipated on Friday evening, police chief Kathleen O’Toole said, "I’m very proud of the officers; I think they showed great restraint tonight,” the Seattle Times reported.
Our live-blog of May Day 2015, including the day's Black Lives Matter and immigrant/workers rights marches, is here.
This post has been updated since its original publication.