Seattle's version of May Day, in which a peaceful march for immigrant rights is followed by violent clashes between anarchists and police, is now five years old. It began in 2012, when anarchists chose May 1, until then associated with the annual El Comite march to reform America's unjust immigration laws, as the moment to launch a bunch of smash-and-run property crimes in the downtown core. The mostly white anarchists broke windows at retail businesses, various banks, and the federal courthouse, and in doing so effectively diverted the city's attention away from El Comite's message.
This was seen as an unfortunate muting of long-running social justice organizing work by El Comite, and in ensuing years, the anarchists, apparently hearing this criticism, began to clearly separate their actions from those of the immigrant rights marchers. This is how May Day in Seattle came to have its current, predictable schedule: a diverse afternoon march to the federal courthouse led by people seeking to expand and improve the rule of law, and then later, in the evening, roving mayhem featuring attacks on property and police by "Black Bloc" anarchists, a mostly white group devoted to dismantling the rule of law.
The memory of the anarchists' attention-snatching behavior in 2012 had not faded at this year's El Comite march, which began on Sunday afternoon at Judkins Park in the Central District. The weather was hot and clear, and Raquel Soliz, 42, was standing in the shade near her son and her father. She said she wishes the anarchists would reconsider their tactics. "They can go about protesting a different way than ruining people's livelihoods," Soliz told me. She also worries that people conflate the anarchists' destructive tactics with El Comite's peaceful tactics. "People think that we're doing the same thing," Soliz said.
A few yards away, Jaime Zaragoza, 18, expressed a similar sentiment. "I understand their anger," he said of the anarchists, "but I do not agree with their methods. It definitely gives protesters here—and not just here, but everywhere—a bad name."
More than 1,000 people were preparing to march with El Comite from Judkins Park to the federal courthouse, and the staging ground was covered with the usual spectrum of ideologues offering support and seeking recruits. The revolutionary communists from "Revcom" were out, as were people from the Socialist Alternative party and, a few steps away, the Freedom Socialist Party. A member of the Democratic Party roved, clipboard in hand, trying to register voters. Also present: the National Organization for Women, Radical Women, Faith Action Network, and people seeking justice for Leonard Peltier. If there were anarchists around, they didn't make themselves evident—a sign that the message had been received.
As she was getting ready to march, state senator Pramila Jayapal, who's currently running for retiring Democratic congressman Jim McDermott's seat, recalled the anarchists' arrival in 2012. "That was hard," Jayapal said. "It was difficult to see our message disrupted." Like Zaragoza, she thinks the anarchists' core frustrations may be similar to her own. "All of this is expressing discontent with our current system," Jayapal said. But unlike the anarchists, she believes in reform through the democratic process. "I'm in the system," Jayapal said. "I'm trying to change it from the inside. And I believe that's possible, otherwise I wouldn't be here."
The violence and property destruction that have become a hallmark of Seattle's anarchist actions on May Day—and that seemed sure to take place again within a few hours—are not a path she wants to go down. "I just don't believe in that," Jayapal said. "I don't think that you fight war with more violence. And that's what we have: a war on working people in this country."
The immigrant rights march headed west down Jackson Street, in the direction of Elliott Bay. Frank Taylor, 69, stood in some shade under the awning of his barbershop, watching. The shop is called Frank's, and Taylor's business card describes him as both manager and master barber. A sign at the front door of his shop reads "No sagging"—he's just not into sagging pants, and it's his shop. "It's crazy," Taylor said of the anarchist mayhem that now occurs annually after the El Comite march. "Violence is not the way to get your point across." Taylor has seen a lot of change in this country in his lifetime. It's not enough, but he still believes America can, and will, keep on changing, and if it doesn't change fast enough, he said, "you keep on demonstrating."
As dancers in traditional Aztec dress passed by, Taylor told me he's feeling good about local government right now because of a series of events that refute the frequent anarchist claim that participation in the democratic process changes nothing. The City of Seattle, at the urging of our democratically elected socialist city council member, Kshama Sawant, recently gave Taylor $25,000 in mitigation money for the effects of a public construction project near his other barber shop, which is located on 23rd Avenue. For him, government can be a force for positive change (the road, sidewalk, and lighting improvements the city is creating on 23rd) and a means of buffering people from the sometimes hard side effects of that change (the mitigation money). And when it's not? Well, then you just keep pushing until it is.
The immigrant rights march turned north, moving in the direction of the Seattle Police Department's Capitol Hill precinct. As it passed, officers stood silently behind metal barricades as El Comite marchers briefly changed up their chants. What had been "Up, up with education! Down, down with deportation!" briefly gave way to "Black lives matter!" As the marchers crossed Boren Avenue, the site of clashes last year between police and anarchist protesters, I peeled off. By now, a few anarchists had joined in with the immigrant rights protesters, including a small group dressed in all black and carrying an effigy of the Monopoly man and his money bag. The Monopoly man was hanging from a noose.
As the El Comite march headed for the federal courthouse, I headed for Westlake Park, where an anarchist "solidarity music festival" was supposed to be under way. The music festival, it turned out, had ended early, and I'd missed my chance to catch acts such as "istabcapitalists" and "Smashie Smashie." I looked around. Someone had scrawled "LOVE COPS" onto the stones at the base of the Westlake stage, and then someone else had adjusted that message to read "EAT COPS." At a table under some trees, pamphleteers handed out tracts with names like "Life Without Law." At another table, the group Food Not Bombs offered a goulash of chickpeas and cauliflower. Nearby, a segment of the Black Bloc was getting into costume: black hoodies up, black face masks on, black gloves pulled taut.
It's always an adventure talking to anarchists as a reporter. In my experience, they tend to be exceedingly strident in demanding accountability from the rest of society, while simultaneously defying inquiries that suggest any kind of general accountability for their collective actions. For example, I'm often told that no individual anarchist can speak for any other anarchist, much less take responsibility (or blame) for some other anarchist's deeds. To do so would suggest coordination and hierarchy, and as the "Life Without Law" pamphlet states, "An anarchist is someone who rejects the domination of one person or class of people over another." In practice, this means no one's the boss, no one's idea is better than anyone else's, and, when shit goes down, there's no central, agreed-upon set of guiding principles, no majority-endorsed justification or shared vision that someone like me can question.
Except that every year for the last five years, a bunch of anarchists have come together in Seattle on the same day, in roughly the same place, with the strong conviction that they have a better idea for shaping human society, and a belief that they're following the righteous path by either breaking shit or injuring people, or both. When our far-from-perfect police department sometimes overreacts with indiscriminate force, plenty of these anarchists get injured, too.
Aware of the pitfalls in asking "Why?" at this kind of anarchist rally, I did anyway. I've spent a bunch of years as part of the "Who did what to whom first?" coverage of Seattle's May Day face-off. On the whole, it's left me far more interested in this hard-to-explain (even for the anarchists themselves) ideology that leads people to risk injury and arrest. I know there's a long and serious history of anarchist intellectual thought, but I wanted to find out what kind of thought tradition the protesters themselves think they're enacting. Orien Summors, 22, was sitting on the Westlake pavers near the goulash station and, when I inquired, explained anarchy to me this way: "You need to take care of yourself. You don't need to rely on your government. It's kill or be killed."
Summors, who said she would be attending the "smashfest" later on, continued: "There should be just one law, and that is 'Take care of your shit.'" She went on to describe an anarchist vision for the world in which, when the strong hurt the weak, the strong will be hurt in equal measure. As examples, she said that a molester would be molested or a murderer would be murdered. I asked Summors if this was less a brand-new vision for utopia than a reversion to an old eye-for-an-eye brand of justice. "Eye for an eye, that's exactly it," she said.
"Maj," 43, was wearing a black baseball hat with a skull and crossbones on the front. "We're slaves, we're indentured servants," he told me, and then spoke of finding "utopia, equality, freedom" on the other side of this struggle. His sleeveless jean jacket was adorned with patches that read "DISOBEY" and "REBEL." Next to him stood "Faust," 20, wearing a black Utilikilt, upside-down cross earrings, and black boots. Faust promised me anarchy was leading us "to a brighter, better future." How? "I can't say for certain," Faust replied. "I am relatively new to this idea, as I am to the world as a whole." At least by joining this movement—which, one must recall, is not a movement! Just a random collection of free individuals accountable only to themselves except when they choose to act with others sometimes!—Faust can feel, he told me, like he's working against bigotry and capitalism. "I'm fucking pissed off," Faust said.
While Faust and many other anarchists regularly talk about themselves as "anticapitalist"—and while that's definitely good marketing at this moment of unconscionable economic inequality in America—it seems that what the anarchist protesters are, fundamentally, is antigovernment. If capitalism, our economic system, were to end tomorrow, there would still be the matter of our democratic state to deal with. In other words, "Life Without Law" does not begin when capitalism gives way to socialism or communism or some other way of organizing an economy. Life without law begins when the government falls, the jails open ("Free all prisoners, destroy all prisons," read one banner at the rally), and crutches like the Constitution, the social safety net, labor laws, regulated health care, and Social Security are tossed into the dustbin of history.
Interestingly, Faust and Maj didn't have a lot of kind things to say about Black Bloc anarchists who try to hasten the arrival of this supposedly wonderful moment by breaking shit and throwing things at cops. "They're fucking stupid," Faust said of the Black Bloc folks. "You're just going to smash some windows and say, 'Fuck capitalism'? Why not open up a dialogue?" Surprisingly, Maj then went on to echo an assumption that a lot of people outside of anarchist circles make about anarchists who break store windows. "These kids have trust funds," Maj, one of the few anarchists of color around, said disdainfully. "These kids have money to put on lawyers—they can afford it." Faust agreed, telling me he works at a thrift store making below poverty wages and can't afford that kind of risk.
But, Maj continued, the drive to destroy is not only tied to financial privilege. It's tied, he believes, to a broader sense of people, and especially young people, being unable to change anything at a time when their futures look incredibly bleak due to particular failings of our capitalistic democracy (which, they rightly point out, now operates more like an oligarchy). This is the "discontent with our current system" that Jayapal was referring to, but with an additional deep cynicism about redemptive possibilities. "Being disenfranchised leads to being disenchanted," Maj said. "Being disenchanted leads to being angry. Being angry leads to destruction."
"And what does destruction lead to?" I asked.
Maj's reply was immediate: "Reconstruction."
I asked Maj why he believes an anarchist reconstruction would produce something better than the present.
"The question," he replied, "is whether it can get any worse."
Before May Day, the Puget Sound Anarchists posted a statement on their website meant to recruit others to their cause. It talked about "destroying our enemies and actualizing our desires." (When highlighted by the media, the post was followed by a further post reminding everyone that, obviously, "this website and its editors speak for no one.") The original post featured a video of anarchists clashing with police officers during past May Days and described the need to dismantle "this hellworld—this Leviathan—[that] is poisoning our environment, exploiting us, wounding us, imprisoning us, and killing us. The reasons for fighting back are evident in the extreme. Down with the state and its trappings!"
The use of the word "Leviathan" was probably a reference to the 17th-century book of the same name, written by the political theorist Thomas Hobbes. He's the guy who argued that, in the absence of a strong government to enforce rules and laws, human beings revert to what he viewed as their natural state—a state in which there is "continual fear and danger of violent death," and in which human lives, to repeat Hobbes's most famous line, are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
I walked over to a member of the Black Bloc who was preparing himself for the evening's actions—hood up, mask on, eyes flitting intently about, as if searching for unseen adversaries. He was not excited to answer my questions, but when I asked what his aim was at this protest, he responded: "Awareness of capitalism and how it's destroying our country and the world." I asked him: What should capitalism be replaced by? "Socialism," he said. "Then communism." And after that, anarchy? "No," he said firmly.
I walked away confused. Across the square, Summors, the eye-for-an-eye anarchist, had raised her own black hood. The sun was starting to fall behind the downtown buildings, and most of the Black Bloc folks—maybe two dozen all told—were standing in a circle in the middle of Westlake Park, holding a ring of banners between themselves and a larger number of onlookers. Probably a quarter of those onlookers were reporters. The faces of the people in the bloc were partially obscured by masks, but enough of them could still be seen to determine that they were overwhelmingly white and male. One banner read "Whoever they vote for we are ungovernable."
Nearby, a few people in Guy Fawkes masks created their own clutch of intrigue. At the periphery of it all, a man in an outfit labeled as a Pierce County Jail uniform was wearing bright stickers on his forehead and telling people excitedly, "I'm a rabbi. I'm a Jewish rabbi." A woman in the midst of either psychological or psychedelic disturbance continued an argument she'd been having with everyone and no one.
Political rallies like this are not just demonstrations in the typical sense. They can also demonstrate the future being sought, and so I thought: Is this the anarchic "utopia" they're offering? A vaguely menacing collection of masked white dudes waiting to come to a unanimous decision on what to do with all their sticks, rocks, fireworks, and cans of spray paint—while all around them, others wait in various states of madness, trepidation, and intrigue? This is meant to disprove the idea that, in the absence of government, we enter a Hobbesian nightmare?
I also wondered: What if they're smarter than that? What if this year they just stand here and transform us, the watchers, into the spectacle? What if they prove they can force us to listen to their message by simply dangling the possibility of violence in front of us, and then after six hours of mutual staring and expectant waiting, they pack up and go home and leave us to wonder about our reactions, our overreactions, the part that media images play in this heavily scripted annual performance, and what we're all really trying to protect.
That's not what happened.
But as I waited, I had time to notice that the Black Bloc members were wearing some nice threads. There were a lot of enviable black Gore-Tex rain jackets in that circle, plus numerous Doc Martens boots and fine-looking, well-stuffed black backpacks, including one from North Face. A guy with a can of spray paint in each hand was sporting some very fancy sweatpants—the kind that cost more than jeans—and a pair of Air Jordans. Maybe Maj and Faust were right about the trust-fund kids.
Someone handed out orange and yellow cloth bandannas to people standing around the circle, so that they could become a bit more like the bloc. A bunch of young kids with skateboards ran up and grabbed the bandannas. A man outside the circle waved a "Fuck the SPD" sign at a helicopter overhead.
The size of the bloc seemed to have shrunk considerably from previous years. I thought: Maybe it's getting old for other people, too.
Suddenly, in front of me, a bloc member spoke: "We're against ISIS, by the way." He was talking to two women staring at the circle. I guess he thought one of them had just compared the bloc to ISIS, which she hadn't. He went on: "The world is literally going to shit right now. It's not time to be complacent... We have a very limited amount of time before we destroy everything." He was wearing black jeans, black shoes, and a black face mask. He said he might be dead before the world as we know it ends, but that his younger brother and sister probably wouldn't, and so here he is, taking action.
A banging began inside the circle, sticks hitting pavers, black flags waving. Outside the circle, someone shouted, "Everyone's a leader in anarchy!"
A chant went up: "All cops are bastards, ACAB! All cops are bastards, ACAB!"
The people who insist they're all autonomous individuals—freethinkers who can't be lumped together as a monolith—were now denying the individuality of a bunch of other people simply because those people work in law enforcement.
I thought of the post from the Puget Sound Anarchists, and the part of it that said, "Let's take steps to destroying our enemies and actualizing our desires." The mind-set of fanatical moral certainty requires an enemy.
There have actually been a lot of moments over the last five years—talking to Maj and Faust, for one recent example—when I've thought that anarchists, despite their bad reputation in Seattle, might actually be the most optimistic and idealistic people in the world. Some of them truly, truly seem to believe the polar opposite of what Hobbes believed. They think that absent the structures of government, human beings will naturally be so good to each other that we'll end up wondering why we ever groped toward government in the first place. But then the Black Bloc starts marching, and I stop wondering if they might have a point about the undeniable, universal goodness of human nature.
This year, the bloc drew hundreds of others behind it for an evening march that left broken windows in downtown, five injured cops, and an untallied but certainly considerable number of injured protesters. According to the Seattle Police Department, one officer was struck in the head by a rock. Another was bitten. Another was hit by an unlit Molotov cocktail. In addition to the rocks and Molotov cocktails, marchers also threw fireworks. Police responded with pepper spray, blast balls that ended up injuring a number of journalists, and a practiced response that, in a new development from previous years, pushed the anarchist march into the Sodo neighborhood (giving Capitol Hill, a frequent end point for riots featuring bad behavior on all sides, a break). Along the way, a protester shouted into the live feed of local television station KIRO: "You're a corporate liar, FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!" Another live feed, by KOMO TV, picked up the chant of "FUCK KOMO, FUCK KOMO!" During an attempt at TV interviews, a male protester was heard yelling, "FUCK HER RIGHT IN THE PUSSY!" All the while, protesters and police captured their own videos of the skirmishes for later deployment on an inevitable second front of this fight, the wild terrain of instant online opinion formation. Nine people were arrested for property destruction, assault, and obstruction. Eight of them were between the ages of 20 and 23, one of them was 32. By nightfall, it had all ended—absurdly, exhaustedly—in the parking lot of a Costco, with the anarchist marchers penned in by their enemy, the law.
Meanwhile, a very different scene unfolded on Capitol Hill, behind an old firehouse that used to be an independent video store and now is a shop selling pricey knickknacks destined for the expensive new apartments of recent arrivals—the Bezos Bloc, you might call them. Out back of the old firehouse, on a grassy square, some of the Aztec dancers from the El Comite march had set up an impromptu recovery area.
The recent history of this spot reminds us that change is uneven, capitalism is far from perfect, and likewise for democracy.
But in the present moment, it was a startling, idyllic contrast to the "hellworld" seen—and sometimes enacted—by the anarchists. People napped in the grass. They ate from a sidewalk buffet of rice, beans, salad, and smoked salmon. They drank from a large clear barrel of agua fresca. The work expanding justice was unfinished, of course. It was not easy, and probably will never be. But in their exhaustion, they seemed invigorated. It seemed the revivifying exhaustion of inspiring protest, as opposed to the deadening exhaustion of unfocused, nihilistic rage.This story has been updated since its original publication.