Seattle's riotous May Day demonstrations have become an annual city tradition involving vandalism, allegations of police aggression, political controversy and even a major grand jury investigation. In recent years the typical scenario has included a large march and rally downtown, followed by independent marches later in the evening.
One month after Capitol Hill's 2015 May Day protests, Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell is still hopping mad. Harrell, chair of the Council's Public Safety Committee, claims that the aggressive and "idiotic" arrest of one of the protest marchers may have actually incited later acts of violence and vandalism by some of the demonstrators. The Seattle Police Department has stated that metal objects were thrown at them during this latest May Day melee. Police officers were injured and cars were vandalized. At least 16 people were arrested.
During a recent interview by local Democratic Party representatives, Harrell reportedly banged on the table with his fist while responding to questions regarding police accountability. Harrell is running for reelection and was seeking an endorsement for his campaign.
Part of the ongoing controversy involves a verbal dispute between Harrell and the city's new Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole. The chief said she was surprised by Harrell's criticisms. Both the mayor and local media reported that the Seattle police had acted with restraint.
O'Toole is a former Boston police commissioner who has also worked on police reform issues in Ireland. She was appointed by Mayor Ed Murray and approved by the City Council because they hoped she would serve as a reformer who could help the city to address the results of a U.S. Department of Justice review of the SPD. The DOJ concluded that SPD had a practice and policy of using excessive force.
In contradiction to the mayor and the police chief's support for police actions, complaints against crowd-control tactics began to surface several days after the Capitol Hill protests. Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell was burned on the foot by a flash-bang grenade launched by police during the protest march. National Lawyers Guild legal observers Nikkita Oliver and Claire Sullivan were also wounded by police crowd-control devices. The University of Washington law students claim they were targeted by SPD officers who fired rubber bullets at them.
Police allegedly used a pepper ball gun and fired plastic or rubber-tipped sponge projectile weapons at protesters.
Seattle City Council member Nick Licata has requested improvements in the training of police officers in the use of flash-bang grenades. President Barack Obama signed an executive order last month restricting the use and procurement of some types of crowd-control devices in an attempt to de-militarize U.S. police departments.
According to the 2012 consent decree involving the DOJ and the City of Seattle, every instance of the use of force by Seattle police officers must be documented and the use of all "less lethal" crowd-control devices must be reviewed. Some council members complain that the process takes too long, and it may be a long time before we know the real story of what happened on Capitol Hill during this year's May Day protests.
I was forced to dodge flash-bang grenades while reporting on May Day events for two national radio programs. One device exploded so close to me that my hearing was affected by the painful blast. I also suffered from the effects of some kind of pepper gas that burned my eyes, nose and throat.
Apparently, according to Licata's office, there is no clear policy regarding the protection of members of the press during crowd-control actions. Reporters are only currently protected by "dispersal orders," which are required to be announced before police begin clearing the streets. I did not hear a dispersal order, so if one was given, I was either too far away or it happened before I came onto the scene of the protest near Olive Way and Belmont Street.
My Youtube video and footage shot by photojournalist Alex Garland both show flash-bang grenades being used in an area where the majority of the people present were actually reporters, photographers and independent citizen journalists. During a May 7 national press briefing sponsored by Democracy Watch News, Licata made it clear that freedom of the press should apply to anyone who films police actions, regardless of whether they are employed as official journalists.
In 2011, I won a major federal class action lawsuit regarding freedom of the press. U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan ruled that my rights as a journalist were violated when I was arrested and banned from the state Capitol in Olympia while covering a sit-in protest against state budget cuts.
Many reporters, including local journalists and members of the Associated Press have been arrested during past demonstrations in Seattle and other U.S. cities. These incidents involving police mistreatment of reporters and citizen journalists may be one of the reasons why Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States as No. 49 on their World Press Freedom Index. Namibia and Costa Rica are ranked higher than the U.S. in terms of the freedom of the press to gather and report information. Law enforcement authorities may release members of the press soon after their arrests, but while being detained, they are impeded in their ability to report on the news that's happening in the streets.
Basically, if you are a reporter covering a U.S. protest, you can be subjected to arrest or to the use of flash grenades, rubber bullets or any other kind of crowd control device. Just because you wear a press badge and you're a member of the Society of Professional Journalists it doesn't mean you won't get pepper-sprayed. ABC News reporter Hanna Scott was pepper-sprayed by Seattle police during the May Day demonstrations in 2013. Some journalists consider this problem as just another one of the risks involved in doing journalistic business, and most news agencies don't bother to file complaints or lawsuits after their reporters are arrested while covering protests.
If a decision is made at city hall or at the local precinct that calls for clearing the streets, some consideration must be made for the safety of reporters, photojournalists, camera operators and members of the general public who choose to film the events. If they are forced to leave the area due to threats of the use of "less lethal" weaponry or arrest, how can they document what's happening?