King County is prosecuting five people who participated in protests on May Day this year in downtown Seattle.
The protests involved rallies, music and marching around Westlake Park and also thousands of dollars in property damage. A group dressed in black smashed windows at stores, banks and federal properties around the downtown core, vandalizing parked cars along the way.
Of the dozens who participated in the property damage and rioting, police are charging five people. According to court documents, they allegedly smashed windows at a Bank of America, American Apparel and Niketown, threw objects at police officers and participated in rioting.
It was “some of the worst violence this city has seen since WTO,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, spokesperson for the Seattle Police Department (SPD), referring to similar property damage that took place during the World Trade Organization protests in 1999.
The entire group is charged with riot, a misdemeanor, and some are charged with malicious mischief in the second degree and assault in the fourth degree.
A new group called the Seattle Anti-Repression Committee (SARC) says these new charges against the five defendants are part of a long list of mostly failed prosecutions which have been used to suppress political action.
The charges lump together various kinds of political protest, SARC member Ian Finkenbinder said, characterizing them as “scary anarchy” and equating property destruction with actual violence.
“What they’re really trying to do is equate anarchism with terrorism,” Finkenbinder said, and by extension dissuade people from participating in protests.
Protest vs. violence
SARC, which formed in November after the charges were filed against the five May Day protesters, highlights dozens of charges filed against protesters that were either dropped or acquitted.
Sixteen people who occupied the Union Cultural Center on Capitol Hill to protest its demolition were acquitted. So were the “Chase 5,” a group of five people who staged a sit-in at Chase Bank in November 2011. Charges were dropped against three of the people SPD arrested immediately after May Day, including those against Real Change contributor Alex Garland (RC “Changing Focus,” Sept. 12, 2012).
Three people are in prison now for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the vandalism on May Day. People who refuse to answer questions before grand juries can be detained for contempt of court.
But this isn’t a simple matter of protest and speech, Whitcomb said. These cases are the culmination of months of investigation by SPD into the actions of five people he described as “a very dangerous lot.”
According to SPD’s investigation reports, police officers used television footage, media photographs and pictures police took of protests later in the afternoon to identify the five people charged.
Police matched articles of clothing or visible tattoos seen on photos of masked protesters breaking windows with clothes seen on unmasked protesters later in the afternoon.
Police also received anonymous tips from people who knew those charged.
“These people had clubs, they had feces, they had smoke bombs, they had incendiary devices,” Whitcomb said. “The real shame is that this is a day of free speech on immigration reform.”
Their actions were violent, Whitcomb said, even if no one was physically harmed.
“Property destruction can be a violent crime,” he said. “If you’re working at a store, trying to support your family, and people dressed in black start smashing windows, that’s very frightening.”
“Prison is not an effective method for curing society’s ills,” he said.