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The Social Significance Of The May Day Riots

A report on the riots that occurred on May Day in four major west-coast cities, and the social conditions that created them.
By Thaddeus Achilles Griffen

In a time when we all have been lamenting the sheer silence coming out of the United States in the midst of War, Torture, an ever-growing economic crisis, and what appears to be a world-wide ecological meltdown; the events of May the 1st, 2012 stand as proof that Americans will not, to quote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas "go gentle into that good night." Here is a detailed account:

In Seattle, WA masked protesters taking part in the larger May Day demonstration and armed with sticks, wooden riot batons, crowbars and other weapons marched down the streets of Seattle that Tuesday afternoon and then broke away from the main group and began smashing store windows and ran through the streets jumping on cars and disrupting traffic.

The day began as a group of about 75 people gathered at Seattle Central Community College just before noon. After a brief rally, the group headed directly into the college itself, marching down the halls and encouraging students to join them. The intent was to march to Seattle's downtown Westlake Park to join other groups who planned to protest that day.

Initially, the group had told Seattle Police they would take a direct route to the park. Instead, they took a circuitous route through the streets on Capitol Hill and through downtown Seattle, finally arriving at Westlake Park. Once they arrived they joined other groups that had already started an early afternoon rally.

Leaving the park, the group soon grew from about 75 to about 300 people. While many in the crowd simply chanted slogans and carried signs, a group dressed in all black and wearing bandannas or scarves covering their faces attacked the old Federal Courthouse at 1010 5th Ave., smashing three plate glass doors on the back of the building. The group continued down Sixth Ave., smashing the front windows of Niketown and several windows of American Apparel next door. In front of the stores, parked cars were equally targeted. Windshields on the cars were shattered, and tires slashed. As the group of black-clad protesters moved farther down the street, Seattle Police arrived in full riot gear came up behind the group. At least eight people were reported of have been arrested and charged for everything from vandalism, to pedestrian interference, to assault.

Further reports that day included the report of numerous skirmishes with protesters and police were reported. All five downtown Wells Fargo Bank branches, including one at Fourth Avenue and Seneca Street where windows were smashed, and were reported to have been closed for the rest of that day, said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Lara Underhill. Spokeswoman Tara Darrow reported that protesters had shattered a door window at Nordstrom's corporate offices on Sixth Avenue. Damage was also done to the U.S. Court of Appeals, here are the details:

A group of protesters marched up Madison Street and as they turned on to the Sixth Avenue side, "all hell broke loose," said David Madden, public information officer for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Glass doors at the entrance were shattered lower-level windows broken. Multi-colored stains were left on the ceramic tiles on the exterior of the building. Someone tried to ignite an incendiary device, but it apparently it didn't go off, Madden said. Demonstrators broke out windows at the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Court of Appeals in downtown Seattle early Tuesday afternoon.

More damage was at the Washington Athletic Club building at 6th and Union, and some protesters smashed a large plate-glass window that was part of the HSBC branch. Across the street at the 2 Union Square building, in vacant office space, there was a 6-inch hole in a window. A security guard pointed to a rock inside that had been thrown through it. Half a block away, the owner of a silver Porsche Cayenne would be greeted with a spray-painted green anarchy symbol on the hood when they returned. Graffiti was put on Fidelity Investments at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Pike Street.

In Portland, OR protesters clashed with police in downtown Portland during a May Day march that was reportedly unpermitted by the city.

The march began with a rally under the Burnside Bridge at around noon with a crowd of about 50 people. The protesters then moved west on Southwest Pine Street, chanting: "Whose streets? Our streets!!" while Portland bicycle officers rode along on the other side of the street keeping pace with the crowd. The protesters were in the street as they approached Southwest Fifth Avenue at Oak Street. Police then surrounded them in front, back, and to the sides. It was at this point where a confrontation broke out between police and protesters, and someone in the crowd threw some kind of smoke bomb at police. Police circled him and made at least two arrests. In total, there were about 60 police officers are on bikes around the area and police are on horses. Then more skirmishes broke out between police and marchers. At Southwest Fifth Avenue and Stark Street, a bike officer gets flipped into the air, and then onto his bike. Police then dragged away at least two people. The crowd then headed toward Pioneer Courthouse Square. At this point a standoff ensued at Pioneer Courthouse Square where a shoving match had broken out between demonstrators and the police. Some of the protesters had split off from the main group, and the rest remained in the square. Bike officers line up along Macy's while the crowd mills in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Some of the protesters are heading out of Pioneer Courthouse Square, marching toward the Justice Center. Later on that day it was reported that in the course of events a Wells Fargo sign was vandalized as marchers headed north on SW Fourth Avenue. Numerous arrests were reported in the city that day.

In San Francisco, May Day protests began early, as a demonstration that started in Dolores Park on Monday night which ended with widespread destruction. More than 100 masked protesters, dressed in black and gray and wielding crowbars and paintball guns, descended on a busy restaurant and retail stretch in the city's Mission district, and attacked about 30 store fronts. Demonstrators smashed windows, defaced cars and attacked the neighborhood police station. Other reports include about 200 people who had taken over a vacant building on Tuesday owned by the local archdiocese that had been targeted in previous protests. Earlier in the evening, a handful of protestors sat cross-legged between police lines and the front of the building, while other protestors remained inside the building and in Jefferson Square Park, across the street.
The occupation began when protesters who had gathered for a noon rally at Market and Montgomery streets downtown marched to 888 Turk St. afterward and began entering the building shortly before 3 pm. The building is this same site, owned by the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which was taken over by protesters on April 1. Protesters had removed a large wire fence in front of the building and activists streamed into the building this afternoon, holding banners and signs reading "May Day, Never Surrender" and proclaiming the "SF Commune."
California State University East Bay student Erik Carson, 26, of San Francisco said he was there to support the Occupy movement. "I don't believe anyone should be denied the right to housing," he said. Shortly thereafter two buses filled with officers in riot gear arrived at the building around 4:30 pm. and dozens of officers mobilized in front of the building. At this point, two masked men on adjacent rooftops were reported to have lobbed pipes and bricks at police officers and damaged at least one police vehicle. The two identified in connection with this incident are as 34 year old Jesse Nesbitt and Adam Delia, 24, both of San Francisco, were arrested soon afterward. Officers in riot gear then withdrew from their position that Tuesday night in front of the building after facing off with demonstrators for several hours.

In Oakland , the May Day protest started out at noon with about two thousand protesters in attendance gathered at City Hall plaza on 14th Street and Broadway to reiterate their commitment to confronting social inequality and police brutality. It was reported that officers fired tear gas and "flash-bang" grenades to disperse protesters who clashed with police. At least 23 people were wrestled to the ground and taken into custody, including one for setting a police car on fire. Toward the evening, the crowd dwindled in numbers to approximately several hundred people. At this point it was noted that some demonstrators wore face coverings and carried shields crafted from plastic garbage cans, while others identified themselves as medics, with crosses of red tape, in the event of clashes with police. Police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and issued the order to disperse around 8:40 pm. as officers in riot gear moved in on the crowds. A small skirmish broke out between some protesters and officers in riot gear at about 12:40 pm., protesters threw bottles and metal paint cans at officers who formed a line to hold back the crowd. One officer was splashed with yellow paint and kicked in the ribs as he sought to arrest a protester who officers claimed had rushed the police line. Separately, it was reported that protesters had attacked and "dismantled" a CBS station's news van, slashing its tires and smashing the windshield.

This is by no means a thorough account of all the events that had occurred at these particular protests on that 1st of May, nor does this report take into account all the actions that may have occurred in all major and minor cities and townships that span the United States. However, the social significance of these actions should not be understated. In all the years that have passed since the Seattle WTO protests that took place on November the 30th, 1999, a significant shift has occurred in the psyche of the American people.

Since January of 1999 the specter of recession has been plaguing the lives of many within "the rank and file" year after year-with mounting ferocity. Underemployment, lack of adequate health insurance, the slashing of social welfare benefits, spiraling debt, the outsourcing of jobs, the general lack of union representation, a dwindling middle-class, record-setting foreclosures, unemployment , and finally homelessness itself-have all conspired together to throw the population of this country into a state of depression and rage. On top of all of this, many of those who are unemployed and find themselves woefully dependent on the mere pittance that is provided through Unemployment Insurance, Food Stamps, or General Assistance at the state-level, are now desperately begging for help at the door-step of the federal Department Of Education. That right, millions of Americans are now flooding the ranks at colleges and universities all over this nation, eagerly plunging themselves even deeper into debt with student loans simply to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and heat in their homes. This is our nation's new concept of "Social Security." This is the new "Welfare."

Through the ravages of both the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration many people, slowly but surely, have come to regard their government simply as a one party state that is masquerading itself as a two party system. In other words, the public has come to regard its government as nothing more than an oligarchy, where the rich and the powerful have free-reign to do whatever they wish, whenever they like, and to corruptly do whatever benefits the needs and desires of a privileged few, at the great expense of the desperate many. The Reagan-style bail-out of bankers and Industrialists in the face of overwhelming poverty by President Obama and this nation's current legislature has convinced many of that.

The suspicion that many hold, that one way or another, the events of 9/11 were truly an "inside-job" concocted by our very own government. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the lies the public were told to justify our invasion into those countries. The scandal of torture that seems to stain all of our hands and darken our very hearts, as the body-bags containing the corpses of our loved one's returning home seems too much to bear. Not to mention the current tension surrounding Iran, and justifications we are sold to fear and hate the government of that nation-is more than enough to make one hate to be a citizen of this sick nation.

Despite the loss of our civil liberties through The Patriot Act, and The Department of Homeland Security Act under the Bush Administration, and the various forms of widespread police-state surveillance, harassment, and out-right abuse it has brought to our daily lives. Despite the death-blow that was struck to the Posse Comitatus Act and the writ of Habeas Corpus thanks to President Obama signing the National Defense Authorization Act (Passed only in January of this year); A bill that can define any citizen as an "enemy combatant" and therefore subject ordinary U.S. citizens to arbitrary arrest without counsel, and possible torture and imprisonment. Despite all of this and more, this 1st of May has proven that American's will not stand idly by while all of life and liberty is being strangled to death not only here, but all over the globe. It proves that at least some of us, to quote Dylan Thomas once more, will "rage, rage against the dying of the light." It was proven that we as American's are now finally beginning to live up to their obligation to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men and women all over this world and hold the wealthy and the powerful of this planet accountable for the lies, theft, and cold-blooded murder of every form of life residing on the earth.

Enough is enough.


The First of May is often referred to as May Day (International Workers' Day) in commemoration Haymarket Affair in Chicago, IL where police were trying to disperse a public assembly of protesting workers during a general strike for the eight-hour workday. During this event, an unidentified person threw a bomb at them killing one policeman and mortally wounding six others. The police reacted by firing on the crowd of workers, killing at least 4 civilians and wounding up to as many as 70 demonstrators, and scores of fellow police officers. Reliable witnesses testified that all the pistol flashes came from the center of the street, where the police were standing, and none from the crowd. Moreover, initial newspaper reports made no mention of firing by civilians. A telegraph pole at the scene was filled with bullet holes, all coming from the direction of the police. The exact number of dead and wounded on both sides remains largely unknown. It is believed that the dead and wounded police officers were used as fodder to blame the protestors and discredit their movement.

As a result, eight anarchists who were prominent labor leaders at that time were convicted of conspiracy, even though the prosecution produced no evidence that any of the defendants threw the bomb. In fact, they were told explicitly that they were being prosecuted for their political beliefs and the ideas that they were promoting. Seven were sentenced to death and one to 15 years in prison. The death sentences of two of the defendants were commuted by Illinois governor Richard J. Oglesby to terms of life in prison, and another committed suicide in jail rather than face the gallows. The other four were hanged on November 11th, 1887.

The perpetrator of this bombing was never brought to justice and to this day remains unknown.

May Day is not only a holiday for international workers solidarity. It is not only an anarchist holiday, but it is an American holiday that goes largely unknown, and regrettably uncelebrated by the vast majority of Americans here in the United States.

However the current events reported on this 1st of May seems to indicate the possibility that this trend might change.