Ever since I moved to Seattle, I’ve avoided May Day affairs wholesale.
Why? Most news coverage of May Day focuses on wanton violence by anarchists who want smash stuff and fight the police. More thoughtful coverage critiques the black bloc for coopting May Day and overshadowing the efforts of peaceful, well-organized immigration and Black Lives Matter protestors.
So not wanting to tempt fate and potentially face agitated cops, I’ve stayed home, despite my own personal interest in the immigrant rights element.
Was my decision informed? Would I be put in danger by young white zealots exploiting a “privilege to riot?”
I asked my friend Jonathan Rosenblum, a writer and a labor organizing consultant who was front and center for the Seattle WTO protests in 1999 and the L.A. Riots in 1992 for his thoughts.
“In recent May Days, my family has marched, my kids have marched. We haven’t had any problems with anybody,“ he said. “There are folks in the establishment who want to try to diminish the unity and cloud the movement by raising the specter of riot.”
I would say those “establishment” folks have succeeded, at least with me.
But Rosenblum said strategically targeted property violence — sometimes even looting — can be valuable if it brings ignored causes and grievances to the surface for attention, especially if they target establishments that don’t benefit local community or even do harm.
Interesting. But do the anarchists out smashing store windows in Seattle every May Day have that level of analysis?
“May Day has become a ritualized thing in Seattle…It’s not confrontational actually. It’s predictable.”
I caught up with a white male self-identified-anarchist who agreed to talk to me under a pseudonym “Sasha Berkman.” He said he’s afraid that using his real name would bring police attention.
Berkman, 40, didn’t discuss being involved in property destruction or other crimes directly, but he said he has seen various things since WTO protests and, “has been around for some shit”
“In Seattle, there has been things what some people would call ‘riots’ on May Day… Sometimes they have been pretty awesome,“ he said. “I was pretty stoked that in 2012 American Apparel, Nike Town, Bank of America, the Federal Building, got smashed up.“
But he doesn’t sound thrilled with recent May Day actions.
“Since  May Day has become a ritualized thing in Seattle,” he said. ”…it’s not confrontational actually. It’s predictable. So it’s too small and limited by the state.”
What makes a protest a riot?
The term “riot” gets kicked around a lot. Berkman used it to describe some May Day activities in past years. But it’s also often used to label the WTO protests, which started out as non-violent civil disobedience, until an outsized police response escalated the situation.
“Riot” is not a very popular term amongst the Seattle activists I spoke to. Most avoid it in favor of other, sometimes more descriptive terms like “rebellion,” “uprising,” “violence against property” and even “smashy smashy.”
As possible definition Rosenblum quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
King’s definition may explain the uprisings which happened in Ferguson and Baltimore last year, but May Day riots in Seattle are different.
“I support those [riots] absolutely much more than people choosing to ritually show up every year wherever for a pantomime riot,” Berkman said. “When it comes to places like Baltimore and Ferguson, a person is killed by a cop, people are outraged…by discernible harm.”
Black Lives Matter activist Michael “Renaissance” Moynihan and Berkman agreed that riots like the one’s in Ferguson and Baltimore are highly unlikely in Seattle, partly because police in Seattle are among the best trained and most expensively equipped to repress “free expression.”
In addition, Moynihan says, the black population in Seattle has been so thinned through gentrification and other means that Black Lives Matter “rebellion” is unlikely.
Is there such a thing as “privilege to Riot?”
So do some people, like white anarchists, have a “privilege to riot” that others don’t?
Perhaps that’s true on a global scale. The same act of property destruction that’s normalized in European protests would risk incarceration in the U.S. and loss of life in many parts of the Global South.
But Moynihan balked when I described “riot privilege,” here in the U.S.
“Those [white] people who have anarchist political ideology or anti-fascist belief system are extremely marginalized by the media as perpetrators of violence,“ Moynihan said.
White anarchists rioters may be less likely to suffer from police violence than people of color, but he cautions that they are not safe.
“If a bunch of black Somali Muslims started forming an anarchist group and protest with their face masked up, they would be thrown into Guantanamo Bay.”
He said he does see extra privilege granted for two groups: the armed white vigilantes who some times turn up at Black Lives Matter protests and May Days to presumably “keep the peace” and exercise their 2nd amendment rights.
And then there’s what he calls “middle class white environmental activism” — like the “Shell No” protests against Arctic oil drilling last summer:
“They hardly bring out any police regardless of whether or not they are shutting down a street or locking down a business,” he said. “They treat those protests much much different because of the makeup of the people who are in the demonstration.”
“Whoever gets popped, gets popped,” Berkman said when I asked him the same question. “I can’t say definitely that people of color are more targeted if they are arrested for rioting than white people. I do think that people of color are more targeted by law enforcement in general.”
Then there’s the question of non-citizens, like many of the people who turn out for peaceful immigrant rights marches on May Day.
“There is a history of foreign nationals who were involved in anarchist struggles being deported from the country,” says Berkman. His pseudonym invokes one such example, Alexander Berkman, an anarchist who was deported to Russia in the early 20th century.
That was a whole different era —in some ways the heyday of the American anarchist movement. But Sarra Tekola, an environmental justice and Black Lives Matter activist, sees a similar threat for immigrant or POC anarchists today.
“When you layer on the intersectionality of being black, and being an immigrant and being Muslim like the Somali Community here faces and you ask about “riot privilege”… if a bunch of black Somali Muslims started forming an anarchist group and protest with their face masked up, they would be thrown into Guantanamo Bay,” she said.
Are anarchists coopting May Day?
While Berkman said he’s happy that May Day has been dedicated to immigrant rights marches for years now, he points out that the workers’ holiday started with the 1886 Haymarket Affair, when seven anarchists were sentenced to death following a bomb blast at a workers’ rights march in Chicago.
Moynihan said anti-capitalism activism is one of the most intersectional causes.
“A lot of people who have anarchist leanings or are anti-fascists are definitely protesting against the unjust and undue exercise of power,” he said. “A lot of our corporations are global. These businesses are creating global harms, including deaths.“
He explained that a group of people who smash windows to interrupt a particular business’ activities with a larger political statement in mind are drawing attention to the cause that people’s lives are or should be more valuable than profit or windows.
Berkman seemed to be aware of the issue of the potential for white anarchists’ activities to overshadow other protestors’ efforts.
“Personally, I wouldn’t do things that would endanger the immigrants rights march,” Berkman said, “Particularly, I would probably not be interested in being involved in a breakout march from the larger march that starts at Judkins Park and then try to attack wherever out of that march.”
Diversity of the anarchist establishment in Seattle
So is #AnarchismSoWhite in Seattle?
More than one source pointed out that the diversity of May Day rioters in Seattle is hard to determine due the masks they wear. They said the movement is more diverse than stereotypes of “white male anarchists” would imply.
But let’s get real — they’re mostly white.
“I think that is an issue that local anarchists continue to struggle with,” Berkman said. “It’s not that we are not open, it is basically a subcultural milieu that is self-reinforcing and small, which becomes an echo-chamber. “
He said white anarchists often dismiss critiques that their movement is unfriendly to POC’s as “identity politics“ to avoid the uncomfortable reality that it is.
“Frankly, local [white] anarchists are much better on issues around gender and sexuality than they are on race,” he said.
But if the “mainstream” anarchists have effectively created a white safe space for themselves, POC anarchists have too. — and yes, they do actually exist.
I spoke to a self-identified POC anarchist and founder of Autonomous/Anarchist People of Color (APOC NW) on condition of anonymity for fear of losing a job and facing harassment. He dismissed the framing that sets “smashy smashy” white male anarchists against non-violent protestors as a false dichotomy raised by a divisive “corporate agenda.”
He said the two groups may be separate, but they collude more than they collide.
On the contrary, he said, “we are all full human beings with our own agency and are simultaneously in solidarity.”
In that spirit, he laid a suggested itinerary for May Day where you wouldn’t miss a moment of that intersectional solidarity: Downtown Solidarity Dance and Music Festival, Immigrant Rights March, then Anticapitalist March.
So do I dare tempt fate and turn out for May Day this year? Now at least it’s open for debate.