Spasms of violence hijacked attention from mostly peaceful May Day social-justice rallies Tuesday as black-clad vandals left downtown Seattle littered with shattered glass and put police - and the city - on edge.
The vandalism, much of it aimed at financial institutions, recalled for many Seattleites the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) riots. Mayor Mike McGinn, citing lessons learned from that chaos, issued an emergency order giving police power to preventively seize anything that could be used as a weapon.
The order, imposed after a noontime vandalism spree by about 75 apparent anarchists armed with poles, contributed to arrests and later clashes between police and protesters.
But, after the initial violence and full mobilization of police, much of the mayhem died down. Planned afternoon marches were mostly peaceful, although downtown traffic was tangled.
At least eight people were arrested, and at least a dozen businesses and a federal courthouse were vandalized downtown.
At an afternoon news conference, McGinn said most protesters were peaceful, but he told police "to respond to lawbreaking swiftly and aggressively."
"The First Amendment uses of 5-foot-long, 3-inch rod sticks is outweighed today by our desire to preserve public safety and confiscate weapons," he said.
McGinn said he feared that the vandals - who evaporated into the crowd after the noontime violence - would return. Several protesters were arrested during an impromptu march through Belltown in the afternoon - including one man who threw a bottle at officers, according to police.
Police had been on alert to potential violence after seeing mention on anarchist websites of preparations for May Day protests, including targeting "pigs on horses," in apparent reference to mounted police.
Tuesday's protests distracted from marches organized by Occupy Seattle as part of a nationwide, one-day "general strike,"and by immigrant-rights advocates who traditionally hold a May Day march.
"I don't like seeing the city destroyed," City Councilmember Bruce Harrell said. "This is not at all within the spirit of May Day celebrations."
Just after noon Tuesday, about 75 so-called "Black Bloc" anarchists broke off from a larger "anti-capitalist" march at Westlake Park. They sped through downtown, smashing windows at banks and national retail chains as well as the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse at Fifth Avenue and Spring Street.
"All hell broke loose," said David Madden, a spokesman for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In addition to people breaking windows, someone tried to ignite an incendiary device constructed from an orange-juice container, but it didn't go off.
Seattle police later arrested a man carrying several similar devices in a backpack.
"Whatever their cause, the individuals responsible for today's violence did not further it with this kind of behavior," federal Judge Richard Tallman said in a statement.
The vandals ran back to the retail core, slashing car tires and smashing storefront windows. Police briefly sprayed tear gas, but the vandals largely melded back into the crowd at Westlake, quickly changing out of their black clothes.
Some stores were tagged with graffiti: "Death to Capitalism" sprayed on a window at NikeTown, and a green anarchist symbol left on a Porsche Cayenne.
"I was in the back of the store, and I heard hammering in the street. They were smashing the windows," said Kirby Ellis, the 21-year-old manager of American Apparel on Sixth Avenue.
Ellis worked to reassure his staff. "I'm working to make sure they get home safely," he said.
Police arrested one person for vandalism and another for carrying a knife, but McGinn said the violence was too swift for police to prevent it.
"When they move quickly and disperse rapidly and hit multiple points, it's hard for the police to respond," McGinn said.
Police pledged a "very thorough" investigation to find the vandals.
The Occupy movement had called for a one-day "general strike" strike on May 1, with protests across the country.
Police fired tear gas on marchers in Oakland, Calif., and black-clad demonstrators occupied a building owned by the Roman Catholic archdiocese in San Francisco.
In Seattle, general strikes date to 1919, when a five-day work stoppage paralyzed industry and helped seed the city's vibrant labor movement. An Occupy Seattle promotion for Tuesday's strike called for protests to "shut down the city."
Michael Douglas, a Seattle resident who has been with the Occupy movement since October, said the vandalism shouldn't distract from the underlying reasons for the demonstrations, including abuses by Wall Street and support for labor unions and immigration.
"There are many larger issues," Douglas said, "but they all kind of revolve around the same thing: seeing people as less than you."
The second march of the day - to protest police and "racist violence" - started with a short rally and march. Near Pike Place Market, tensions flared.
Dozens of protesters sat down in the street, others swore and heckled police dressed in full riot gear. According to police, three people were arrested for investigation of felony assault.
An annual May Day march for immigrant rights - the third march of the day - was smaller than normal, likely because of the threat of violence, said Jorge Quiroga, an event organizer.
There were noticeably fewer families. Marchers in past years filled up to four blocks but filled only one block Tuesday.
"It's unfortunate now that when people think of the May Day march, they'll remember the violence, rather than the ongoing hope for immigration reform," Quiroga said.
In the wake of the 1999 TWO riots, police were criticized for poor preparation. Then-Mayor Paul Schell was lambasted for an unsure police response - at first allowing downtown to be overrun by protesters, and then overseeing a harsh police crackdown.
On Tuesday, McGinn cited lessons learned from the WTO riots in issuing the emergency order, enabling police to seize any weapon or "implement reasonably perceived or believed to be capable of being used as a weapon," including metal signs, tire irons and heavy-duty lumber.
The order also required "reasonable efforts" to protect free expression.
Several City Council members, including council President Sally Clark, quickly endorsed the order. "When protesters are waving flags that are supposed to be free speech but are doubling as weapons, it's completely appropriate for the police to take action," she said.
Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said McGinn's order was drawn narrowly enough to protect the public while not hampering free speech.
"They need to use good judgment enforcing it," Taylor said. "There are groups that have planned for peaceful protests, and there are people who want to commit crimes. The trick is for the police to find their way between the two."
Police Chief John Diaz last week warned McGinn that violence was possible after law enforcement saw the online references to anarchist training. According to police, the websites discussed "sling-shot target practice," referred to mounted police, and discussed methods to interfere with arrests of protesters.
McGinn's deputy mayor and chief of staff met with an Occupy Seattle organizer, last week.
After the meeting, Puget Sound Anarchists, in a blog post, mocked Seattle police as "moronic half-wits" because the intelligence report mentioned potential use of light bulbs filled with gasoline.
"The SPD is so stupid that they have literally invented a device with which they can alarm people and stoke fear," the blogger said.
Scott Nodland, an Occupy activist, said the media overplayed Tuesday's vandalism. "When was the last time you heard a news story about what Occupy is fighting for? You might notice, too, that for all the 'violence' hyped ... nobody was injured except those injured by police."
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