On January 20, progressives and revolutionaries in Seattle had the first opportunity to launch the resistance to the Trump agenda, not only symbolically by marching in the streets, but by directly confronting the so-called Alt-Right at the University of Washington in a counter-protest that revealed exactly how dangerous these fascists are.
Early in the day, students began to walk out of classes, from both high schools and colleges. The student walkouts and others converged on Judkins Park, joining forces with immigrant rights activists for a rally, which concluded with a march to Westlake Park in downtown and another spirited rally.
At both rallies, members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation distributed fliers calling on all anti-Trump protesters to converge on the University of Washington by 6:30 pm, where Alt-Right celebrity Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at an event hosted by the campus Republicans.
Student activists had been working for weeks, attempting to pressure the University to cancel the event due to Yiannopoulos’s well-known penchant for hate speech and encouragement of harassment, especially of trans students. He even got himself banned from Twitter for fomenting a hate campaign against African American actress Leslie Jones.
But the UW administration uttered platitudes about inclusion and respect for free speech, and urged students to simply “ignore” Yiannopoulos.
On January 20, by 6:30 pm, at least 50 anti-fascist protesters, including members of Emerald City Antifa, PSL, and student activists were holding it down in “Red Square,” (so known for its red bricks) a central open space on the UW campus. Kane Hall, where the speaking event was scheduled to occur, is at the north end of the square.
It was a very confusing and complex scene. When one first approached the square, all that was visible were hundreds of people seemingly milling around together. After a few minutes it became clear that many of those present were standing in a line, waiting to enter Kane Hall for the event; one could see red “Make America Great Again” hats on quite a few heads. Directly in front of Kane Hall, on a part of the square that is slightly raised up with stairs, a good-sized contingent of riot-equipped police from Seattle PD, Bellevue PD as well as UWPD, stood in formation behind metal barricades, batons at the ready.
When the PSL comrades arrived after taking public transit from the rally at Westlake, it was clear that the standoff had been going on for a while. The line into the event did not appear to be moving because protesters were blocking the path. PSL members connected with people holding an “Antifa” flag and student activists to try to make sense of the situation and to check in about how to be most helpful. We immediately began to lead chants on the bullhorn, adjusting the political content of the chants as events unfolded, and shared the bullhorn with others as well, as ours was one of only a few bullhorns at the scene.
The reactionaries who had come to hear Yiannopoulos were angry that their special event was being ruined by a bunch of radicals; some were also clearly trying to provoke a fight with the counter protesters. Some scuffles broke out and reactionaries sprayed protesters with pepper spray. However, the anti-fascists showed remarkable restraint. Because everybody was muddled together in the middle of the square, it was in fact not always easy to distinguish reactionaries from student protesters or bystanders.
Sometime around 7:35, word began to go around that a group of people were marching up from Westlake following the conclusion of the rally there. At about 8 pm, the march arrived, to great cheers of joy from the anti-fascists.
It was at this point that the deadly nature of the alt-right was truly revealed. A small “pop” was heard by some, and one protester fell to the ground bleeding profusely from his abdomen. He had been shot. Street medics immediately went to his aid. The police, who had been hanging back and mostly observing the crowd “simmer,” as one cop described it during a televised press conference later that night, maneuvered into the crowd decisively at this point and moved to bring in a campus police vehicle to evacuate the victim to the hospital where he remains at this time in critical condition.
The speaking event took place; two recent engagements by Yiannopoulos, at UC Davis and in San Diego, have been cancelled. However, the UW event started quite late (it was to be live streamed at 7 pm by Breitbart) and the room was only partly filled despite being a sold out show. The protest was effective in significantly delaying and disrupting the event.
The role of the police was clear: they were there to protect the event at Kane Hall, and our chants of “Cops and Klan work hand in hand” highlighted this. However, their strategy was hard to discern. Until the shooting, cops seemed content to mainly stand at their vantage point in front of Kane Hall and simply watch the crowd without intervening. No effort was made to keep the two “sides” apart.
Seattle police of course are currently working under a consent decree that was imposed following an Obama administration Department of Justice investigation that found the department guilty of unconstitutional behaviors. A new Chief of Police, Kathleen O’Toole, has been brought in ostensibly to usher in a new era and new departmental culture of more “constitutionally appropriate” policing. Notably, the police union (Seattle Police Union Guild) has been quite insubordinate to the requirement that they abide by the guidelines of the consent decree.
It is hard not to wonder if the “hands off” approach to a predictably volatile situation was a deliberate attempt to engineer a tragedy that could be used to undermine the new approach to first amendment event policing; in any event, activists who don’t already know should learn from this incident that the police are not there to protect us.
A suspect was identified by witnesses; a person matching this description turned himself in the next day, was questioned by police, claimed he shot the victim in self-defense and was released by police.
Meanwhile, the friends of the victim, who is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World General Defense Committee, have established a Crowdrise page with the goal of raising $30,000 to cover medical and any possible legal costs that may occur. Progressive and revolutionary people should contribute if they have the means to do so.