Reporting by Tom Livingston
For many people, hearing the word “protest” conjures lurid images: noise, confusion, running, police batons, hands crushed on pavement and chain-link fences. We’re trained in the United States to think of the police as the protester’s natural adversary. Actions in the past have revolved around protester’s reactions to enforcement personnel and vice versa. Amidst tactics there is always a limited, confined sort of chaos. But nevertheless that relationship has been static; an inexorable visual conflict between the masses of a people and the kevlar and steel of the state which, from space and without politics or violence, could be mistaken for a peculiar ballet.
This is a good rule of thumb. The Inauguration Day protests against Milo Yiannopoulos might be the exception which proves it. Yet as much as anyone who’s ever been in the street detests the cold sneer of the riot cop, it’s hard not to see the events of Jan. 20 as something more chaotic and potentially, much darker.
The inauguration march many DSA members participated in proceeded rapidly out of downtown, through Capitol Hill, across the bridge and into the University of Washington campus. While fervent throughout, the march was bottlenecked by the two sets of stairs leading into Red Square; people trickled in rather than poured. While these reinforcements surely raised the spirits of the embedded protesters (not to mention the marchers who, having endured a long trek, were happy just to be somewhere) it did little to change the character of the situation.
Upon arrival I was greeted with a complex picture. Being from New York perhaps I am used to a more unbridled version of police brutality; this scene seemed static and—as far as protests go—relatively placid. Individuals or small groups orbited aimlessly around a larger mass of people in the middle of the square. The people in the flat were neither loud nor even particularly mobile. Small groups of police, sometimes with bicycles, were similarly in thrall to the mass. Given the opacity of the crowd and my own fatigue, I was disinclined to jostle inward and investigate.
The stairs at entrance to the auditorium were a far different situation. Mop-headed sophomores flanked black-clad and committed members of the Seattle Antifa side by side, covering nearly every square inch of the visible, facing outward to the crowd in the square. A few would wave now and again, beckoning more in the crowd below to join them; one or two in the crowd, perhaps naïve, would wave back. The stairs were full, anyway.
As for the Antifa, they acted according to their code: to oppose fascism. With Milo and his supporters indoors, there was little to do but lay in wait on the stairs. Far from a fearsome image they could be mistaken there as tired from action earlier in the day and perhaps a bit bored.
Beyond the tallest of the protesters were the riot police. It was not their menace which was striking but their near invisibility. There they were; braced in their disciplined and faceless line, bedecked for the cold and Roman war. Yet any malevolence was thwarted by the relative placidity of the situation. Rather than enact the NYPD traditions of immediate and violent containment, they were content to act as sentinels. Had I known what would transpire, I would have welcomed the usual scuffle and blackened thuggery. Of course none of us did; none of us could.
Protest medic and YDS member Alex Franke recounts what transpired next in full and unsparingly harsh detail:
“I anticipated it would get violent so I brought a solution (anti-acid mixed with water) to treat people who had been pepper sprayed and a first-aid kit. I also wore red crosses so that people knew that I was willing and able to render aid.
For the first couple of hours, the protest was fairly tame, save for a few people that were bear sprayed by Milo supporters. To clarify, at least one man in the Milo line took a can of bear spray, not pepper spray and discharged it into our crowd. I know it was bear spray; I am a former National Park Service ranger and I have significant experience with both.
Two hours into the protest, someone saw my red crosses and said, “There’s someone screaming for a medic over there!” I started walking over in the direction pointed. At this point I saw a man laying on the ground with someone holding his head. I assumed he had gotten hit in the head and was unconscious. It took me a second to realize that he wasn’t wearing a red shirt; he had been shot and was covered in his own blood. I moved to him as fast as I could and, along with two other medics, put pressure on his gunshot wound, cut off his shirt and got out my QuikClot (a hemostatic agent used to stop hemorrhaging). At this point, SPD charged at us on their bikes and rammed us off of our patient. This caused us to release the pressure on his wound which further increased his bleeding. I am an EMT. I have worked as an EMT for three years for a number of different services including New Orleans EMS (NOEMS). The most important aspect of medical care for individuals that have suffered traumatic injuries is to ensure good continuity of care, meaning making sure that when care is transferred from one individual to another it is done in a careful manner so as to ensure that the patient does not suffer more. SPD did not do this and in doing so they nearly killed this man. I understand that they were scared—there had just been a shooting. I also understand that they did not know my credentials, nor the other medic’s. With regard to their fear, I was scared too and I didn’t have any body armor like they did, yet I still did my job and provided care properly. With regards to the fact that they didn’t know about whether I had medical training or not, anyone can apply pressure to a wound, they had no reason to ram us off of our patient and doing so only harmed him. My respect for SPD and the police in general severely decreased that night as they nearly killed my patient because of their need to take control and their inability to do so in a calm and professional manner.”
We all are grateful for Alex’s actions and commitment to the preservation of human life in the face of chaos and barbarism. His bravery will be remembered.
As for the shooter, little has emerged. He turned himself in; he was released from jail, nearly immediately, under an extremely dubious claim of self defense; he has expressed remorse and wishes to contact his victim. He has experienced consequences neither for carrying a loaded weapon onto a college campus, nor for its dischargement and damage. The College Republicans of the University of Washington have expressed neither guilt nor even examination, and implicitly defend the shooter in public statements on Facebook.
But dwelling on the shooter, the victim, or the bigoted zealotry of the College Republicans buries the lede. It is the stated responsibility of police in situations like this to de-escalate: to contain, to manage—by force, if necessary—the boundaries of a conflict. Yet in this instance their management was dedicated to the preservation not of human life but of a speech by a fascist. Not that the content of the speech would matter to them; the point is that tickets were bought, an event reserved and that its sanctity was not to be interrupted.
The message is as bright and explosive as the flash from that horrid pistol. If the events of Jan. 20 are any indication of the future, it is this: as ideological conflict in this city and country intensifies, which it surely will, the police will steadfastly maintain an idea of order as placed in institutions yet quietly abjure their role to contain that sort of conflict. Without further investigation and consequences for this sort of violence, their actions can be taken as precedent: they’ll save the organizers and their organized, but they won’t save you.
Seattle Democratic Socialists of America, in solidarity with the IWW and numerous other organizations, demands further investigation into this, consequences for the shooter and a transparent plan of action by the Seattle Police Department by which to handle situations like this in the future.