Saturday marked a turning point of sorts for the now two-week-old Occupy Seattle protest movement. In a day marked by rallies, demonstrations and a seven–block march through Seattle’s downtown retail and financial cores, the number of protestors reached its biggest number so far. With nearly a thousand protestors joining the march, the day’s events ended with a tense but peaceful standoff with police at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Pike Street.
The encampment at Westlake Park is a patchwork display of people and political causes. Anarchists commune next to college graduates. Young parents push strollers past seniors– some carrying signs and talking animatedly among themselves about the issues behind the protests. In snippets of overheard conversations, the words “greed” and “banks” are often used. But the movement’s aims are diffuse and inchoate. Not unlike some Tea Party organizers, people here are quick to point out that ideological labels are secondary to the grassroots nature of the protests. Looking across the waves of marchers in the street, you could indeed see signs excoriating Wall Street greed next to anti-war placards, socialist banners and anarchist flags. Despite the crazy quilt of causes on display, the umbrella of corporate greed vs. economic equality held steadily throughout the day.
The un-permitted march began promptly at 5:00pm when a critical mass of protesters made their way southbound on the sidewalks of 4th Avenue passed columns of Seattle bicycle police. The march was announced earlier on twitter and the Occupy Seattle Website. Despite the movement’s success with electronic and social media, it was notable how many marchers weren’t using their smart phones. A small band of twitter users were keeping an online running commentary but marchers seemed more interested in chanting and carrying signs.
Word of mouth was the obvious communication strategy on the ground. For example, organizers moved the original time from noon until 5pm so that there actions wouldn’t interfere with an indigenous people’s protest of the Columbus Day holiday. This was announced on twitter, but the park numbers swelled during the afternoon anyway. Most hoping to march missed the twitter correction or were already on-route when the decision was relayed. Eventually protesters assembled in Westlake Park began forming lines about twenty minutes before the scheduled departure. In a “shhh, pass it along” manner, people relayed messages among themselves to form lines and get ready. Ten minutes before the start, another wave of messages moved along the lines. At 5:00pm sharp the first protestors left the park on the sidewalk of Fourth Avenue heading north toward the stated goal of reaching the iconic Columbia Tower.
As the march took form along 4th Avenue, bicycle police cordoned off traffic at intersections along the route allowing the march to walk along as one group. Most exchanges between protestors and police were polite with an occasional smile and friendly banter thrown in. Marchers kept largely to the sidewalk despite no visible presence of protest marshals or any obvious leadership.
instead flooded the outdoor promenade of the Bank of America plaza at 5th and Marion. Here the plaza filled continually with protestors for nearly forty minutes. What looked like a march of 300 or so at Westlake now was looking like 700 or even more. With chants of “We are the 99%” and “This is what democracy looks like”, protestors filled the plaza for nearly half an hour before someone with a small megaphone began relaying messages to the crowd about the return march. Using the novel “human megaphone” technique pioneered by the movement’s founders in New York, messages were repeated in unison from a person with a megaphone by the whole crowd. Cries of “mic–check, mic–check” preceded each message as marchers were directed to take over all of 4th avenue on their way back to Westlake Park.
While this marked an escalation of tactics, the police fanned out on bicycles and escorted the march back towards the park without incident. Everything proceeded smoothly until the march spontaneously stopped at the busy intersection of Pike and Fourth. Around a third of marchers staged a sit-in blocking the intersection with police looking on.
Everyday, protestors camped at Westlake have a “General Assembly” that serves as an assembly of ideas and planning. Yesterday, protestors at the head of the march took over the intersection and put out a call to the rest of the marchers to join them. As the intersection filled, a resolution was called for to vote on having the Assembly in the intersection with the knowledge that this was illegal and that the protestors in the intersection would likely be arrested. It was put to a vote once, and passed by acclamation, but the limits of the human megaphone were exposed almost immediately. Protestors on the sidewalks surrounding the intersection couldn’t hear the resolution and despite the pleas of some of the protestors to stay, a second resolution was put forth to continue on to Westlake as originally planned avoiding a confrontation with police. That resolution also passed by acclamation but with more protestors participating in the vote.
All but two protestors left the intersection. Those two were quickly arrested and driven away in police vehicles.
Within the hour, a light rain began to fall and the numbers in Westlake Park dwindled back to around 200 or so. After dark, the park was split into two camps with organizers on one end holding a forum on economic issues and grievances and a drum and dance circle on the other end. Each bloc sonically complimenting each other–human megaphone meeting drum and cowbell–as Seattle shoppers and tourists with brightly colored umbrellas stopped to take pictures and take it all in.