Seattle prepares for marches and mayhem on May Day 2017

SEATTLE — KIRO Radio Reporter Josh Kerns is set to buy a new pair of shoes. It’s something he considers each year while preparing to cover what has become an annual gig — May Day in Seattle.

"I'm sure we're in for a long march," Kerns told Seattle's Morning News.

“I’ve been out there going back to (the 1999 Seattle WTO protests), and to see how (police) constantly change and evolve … they’ve gotten very subtle in how they do this, and I’d say it’s become much more finely tuned,” he said.

Every year on May 1, a workers’ rights march comes to Seattle. It’s peaceful and thousands participate. But that’s not the march that usually makes headlines in the days to come. There are others who host their own demonstrations, which have become known for antagonism, violence and damage.

“There is definitely more of a threat of violence in the air (this year) than in past years,” Kerns said. “We saw rocks, bottles, bricks and a Molotov cocktail last year which was new in the equation.”

“… there’s always just a few meatheads that come out and do that,” he said. “We are going to have hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets peacefully, organized. They are going to have plenty to say about immigration. This year, the anti-Trump factions will be out in force, probably in numbers we have not seen, maybe since the Women’s March. Inevitably, there will be a few (bad apples) and you just hope they don’t ruin for the thousands of others.”

Preparing for May Day in Seattle

Kerns isn’t the only one in town preparing for the May Day events. Last week, he spent an afternoon in a warehouse on the Seattle waterfront where police officers were practicing their protest tactics. Officers wore special gear and played out simulations, taunting each other; trying to provoke a response as a protester might. Kerns watched them form a line with bikes, practicing protest choreography ahead of the big day.

Police Captain Chris Fowler has organized Seattle’s May Day response over the past four years.

“We’ve seen officers hit with sticks, we’ve seen bottles, rocks thrown at officers, we’ve seen members of the media assaulted by those devices, we’ve seen the Molotov cocktail,” Fowler said.

“What’s a little bit different this year is we see multiple different groups starting in other parts of the city that are either going to converge at Judkins Park or will end up at the Seattle Center,” he said. “We also know of an event at the University of Washington. So we are taking all those into consideration as we develop our plan.”

Things may be different, Kerns notes, because protesters could plan according to how police handled things last year.

“It’s cat and mouse,” Kerns said. “Cops tried something last year — they herded them down 2nd Street and right out of town. It was much like an old-fashioned cattle drive … it was quite a scene to see, and I think it caught protesters off guard.”

The general rule in Seattle is to allow peaceful protests and expressions of speech. But there are times when violence or property damage occurs, and that is where police draw the line. Kerns knows this well. In 2015, his KIRO Radio vehicle was trashed by protesters who used pipes and bats to break its windows and beat dents into its body.

“They definitely err on the side of letting people go as far as they can,” Kerns said. “A lot of people, I would argue as well, say they let them go too far at times.”