On Martin Luther King Day, I joined hundreds in Seattle at a rally in front of a downtown federal courthouse. Speakers addressed the growing movement against police violence and racial inequality, and the rally concluded on a high note—but there was unfinished business. As the crowd dispersed, an independent group of protesters headed north to join #blacklivesmatter activists who had lain down in the middle of Highway 99, using the “sleeping dragon” tactic of locking their arms together in pipes. I joined the group, knowing this unsanctioned march was an act of civil disobedience that carried the risk of arrest. As the sole breadwinner of my household, I felt deeply apprehensive but compelled to see, photograph, and march in solidarity, like I had in the WTO protests a decade and a half ago.

MLK protest march to SLU
Marching through downtown behind an IWW (“Wobbly”) flag

MLK protest stop Va St
Occupying the road, on the edge of the Amazon.com campus  

We entered the sprawling campus of Amazon, half of it under construction (talk about a sleeping dragon). The road was lined with partially built condos and apartment buildings for the nouveau riche. Our chants echoed through the urban canyon: “Hey hey, ho ho, new Jim Crow has got to go!” and “Fight back! Fight back today! The USA killed MLK!”

MLK protest marc to SLU II
Protesters link arms, unfazed by lines of bicycle police

MLK protest march Hands Up
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” chants the crowd. Jesse Hagopian, a writer, history teacher, and Black Student Union advisor at Seattle’s Garfield High School, on the left.

MLK protest Derek phone
Some protesters, such as community organizer Derek Orbiso Dizon (pictured), had the phone number of a network of pro bono lawyers written on them, in case of arrest.

MLK protest BLM wrap
Others showed solidarity with #blacklivesmatter.

I warily noted the bike cops encroaching on both sides of the crowd and remembered the rubber bullets and tear gas from the WTO, anti-Bush/anti-war protests, and countless other demonstrations since. Then the inevitable happened: we approached a line of cops blocking the road and a few protesters who attempted to cross the line were seized, beaten, and pepper-sprayed. They were soon pinned on the ground and in handcuffs.

MLK protest skirmish
The police’s violent response causes confusion, outrage, and disappointment among protesters.

MLK protest one down
One of many arrests made on Martin Luther King Day 2015, Seattle

Some high-school-age protesters looked on, cowed and in disbelief, before vanishing from the scene. Some jeered, others moved to the sidewalk, and one intrepid black man stood in front of the police and shouted at the top of his lungs, “As a protest of one, I say: FUCK THE POLICE!” He refused to budge and was escorted into a waiting police SUV. My heart sank.

A young protester wept on the sidelines, so I gently approached her and asked if she was okay. She had marched all the way from Garfield High School and was distraught at how a peaceful protest could end in such an ugly way. I listened to her talk and then gave her a hug and told her that, as disheartening as it is, this is how the world eventually changes. I urged her to keep coming out to protests and silently reminded myself to do the same.

MLK protest lone protester
A disillusioned young protester

The crowd of protesters began to thin out; some went home and others took the back roads to join the activists blocking the state highway. Feeling unnerved and sickened, I seeked out a quiet corner and sat down to process what I’d seen. A good part of me wishes I’d gone on to show solidarity and help block an interstate on-ramp. After all, disrupting traffic on one afternoon only starts to convey what it’s like to be constantly disrupted, on a day-to-day basis, as a racial minority.

Many jaded armchair warriors can “tsk tsk” and claim that there’s a catch in protesting: you can take to the streets and yell all you want, but you will suffer consequences that include arrest. But there’s a bigger catch that the authorities who oppose civil disobedience need to realize, and it’s this: you can make arrests but you can’t halt social change. It’s larger than all of us, and it’s spreading more rapidly and prevalently than you think.

MLK protest Afro activist
Exuberant and empowered young activists block a downtown Seattle intersection, Martin Luther King Day, 2015.

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