by Chloe Collyer
May Day is a historic and celebrated day for Seattle to honor its labor movement. This May 1, at Volunteer Park, a few runners and dog walkers passed by a group of “Black Bloc” protesters carrying handmade signs and East African flags. Black Bloc, the term used to describe the black-clad protesters usually associated with anti-capitalist, anarchist movements, was defined by one park-goer as “people who just want to smash something,” but the sincerity of their cause on Saturday was clear: They were there to protest the genocide taking place in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Whether you call it a civil war, ethnic repression, or genocide, it’s clear people are suffering. Millions of Tigrayans have lost their jobs, faced violence and drone strikes, or been thrown out of refugee camps by the Ethiopian government and simply scattered across the countryside. First-hand reports describe sexual violence being used as a daily weapon of war. International aid has been cut off. It is, by all accounts, a nightmare.
Also in attendance on Saturday were members of Seattle’s East African communities, calling for a boycott of Starbucks, freedom for political prisoners in Ethiopia, and a “voice for the voiceless.”
“We would not be able to speak like this back home,” said one participant.
Unfortunately, the Tigray region is familiar with unrest, and has once again become a political battleground between TPLF (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front) and the Ethiopian federal troops. The government’s attack on regional political opponents has turned into an ethnic oppression of all Tigrays. The Associated Press reports that Tigray identification cards are being burned by the neighboring Amhara authorities and replaced with no mention of the holder’s Tigray ethnicity.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation” with neighboring Eritrea, has overseen constant civil conflict since. Speakers at the event in Seattle directed some of their anger at him — and at Starbucks. “The current genocide is being funded by [corporations] abroad as well,” claimed one speaker. “[Abiy Ahmed] is a big darling of international organizations like the World Bank, the IMF, and … also Starbucks.”
Coffee is Ethiopia’s biggest export. Ethiopia is widely considered to be the birthplace of coffee, and, more recently, the crop has become a tool of power between the government and the region’s farmers. Most people don’t realize that when they drink Ethiopian coffee blends like Harrar®, Sidamo®, and Yirgacheffe®, federal trademark laws allow the Ethiopian government to collect a tax on its intellectual property. While these laws were created in part to better support farmers, many coffee farmers report that the government keeps that money and the growers cannot make a profit.
“Stop spending your money at Starbucks, not because they help fund SPD but all the other horrible reasons, too,” said one Eritrean American speaker. “And their coffee tastes like sh*t, so what are we spending our money there for? They don’t make coffee better than Habeshas [East Africans]!”
No one who the Emerald spoke to at the park on Saturday had heard of the war in Tigray, except for a small group of protesters in attendance who were not with the Black Bloc. One unemployed Black resident said she came because of an East African friend she had met while protesting during the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
The groups of protesters that had marched through Volunteer Park then overtook the streets of Capitol Hill, and a squad of bicycle police followed closely, ringing their bells in unison as a mocking reply to the occasional aggressive shouts from protesters. The now well-known Seattle Car Brigade and Bike Brigade were also there to block traffic and keep the protesters safe from harm.
The small group of Black Bloc protesters and East African community members, meanwhile, handed out flyers and called for accountability and justice for the innocent civilians who have gotten caught up in a horrific civil war.
The group stopped at multiple Starbucks locations to rally as facts were shouted over a megaphone to passersby. While groups like this one have been known to smash Starbucks and Amazon windows in the past, there have been no verifiable reports that it was while people were inside. In any case, the Emerald did not witness any property destruction during the May Day march.
In strong Seattle tradition, multiple May Day marches, each with their own causes, combined downtown into one messy squabble between police and protesters. There were approximately a dozen arrests, mostly for crimes like obstruction and pedestrian interference.
Past May Day protests have ended in violence and injuries. But this year, people marched for their beliefs — including ending the genocide in Ethiopia — and no one, in Seattle at least, was seriously hurt.
Chloe Collyer (they/them) is a documentarian, a photographer, and a fifth-generation Seattle-ite who divides time between working as a photojournalist and teaching photography to kids. Chloe is currently working on a personal project reporting on youth activism in the Seattle area. You can view their work at http://www.chloecollyer.com.
📸 Featured Image: Activists rally at Seattle’s Volunteer Park while speakers voice opposition to the ethnic oppression happening in the Tigray region. A handmade sign reading ‘Starbucks stop funding Tigray Genocide’ is held in the background. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)
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