Local activists, legal observers and protesters agree: The mistrust protesters already feel toward law enforcement has significantly deepened due to the response of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) at recent local protests.
The protests come in the wake of a late November ruling of a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury not to indict white Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old black youth Michael Brown. Many of the local protesters have gathered together to proclaim “Black lives matter.”
Since the ruling, local marches, die-ins and various public demonstrations organized and attended primarily by young people, have occurred almost weekly (sometimes daily) in and around Seattle, all grounded in a number of complaints: that people of color are frequently targeted by law enforcement; that people of color have been killed through police brutality; that police are not held accountable for those deaths; and that these instances reveal the pervasive effects of institutional racism. Similar protests have occurred around the country for the past several months.
“We have a huge population within the United States that claims racism does not exist,” said Jazmine Monet, an organizer with Women of Color for Systemic Change [WCSC], a local activist group calling for greater police accountability and the undoing of institutional racism.
“On a humanitarian level, if it’s one community’s issue, then it’s every community’s issue. We should all be in the street,” Monet added.
City Councilmember Kshama Sawant thinks the issue should also be before city leaders.
On Jan. 12, at Sawant’s request, the city council met with SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole to answer questions regarding SPD’s response to recent protests. The mistrust many protesters feel was palpable during the public comments portion of the meeting, where attendees held nothing back.
“We need to be really clear about what we’re talking about here,” said Marissa Johnson, an activist with Outside Agitators 206, which has organized some of the local “Black lives matter” protests. “We’re talking about the actions of an incredibly fascist [Seattle] government that has been kidnapping people who have been exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Some present at the meeting said the behavior and tactics of SPD officers hasn’t been conducive to peaceful facilitation of the protests.
“I won’t say that the police have been unprofessional, because they have been very professional — professional in the same way the security forces in Moscow or Hong Kong have disrupted peaceful protests,” said Neil Fox, co-regional vice president of the Northwest Branch of the National Lawyers Guild. Fox said he was present at several of the protests.
Sawant requested O’Toole testify in council chambers, after numerous media reports and citizen complaints surfaced of officers blocking protesters from entering the downtown retail core on Black Friday and SPD’s excessive use of pepper spray and riot gear.
Also of concern to protesters and legal observers is the manner in which protesters are arrested and the use of undercover police to photograph and film protesters.
According to reports in The Stranger, the department has spent more than
$1 million on overtime for officers deployed at the rallies and marches.
After public comments, audience members expected O’Toole, who was seated in chambers, to speak. But when councilmembers moved on to another agenda item, audience members began to disrupt the meeting with chanting and signing. The council adjourned briefly, reconvened and brought O’Toole to the table to talk.
O’Toole was quick to stress her support for democratic principles. “To the greatest extent that we can facilitate the expression of First Amendment rights in [any] city,” said O’Toole, “I think that is a wonderful thing.”
She added that SPD’s overarching philosophy in responding to the protests was one of public safety and protecting all involved: protesters, bystanders and property. For O’Toole and the rest of the SPD brass who spoke during the meeting, public safety during demonstrations sometimes looks like a heavy police presence on the streets.
“It’s difficult to predict what to expect at each on of these marches,” she said.
Controversy over SPD’s tactics
The Capitol Hill Seattle blog reported that on Nov. 24, the night of the Ferguson ruling, protesters marched — without a city permit — from downtown up to Capitol Hill and through the Central District. On First Hill, some protesters vandalized private property, and police entered into a confrontation with demonstrators at the I-5 on-ramp at Madison and Hubble. Flashbangs and pepper spray were used as protesters attempted to gain access to the freeway, and SPD reported on its blog that protesters threw rocks and launched fireworks at officers. Police arrested five people, one of whom was a man who allegedly carried a firearm and had ammunition in his nearby car.
“I think that after night one, we became more concerned, and we staffed up,” O’Toole said at the city council meeting.
Since that initial protest, both protesters and police say that SPD’s presence on the street has been increased.
Protesters, legal observers and other advocates say they find the response excessive, intimidating and counter-productive to managing the often tense dynamics between protesters and SPD.
“The sheer volume of police deployed to the protests, as well as the use of riot gear, creates the impression that the goal of the police is not to facilitate and protect protesters but to intimidate and to silence,” said Patricia Sully, a staff attorney with the Public Defender Association’s Racial Disparity Project, during the city council meeting.
Reached after the meeting, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb with SPD’s public affairs unit called the use of riot gear a necessary protective measure for police. “If we know that people are going to be throwing things at us, and we know that people have thrown things at us repeatedly at other events,” he said, “we would be remiss if we didn’t have people wear protective gear.”
Activist and WCSC member Monet participated in some of the non-permitted marches such as the demonstrations on Black Friday, where protesters briefly occupied Westlake Center and Pacific Place Mall before heading up to Capitol Hill. En route back to Westlake, protesters encountered police at the intersection of Boren and Pine, where officers used pepper spray and flashbangs against protesters. Monet called that response “ridiculous.”
Sgt. Whitcomb said protesters that evening didn’t inform SPD officers at the scene of their intended route to Westlake Center, and demonstrators turned the protest unlawful by “assaulting” officers with umbrellas.
Monet said the umbrellas were used as protection from potential pepper spray.
After the incident at Boren and Pine, most of the protesters took alternate routes to Westlake center, where they chanted “Black lives matter.” Shoppers were gathered at the mall for the Christmas tree lighting and, as they prepared to hear children sing carols, protesters interrupted the performance.
Days after the protest, the Capitol Hill Seattle blog reported that Whitcomb said SPD’s response was to ensure the safety and rights of shoppers and protesters alike.
But at the council meeting, public defender Sully said that no one has an constitutional right to shop. “Shoppers may be made uncomfortable by the presence of protesters. But protests do not exist for the enjoyment of spectators; that is what makes them different from parades.”
When audience members at the council meeting claimed that the majority of the 25 protesters arrested on Black Friday were people of color, Councilmember Bruce Harrell said he wanted more information from SPD on its justification for uses of force, the arrests themselves and the biographical data of those arrested.
SPD published a blog post shortly after the meeting stating that the majority of arrestees were white.
At the meeting and on the streets, protesters have referred to SPD’s arrests as “kidnappings,” due to their perception that the arrests are used as a tactic to neutralize protest leaders and target people of color.
“It [the arrests] honestly scares me,” said Monet. “They’re just picked up and not really told any info about what they’re being arrested for.”
Public defender Sully said, “We would hope the department would come to an approach that was prepared for unexpected events but didn’t pre-emptively intimidate peaceful demonstrators and curtailed their ability to use public space.”
Eighteen and counting
There have been 18 separate protests since the Ferguson ruling, with speak-outs and die-ins occurring in Seattle’s downtown retail core, inside and outside CenturyLink Field during Seahawks games and at Bellevue Square Mall. The 25 people arrested by SPD during that time have received charges ranging from pedestrian interference to felony assault.
Sgt. Whitcomb said that protests that have valid permits are much easier to handle and require fewer resources. “People need to let us know what they want, where they want to start, how they want to get there,” he said.
“We’ll continue with groups that want to engage in permitted protest, and we’re also very willing to work with groups who are unpermitted but are determined to protest in a peaceful way,” said O’Toole at the meeting.
O’Toole also acknowledged at the council meeting that the vast majority of the “Black lives matter” protests have been peaceful, permitted or not.
To ensure their safety Monet and her fellow organizers in WCSC have opted to obtain permits, give SPD an opportunity to work with them and allow for young people and small children to come to their rallies. However, she said that while no violent confrontations have occurred at permitted rallies — unlike a select few of the unpermitted marches — the police presence still seems aggressive. She said SPD is giving “mixed signals.”
Before marches, she said lieutenants work with the group in a supportive manner. “Then the day of the protest … the aggression is just amped all of a sudden,” she added. Monet said O’Toole may not understand that police officers act in way that differs from their supposed role as protectors of the community.
Sgt. Whitcomb acknowledged the innate tension created by the presence of SPD at these protests. “We were the subject of the protest, yet we’re also the ones who are tasked to provide public safety services at the protest,” he said, adding that SPD strives to be neutral and impartial despite the motivation behind the protests.
“Young people have been protesting, and we don’t want them to feel silenced. We want them to feel empowered,” said Councilmember Sawant
Councilmember Harrell said that all the discussion about SPD’s response has actually detracted from what the protesters are talking about: the treatment of people of color by police.
Monet said that some protesters have reached out to police and obtained permits, but due to how they’ve been treated, she wonders if it is worth it. “Is it going to work? Is it ever going to work?”
She said that protesters are upset and angry over the deaths and mistreatment of black people, particularly black youth, at the hands of police officers. Her group wants cultural competency training for police officers and a fair legal system that holds officers accountable for their actions.
Her group also wants a better relationship with law enforcement, which would help counter distrust of police, Monet said: “People wonder why we’re so upset and why we’re marching: This is exactly what we’re marching for.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Click on item for photo
Protesters hold their hands up behind SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole at a Jan. 12 city council meeting, A protester who goes by Mohawk Kuzma, left, and others protest police brutality while waiting for Chief O’Toole to speak to councilmembers regarding SPD’s response to recent protests. “We have been abused in the streets,” said one audience member.
An SPD officer reaches for a protester’s umbrella at Pine and Boren on Nov. 28. At the scene an officer was overheard saying that umbrellas counted as weapons and could be taken away.
An SPD officer at Pine and Boren motions to a protester where to go and where not to go. Protesters were being blocked from going downtown on Black Friday.
“Black lives matter” protesters participate in a die-In inside Westlake Center on Black Friday.
Protester Jazmine Monet marches along Rainier Avenue South on Jan. 10 during a permitted protest while SPD officers follow close behind.