Garfield High School teacher and social justice advocate Jesse Hagopian announced he was taking legal action against the city of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) for an incident in which an officer allegedly pepper-sprayed him “irrationally” during the local Martin Luther King Jr. Day demonstrations. Gathered with him for the Jan. 28
announcement inside City Hall were representatives from the Seattle King County NAACP, the Public Defender Association, organizers from local “Black lives matter” protests and Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant.
Attorney James Bible, also present, said that the James Bible Law Firm will litigate Hagopian’s claim. “We can’t ignore that just minutes after Jesse [spoke at the MLK Day rally] about how black lives matter, his black life was put in jeopardy by pepper spray,” said Bible. “[It was] a violent act that we remember and recall from previous acts of nonviolence seeking social change. We view this as a challenge to free speech,” he added.
Bible said he will demand $500,000 for damages and that he and Hagopian will bypass the SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability, calling the official complaint process an “ineffective and broken system” that “victimizes” people a second time.
Hagopian had been on the phone Jan. 19 with his mother discussing the logistics of getting to his 2-year-old son’s birthday party later that day when the alleged incident occurred on the corner of Republican Street and Westlake Avenue. Protesters, including Hagopian, who had continued marching from the Federal Building — the end of the official MLK Day march route — were allegedly blocked by a line of Seattle bicycle cops.
A bystander captured the moment on video, which was originally published by The Stranger, showing Hagopian talking on his cell phone and walking away from the main throng of the protest when an officer pepper-sprays him and a nearby woman.
Hagopian said when he arrived at the party, “My 6-year-old son had all kinds of questions for me. And I couldn’t answer them. I didn’t know what to tell my 6-year old.” He continued, “I didn’t want him to live in fear of just going outside his house or raising his voice for justice.”
Most of the attendees at the announcement stressed that Hagopian’s case is one of many similar incidents of police brutality that have gone unreported, noting that Hagopian is a figure that the media could “latch on to.”
“There are a lot of people who have been assaulted, who have been pepper-sprayed, and who have been attacked and they have gone ignored,” said Nikkita Oliver, an activist with Outside Agitators 206, one of the groups organizing local protests against police brutality.
Sawant and Lisa Daugaard, a policy director with the Public Defender Association, noted how SPD’s tactics in responding to recent protests have only worsened relations between police and some Seattle communities.
“As one activist recently said: ‘I came to the streets for Michael Brown, but I stayed because of SPD,’” said Daugaard.
Sheley Secrest, executive board member of the Seattle King County branch of the NAACP, said SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Mayor Ed Murray have been silent on the matter, and “their silence is deafening.”
She added, “Don’t come to a NAACP rally, talking about the stand that you take for the events that are happening in Ferguson, and then sit here and stand idly by when you see the injustice that is happening in your own backyard,” a reference to Murray’s appearance at a rally on Nov. 25, the day after Ferguson, Mo., grand jury announced it would not indict a white police officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen.
Hours after Hagopian’s announcement, the mayor’s office released a statement that said in part that uses of force on MLK Day are “under review and being investigated” by SPD’s current accountability apparatus, including the Community Police Commission and federal monitors.
Hagopian’s legal claim comes during an ongoing national conversation on police accountability as well as SPD’s obligation to abide by a federal consent decree in response to a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation.
According to a 2011 report from the DOJ, SPD officers have a “pattern or practice of using unnecessary or excessive force.” The DOJ did not find that SPD engaged in discriminatory policing, but the report said the investigation raised “serious concerns on this issue.”
For example, among the uses of force the DOJ found to be unnecessary or excessive, more than 50 percent involved minorities.
In addition, SPD squad car dash-cam footage from last summer recently published by The Stranger showed an officer arresting a 70-year-old black man walking down the street while using a golf club as a cane. The officer claimed the golf club was a “weapon.”
On Jan. 29, Murray’s office released a statement online about the July 2014 incident, calling it “disappointing” and adding it was “concerning” to the mayor. “I’ve directed the Chief to look not just at the officer’s conduct, but all the circumstances and decisions related to these incidences. We must do more to reform our system to restore the public’s trust in our police department,” he wrote.
Cynthia Whitlatch, the arresting officer in the golf-club incident, has since been removed from active patrol duty and transferred to an administrative position, The Stranger reported.
At Hagopian’s press conference, Bible said that low-income communities and communities of color should take a stand “to make it so that we’re not in a space where there is many Seattles all treated differently based on race and/or poverty, but [that] there’s one Seattle where we treat people equally and equitably and we can trust our officers to do the right thing.”