With a mobility nightmare approaching downtown Seattle, police and Mayor Jenny Durkan need to adjust policies for responding to protests that block principal streets.
The Seattle Police Department is making progress in improving its response to protests.
Recent protests were more promptly met with large police responses.
This was needed after the department fumbled handling of a small protest that began on Fourth Avenue on March 2, allowing it to continue for hours, crippling a swath of downtown through the morning rush and into the afternoon.
Now Seattle Police and Mayor Jenny Durkan need to step up response further, as downtown Seattle approaches a prolonged transportation apocalypse.
This three-year “period of maximum constraint” will be triggered by the simultaneous demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, construction of a convention center addition and transfer of buses from the transit tunnel to surface streets.
Seattle’s traffic- and crowd-management skills will be put to the test.
Its police department has extensive experience with crowds, especially since the 1999 World Trade Organization riots. It continues to refine techniques and adjust to particular circumstances, Chief Carmen Best told this editorial board recently.
Seattle’s commitment to preserving free speech and ensuring safety of everyone involved is laudable.
But more can be done to find the right balance between accommodating small groups of demonstrators (that fail to obtain permits) and preserving mobility for tens of thousands of people.
A month after the March protest, Seattle police promptly removed protesters from the site where King County’s new youth justice center is being constructed. The protesters employed the same “sleeping dragon” technique, forming a human chain with links covered by pipes to impede removal.
Then on May 7 a different protest blocked Second Avenue for about five hours. The demonstration, over New York-based Chase Bank’s involvement with Canadian oil projects, caused a spike in fuel consumption as buses and cars were jammed and rerouted around large teepees erected on a principal arterial.
A massive showing by Seattle Police encircled teepees, and eventually 14 protesters were arrested.
Everyone in Seattle will be far less patient once downtown is in a state of near constant gridlock, blocking buses, cars and ambulances, spilling into neighborhoods and freeways. It may truly be a life-or-death situation for those trying to reach hospitals.
If there was ever a time for the city to enforce its rules against blocking streets with unpermitted activities, it will be during this period of maximum constraint.
Durkan and police would be wise to update plans for promptly dispersing unauthorized gatherings in preparation.
Modest policy adjustments and stepped up enforcement are better than exacerbating crippling congestion and risking altercations.
Millions who live, work and travel in the area are counting on these officials to maintain the functionality of what remains of downtown’s arterial capacity and avoid making it worse.