Seattle must improve its response to protests after a small group disrupted downtown for six hours last week. This can be done in a way that respects the First Amendment and rights of everyone.
Seattle’s abiding support of the First Amendment and its willingness to give latitude to protesters is laudable.
But after a small group of protesters disrupted downtown Seattle for six hours last week, the city should adjust its protocols.
Seattle officials must acknowledge publicly that the city’s response was too lax and will be better next time. That would not diminish the city’s strong record of supporting peaceful protests and First Amendment rights.
Police are in the process of analyzing whether they responded appropriately to the March 2 protest staged by seven people who blocked principal arterials and a gaggle of nearby supporters starting near City Hall.
This unpermitted protest interrupted transit services and tens of thousands of people trying to reach work, schools and medical appointments that Friday. The ripple effect extended onto Interstate 5 and Interstate 90.
For such an obstruction to continue for six hours, with no citations or arrests, is unacceptable.
Police and Mayor Jenny Durkan must develop a plan to respond faster and more effectively. This is needed so that Seattle can continue to support peaceful protests while also preserving mobility and the freedoms of those blocked by demonstrations. The proper balance was not achieved on March 2.
The theme of the protest should not be relevant to this review of crowd-management procedures. Although in this case, it was a tiresome attempt to further delay the rebuilding of King County’s juvenile-justice facility. Terrible racial disparities in America’s justice system are real and must be addressed. This project is a poor choice for citizen action on that front, however.
King County’s juvenile programs are extraordinarily progressive, with one of the nation’s lowest per-capita incarceration rate. Rebuilding the dingy facility shows respect and improves conditions for people interacting with the system.
Arguing that the facility shouldn’t be built because nobody should be incarcerated is unrealistic. It’s like blocking construction of a homeless shelter because nobody should be homeless. Concern is good but this response hurts more than it helps.
Still, politicians tiptoe around juvenile-facility protests for fear of offending their base or being labeled insensitive to justice-system disparities.
They should stand firm and use their response to the latest protest as a reminder that our core rights are precious and must be protected, but they are not absolute.
Just as the Second Amendment does not provide carte blanche to own any type of gun, the First Amendment does not provide blanket protection to say anything anywhere. Reasonable limits strengthen these rights by making them workable, defensible and worthy of broad and sustained support.
Ask the Washington American Civil Liberties Union: Its protest guide warns protesters they may be subject to arrest if they demonstrate in streets without a permit.
If Seattle never enforces its prohibitions on obstruction and it doesn’t improve its response after March 2, protesters will be emboldened to cause more such disruptions. Tolerance for protests will diminish, tensions will increase and safety risks will escalate.
Seattle police are considered experts at handling protests, with about 300 per year. Their expertise increased dramatically after World Trade Organization and the May Day debacles. Simultaneously, their overall use of force has declined as training improved under federal scrutiny.
The city is now recruiting a police chief. Candidates viewing the March 2 response in isolation may wonder if the department is hamstrung by political sensitivities.
Some community members already perceive there is a lack of enforcement of laws that are supposed to protect safety and civility, prevent property crime, and prohibit squatting in parks and public spaces.
Every incident is different, and police constantly adjust their responses. Often they’re caught between expectations of citizens and the agendas of politicians.
But this should be a moment of clarity for a police department emerging from federal oversight under a mayor with law-enforcement experience. It should use its after-action review of the March 2 protest as an opportunity to recalibrate and improve its response plans.
This can be done in a way that respects the rights of everyone, and builds respect for laws that ensure cities are safe and functional places to live and work.