In the early morning hours of July 4, the driver of a white Jaguar barrelled into a group of protesters on Interstate 5, killing 24-year-old Summer Taylor and injuring 32-year-old Diaz Love.
The crash shook a local community of protesters who had been demonstrating against institutional racism and police violence for more than a month and who had worried about drivers attempting to hit protesters on foot.
It also drew new scrutiny of the Washington State Patrol’s decision to allow protesters onto the freeway this year, a sharp contrast to past years when walls of police officers have sometimes blocked protesters’ way onto the interstate. The WSP has defended its approach, saying there were no other good options to keep protesters, drivers and troopers safe.
Recently released emails obtained by The Seattle Times show WSP leaders also did not believe they had the resources to make mass arrests of protesters and worried about escalating tensions. Some did not believe there would be any point in arresting protesters if they were unlikely to be charged or jailed, either because of pandemic-related limits at the jail or because the King County prosecutor has been reluctant to charge peaceful protesters.
The emails, which were obtained through a public records request and cover the period of June and early July, shed light on internal debate over the closure and the way some in the agency viewed the demonstrations. The State Patrol declined to comment for this story because of pending litigation, a spokesperson said.
“We could arrest people for being on the freeway, and most likely they would be released within one hour and there would be no charges placed on them,” wrote Lieutenant Zach Elmore in one of the emails, the day before the crash that killed Taylor. “This would run the risk of entitling them even more than they already are.”
Questions about how to handle road-blocking demonstrations persist: Protesters have continued to block city streets and, in one recent case, I-5, after which WSP arrested nine people. Attorneys for Taylor’s family have filed a tort claim (a precursor to a lawsuit) alleging that by blocking onramps but not exit ramps earlier this summer, the state “only partially shut down the roadways.”
“If you’re going to let them stay on the roadway, you’ve got to protect the roadway,” said Karen Koehler, an attorney representing Taylor’s family and other protesters.
The decision to close I-5 was unpopular among some inside the State Patrol, the emails show, with Elmore telling troopers he had conveyed to the agency’s chief “how we all were disappointed in how we are being forced to allow the freeway to be taken.”
The emails also reveal the limitations of the State Patrol’s tactics.
On some nights, the agency relied on livestreamed video to follow the protesters, which at points left troopers without solid information about where the protesters were.
And at least twice before the crash that killed Taylor, WSP personnel had warned about vehicles getting to the freeway despite the closure.
“Having cars getting into the closure and not knowing how or where that’s happening was fine day one or two,” wrote Capt. Ron Mead on June 19, two weeks before Taylor was killed. “We are too far into this to have that happening at this stage. Our entire purpose of closing the freeway is to ensure the safety of protestors and uninvolved motorists alike.”
Explaining the strategy
During large-scale protests downtown on May 30, several hundred people marched onto I-5, some carrying a banner that read, “Racism is the deadliest virus #DefundThePolice”
For anyone who had observed protests in Seattle in recent years, it was a surprising scene. During recent demonstrations here, police have typically massed at freeway onramps to block protesters from reaching the interstate. In 2014, police and demonstrators had a standoff after a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict the white police officer who shot Michael Brown, who was Black. A handful of people from the large crowd reached the freeway.
This year, May 30 was just the beginning.
For a stretch of June, protesters marched nightly from an occupied area near the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) to the West Precinct near South Lake Union, some nights stopping on I-5 along the way. Throughout, the State Patrol repeatedly closed the freeway to drivers.
In mid-June, as the CHOP continued on Capitol Hill, Mead laid out why the agency’s strategy looked so different from in years past.
“Watching the large crowd of protestors take I-5 on May 30th was eye opening,” Mead wrote in an email on June 18. “The fact we had no uninvolved motorists, troopers, or protestors injured during that simply amazes me to this day. We were lucky — plain and simple — and I’m not going to confuse good luck with a good strategy.”
“The strategy of our ramp response plan worked exceptionally well for many years, and it’s a strategy that under ‘normal’ conditions would continue to serve us well. These are no normal conditions we are operating in,” he wrote.
This year brought heightened “public tensions,” pandemic-related jail restrictions, “potential for assaultive behavior on the part of protestors, who seem to only have been emboldened of late” and “our inability [to] deploy munitions or crowd control devices,” Mead wrote.
About a week earlier, the Washington State Patrol chief had announced his agency would no longer use tear gas because of public health concerns.
The WSP also did not have the resources to make large-scale arrests, Mead wrote in several messages.
“We do not have the resources to prevent protestors from accessing the freeway without escalating an already tense situation or potentially getting our folks hurt or our vehicles damaged,” Mead wrote to other State Patrol leaders on June 16.
When police cleared out the CHOP on July 1, the State Patrol considered a change in strategy to “return some sense of accountability for the criminal conduct of these protestors continually blocking the freeway and trying to alleviate the negative publicity and the inconvenience to the motoring public these nightly closures were causing,” Mead wrote after the crash that killed Taylor.
But at the time State Patrol Chief John Batiste learned the jail would not hold those arrested because of the pandemic “and the prosecutor’s office was taking a ‘conservative approach’ to charging ‘peaceful’ protestors,” Mead wrote.
That would leave State Patrol in the “difficult and untenable position of getting stuck in a constant arrest and release cycle with no ultimate end strategy.” Batiste decided to stick with the strategy, Mead wrote.
On July 3, the day before the crash, Lt. Zach Elmore wrote to troopers in King County with an update. Elmore had spoken to Batiste “at great length,” Elmore wrote.
“He asked me for my unfiltered opinion on everything that has happened the past few weeks and how you all were doing,” Elmore wrote. “I gave him my honest, heartfelt opinion. I told him how we all were disappointed in how we are being forced to allow the freeway to be taken. I told him how we are losing heart in the whole matter and frustrations are rising as we feel hamstrung in our abilities to do our jobs.”
“To his credit,” Elmore wrote later, “he listened and was sincere in his response, ‘I’m sorry.’ He feels your pain.”
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg never established a blanket policy of not charging protesters arrested on I-5, but told Batiste during a phone call on July 1 it was unlikely protesters arrested on the misdemeanor charge of blocking the freeway would be held in jail for long, Satterberg said. That would be the case even in pre-COVID times, Satterberg said, but with the pandemic the county is trying to keep the jail population low and has a backlog of felony cases.
“The State Patrol had the right to arrest and book [protesters] if they wanted. They can decide as a psychological measure whether that deters people,” said Satterberg, noting that being arrested is an “inconvenience” for many people and “for some, traumatic.”
“Their decision to not do that is their decision,” he said. “My decision at this moment is, are we going to file all these cases into a court system overloaded already with all these violent cases?”
Vehicles had breached closure before
In the aftermath of the July 4 crash, the State Patrol faced questions about whether it went to great enough lengths to block drivers from the freeway during protests. The Jaguar driver, Dawit Kelete, who is now facing charges including vehicular homicide, allegedly used an offramp to get to the freeway. The State Patrol had relied on wrong-way signs to keep drivers from getting to the freeway that way, according to court documents. The driver’s toxicology screen was positive for amphetamine and methamphetamine, according to a copy of the test report obtained by The Seattle Times.
“Quite frankly, we anticipated a lot of scenarios, but having a vehicle go the wrong direction on a closed exit and reaching the protestors wasn’t among them,” Mead wrote in an email to WSP personnel two days after the crash.
Vehicles had gotten onto the freeway during closures before, the emails show.
In the June 19 email, Mead appeared to indicate that vehicles had reached the freeway, but didn’t specify how or when.
During a protest on June 25, as protesters laid or sat on the freeway, “a car suddenly appeared from the south with serious front end damage and steam/ smoke coming from the engine,” Elmore wrote in an email later that night. “The car approached at a high rate and startled the protestors who jumped up and got out of the way.”
The driver “had ‘busted’ through the WSDOT blockade at Dearborn to n/b I5,” Elmore wrote.
Blocking roads and highways has long been a protest tactic, seen as a way to disrupt business as usual. Seattle protesters who have blocked bridges and roads in recent weeks have urged frustrated bystanders to compare their inconvenience to the injustices of racism and police killings of Black people.
Following the crash that killed Taylor, a group of organizers behind the march issued a video statement in which they pushed back on claims they were to blame for protesting on the freeway. “Blame the person who did this,” one protester said. In addition to the state patrol closure, the group had used their own vehicles to create barricades on the freeway, they said. The driver had gone around those to hit the group.
“If it’s such a coordinated effort between the departments how did this happen?” said the protester, referring to multiple agencies that track Seattle protests. “Please explain to us because we know how this happened. Because you guys wasn’t as coordinated as you thought. Because you guys didn’t…actually try and protect us.”
As protesters repeatedly marched on the freeway, “no one invited them with open arms, but [law enforcement] knew it was a daily event and they honored it,” said Koehler, the attorney representing Taylor’s family.
The State Patrol made the decision “to just let the protesters on the freeway and figure it out for themselves,” Koehler said.
“Either you say it’s illegal to be on the freeway, you’ve declared a no-protest zone and bar people from entering or arrest people,” Koehler said, “or you let them on the freeway and you create a zone of protection around them.”