Seattle police have begun deploying an Apparatus Removal Team to help break up so-called "sleeping dragon" protests in which protesters are linked together with PVC tubing and duct tape.

Share story

In March, opponents of King County’s new juvenile detention center were able to bring Friday traffic to a grinding halt for about six hours and shed light on their cause by simply lying down in the middle of a downtown Seattle intersection.

They resisted easy arrest by employing a tactic called the “sleeping dragon,” in which participants form a human chain, hand to hand, with arms linked while inside a piece of PVC tubing.

Sometimes protesters in sleeping dragons are handcuffed to one another inside the tubing, which can be encased in concrete — or wrapped in chicken wire and duct tape, as was the case on Tuesday morning when people opposing immigration policies employed the technique while lying in the street at Second Avenue and Madison Street.

Simply cutting off the tubing runs the risk of injuring protesters, slowing the removal.

“Removing these devices is slow, deliberate work.” Seattle police tweeted during Tuesday’s protest. “The safety of all involved is paramount.”

But members of the department’s new Apparatus Removal Team (ART) were able to  separate the nine protesters and take them into custody in about an hour and a half.

Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said creation of the team was in direct response to the earlier protest.

“The March demonstration was new to us,” he said Tuesday. “So we provided traffic management and supported the event as it unfolded, planning for it to end by the evening commute.

“We learned from that experience and have adapted accordingly,” he added. “As they change their tactics, our training, tactics and equipment change, too.”

Seattle police typically handle about 300 demonstrations a year. Most are non-disruptive and peaceful, but in the past couple of months, Whitcomb said protesters have employed sleeping dragons to slow their dispersal and disrupt the rush-hour commute.

He said members of  ART are specially trained officers who have the knowledge, experience and equipment to cut through plastic and metal without hurting protesters. Because sleeping dragons vary in composition, the team relies on different tools, he said.

Whitcomb was cautious about revealing too many details about the tools and tactics used by officers on the ART.

On Tuesday, a lieutenant first gave the immigration protesters with the Northwest Detention Center Resistance and activist group Mijente a two-minute warning to disperse and clear the road or face arrest.

When the six men and three women ignored the order,  members of the team then used large pliers and a Dremel rotary tool to cut into the sleeping dragon.

Police say once they cut into the tubing they slip a brightly colored piece of plastic inside so it rests against the protesters’ skin. When they continue to cut or drill into the tubing the plastic shavings alert officers when they are getting close to skin.

Once the officers had the protesters separated into one- or two-person sections, they were carried off the street and onto the sidewalk. There, officers worked more slowly and carefully to disconnect each individual as street traffic resumed.

The nine were booked into the King County Jail for investigation of pedestrian interference.

They selected the site because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement and immigration court is housed at 1000 Second Ave.

“Although Seattle and King County claim to be “sanctuaries” for immigrants, the Seattle Police Department and the King County Sheriff actively collaborate on joint task forces with this branch of ICE leading to prosecutions and deportations. These collaborations must end,” Mijente said in a news release.

Organizers of the No New Youth Jail Coalition, which staged the March protest, have acknowledged that their strategy includes disrupting traffic to bring attention to their cause.

“We have won so much today,” coalition organizer Julianna Alson said in March. “We shut down the streets, we shut down business as usual, we shut down rush hour, we shut down the status quo.”

Whitcomb said the ART officers will be busy as long as the sleeping dragon is used in protests.

“This is fundamentally civil disobedience. They recognize they may be arrested but they didn’t sign up to be injured,” he said of protesters. “We want to get them out of the road, but we have to be a very careful and methodical dismantling these devices.”