With federal agents poised to deploy to Seattle against the will of local leaders, Mayor Jenny Durkan on Friday pleaded with protesters to demonstrate peacefully ahead of what she worried could be a violent and tumultuous weekend in the city.
Describing herself as frightened, Durkan said she’s worried that a small group of people are bent on disrupting protests, damaging property and provoking violence, citing vandalism, fires and injuries during nighttime protests two days earlier this week.
Citing threats of crackdowns from President Donald Trump, she said she feared what has happened in Portland — nightly, violent clashes between protesters and camouflaged federal agents — could happen here.
“I cannot overstate it enough, what is happening is frightening to me,” Durkan said at a Friday morning news conference. “It is frightening that you would use federal agents for political purposes.”
“He is doing that, he is purposefully targeting Democratic cities,” she said of Trump.
Durkan said she spent the morning meeting with the King County executive, the county prosecutor, the Seattle city attorney and the state Attorney General’s Office, and that they will take “every legal step necessary” if federal forces intervene here as they have in Portland.
There are several protests planned for Seattle over the weekend, some of which include groups that have emerged as militant voices in Portland.
Durkan said she felt misled by Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who she said told her Thursday that the agency had no plans to send federal agents to Seattle and would inform her if that changed. On Thursday evening, the agency said it was sending a Customs and Border Protection team “on standby in the area” to protect federal buildings.
“I don’t want to say I was lied to, but I think there was maybe semantics that weren’t forthcoming,” she said.
She said she’d asked for information but received none on the number of agents in the area and their purpose.
Later Friday, all nine Democratic members of Washington’s congressional delegation wrote to Wolf urging him to immediately withdraw federal agents from Seattle and demanding answers about how many were sent and for what purpose. They were not joined by any of their Republican colleagues.
U.S. Attorney Brian Moran, of the Western District of Washington, said the Nakamura federal courthouse in downtown Seattle was broken into and vandalized last weekend.
“I want to be very clear regarding the role of federal agents summoned to Seattle,” Moran said in a prepared statement. “They are here to protect federal properties and the important work that occurs in our courthouses and federal buildings.”
The possible influx of federal agents comes as Durkan continues to field criticism about Seattle police’s own handling of protests over the last several weeks.
Durkan repeatedly cited her tenure as U.S. attorney for Western Washington, saying it was common for federal agents to be sent to cities, but not without notification or over the city’s objections.
“It is really unprecedented for federal agents to be surged to a city without consultation of local law enforcement,” Durkan said.
Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best stressed that neither of them had requested federal help and both disavowed comments from Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, who has said he would welcome the help of federal agents.
“He doesn’t speak for the Seattle Police Department, Chief Carmen Best does,” Durkan said.
“Mike Solan can ask for whatever he deems necessary,” Best said. “He’s another person out in the community.”
Best also repeated her criticism of a new law, passed last month by the City Council, that bans Seattle police use of tear gas, blast balls and similar weapons.
She said the law “deeply troubles me” and would leave police with fewer “tools” to safely disperse crowds.
“I’ll be taking this pepper spray off of my belt and putting a riot stick on there,” Best said Friday morning.
However, in an emergency hearing Friday night, U.S. District Judge James Robart issued a ruling sought by the federal government stopping the ordinance from taking effect Sunday, as scheduled. Court documents said that SPD had issued a directive to its officers to stop using the crowd control weapons as of Saturday morning.
The U.S. Department of Justice, citing Seattle’s longstanding police consent decree, argued that banning the use of crowd control weapons could actually lead to more police use of force, leaving them only with more deadly weapons.
Robart said the issue needed more discussion between the city and the Justice Department before the change went into effect. Ruling from the bench, just before 9 p.m. Friday, Robart said the temporary restraining order he granted would be “very temporary.”
“I urge you all to use it as an occasion to try to find out where it is we are and where it is we’re going,” Robart said. “I can’t tell you today if blast balls are a good idea or a bad idea, but I know that sometime a long time ago I approved them.”
Robart granted the Justice Department’s request despite slapping down an attempt by Durkan and Best, earlier this week, to block the new law.
Christina Fogg, an Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued that without blast balls, pepper spray and other weapons banned by the Council, police would have only “batons, tasers and handguns.”
“They only have these limited options which are not good options for crowd management,” Fogg said. “We are setting up a situation where there is a very increased likelihood of excessive force being used.”
Another judge’s prohibition against using crowd control weapons against peaceful protesters, from a separate court case involving a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County and others, remains in effect. That prohibition, however, does allow some flexibility for officers to use the weapons in certain circumstances.
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, chair of the Public Safety Committee, said earlier in the day that the council’s new law wasn’t scheduled to go into effect until Sunday and rejected “any attempt to place SPD’s deployment decisions for Friday or Saturday at the Council’s feet.”
She also wrote that she was concerned Best was making a preemptive decision to “de-police” what could be chaotic scenes downtown over the weekend.
James Sido, a spokesperson for the Downtown Seattle Association, said in an email, “We expect our local and state leaders to establish policies and laws that protect the first amendment while also protecting residents and businesses from targeted and organized vandalism, destruction and looting.”
In Portland, federal law-enforcement agents are charged with protecting the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, where they have been based during the nightly protests that now target the building. But early Friday, as in some previous nights, agents moved several blocks west of federal property and acted like they had full authority to wield policing powers as they deployed tear gas canisters and shot off other munitions.
In one early Friday incident witnessed by a Seattle Times reporter, a line of federal agents clad in paramilitary gear blocked off the east end of Portland’s southwest Main Street several blocks away from the courthouse.
Protesters gathered a bit farther to the west. They had regrouped after an earlier round of tear gas. They were standing in place and at that point did not appear to be throwing things at the officers.
Then, the federal force used big doses of tear gas as a kind of herding tool to push the protesters further from the courthouse.
Through it all, Portland police were nowhere in sight, having largely ceded the night’s protest response to the federal government.
“We’ve seen it happen in Portland,” Durkan said. “At this point I have to presume that what is happening in Portland could happen here.”