A federal judge has taken under advisement a motion for a restraining order that would prevent Seattle police and parks department employees from clearing residents from a longstanding — and now barricaded — encampment at Cal Anderson Park.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones held a nearly two-hour emergency hearing Wednesday on a lawsuit and petition by a resident of the encampment, Ada Yeager.
Jones declined to issue the order Wednesday, but said he would issue a written ruling as early as Thursday morning.
City attorneys have said that, without such an order, clearing the park was “imminent” and would not assure Yeager’s attorney that the removals wouldn’t begin Wednesday night. The city told the judge it would not stop its plan, but did offer to find Yeager a bed.
The sweep had been scheduled for Wednesday after 7:30 a.m., but was likely postponed at least in part because the department had been notified of the lawsuit, said Yeager’s attorney, Braden Pence.
Yeager asked the court for an emergency temporary restraining order to stop the planned removal, which her lawsuit calls “a coordinated destruction and taking of personal property of unhoused citizens” without due process or consideration of civil rights.
Yeager says she has been living at the protest encampment at Cal Anderson since early June, when the park became a focal point for Black Lives Matter protesters who had targeted the Seattle Police Department’s nearby East Precinct.
The city denies the park has any significance as a forum for speech. Assistant City Attorney Jeremy Wood insisted the issue was a “question of trespassing, not a question of content.”
Assistant City Attorney Ghazal Sharifi said the city has “significant safety and public health concerns” about the encampment, and told Jones that city Parks Department employees had been confronted and threatened while trying to do maintenance and, most recently, when trying to post notifications of Wednesday’s proposed sweep.
Most recently, she said, barricades were being erected by people living in the park and their allies.
The city said that, with the court’s permission, the removal would be “imminent,” which concerned the judge, given the weather and allegations made by Yeager that such removals usually resulted in those who are homeless losing what little they have.
Jones questioned the city’s attorneys about how difficult it was for the people who had been living in the park to reclaim their personal property. The lawsuit alleges that the property is taken and either destroyed or stored at a site that is more than a mile and a half from Capitol Hill.
Sharifi assured the judge that photographs are taken and the items are stored in such a way that, if they can be described and identified, they can be retrieved. Pence, Yeager’s attorney, said those protocols may exist, but they are rarely followed and much of what is gathered is thrown away.
Assistant City Attorney Nyjat Rose-Akins told the court that some items are thrown away “if they are soiled, wet or contaminated,” a statement that prompted the judge to point out that it is Seattle in December, and that it was cold, getting dark and raining hard as the hearing progressed.
“Are you representing to me … that you use wet items here in the city of Seattle as the sole basis for destroying them?” he asked.
“These are horrible circumstances … This is a horrible time to have to make this kind of decision,” Jones said.
Sharifi assured him that all of the park’s occupants had been offered shelter through outreach workers, and that 17 people living in Cal Anderson had accepted the offer.
Pence called the city’s health-and-safety argument “duplicitous” and ironic, given that the people living outside in Cal Anderson and any number of other sites in Seattle “suffer health and safety issues day in and day out.”
The reason parks workers face hostility has more to do with the rough way the workers have been treating people for months, he said.
Inside the park Wednesday, more than 20 tents remained, though most of the people living there had left. As recently as Tuesday, about double that number were in the park, and people living there took up most of the area.
As the afternoon dragged on, the city had made no move to clear the park even as a large group of black-clad protesters showed up and set up barricades of Dumpsters, plywood, barbed wire and other salvaged materials.
In the petition for a restraining order, Yeager says that roughly 50 residents were at the site, along with about 200 other individuals who are “prepared to defend the encampment from the threatened eviction.”
Police briefly showed up on the north and south sides of the park, but stayed in their cars and left quickly. Shortly after 11 a.m., parks spokesperson Rachel Schulkin said that the city was “currently assessing the site and have created a plan for a multiday intensive maintenance and cleaning.”
Yeager’s lawsuit says the park has been central to protests and criticism not just of police violence, but of the city’s policy toward homeless people. Those protests are protected by the First Amendment, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit alleges the city is causing those living in the park “irreparable harm” by “sending police to arrest and brutalize already traumatized individuals, and chilling Constitutionally protected expressions and assembly, all in blatant violation of due process of law and crystal clear CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) standards for the prevention of COVID transmissions among unhoused people.”
“As the COVID-19 pandemic reaches a new crisis point in Seattle, shelters and transitional housing are full or nearly full,” the lawsuit says. “Established tent encampments are the only safe option for Plaintiff and similarly situated community members.”
Jones is also presiding over a lawsuit by Black Lives Matter against the SPD for using excessive force against peaceful protesters. In that case, Jones has already issued an injunction against the Seattle Police Department and found them in contempt of court for violating it.
Information from Seattle Times staff reporter Sydney Brownstone is contained in his report.