Protesters of the new juvenile detention center in Seattle blocked downtown streets on Friday for hours, grinding parts of the city to a halt. So why didn't police move in?
Plenty of people were angry about the way Seattle police and city officials reacted to a small group of people who blocked downtown intersections for hours on Friday in protest of a new juvenile detention center, causing gridlock in the city and miles-long backups.
So why did police stand back and let protesters have their way?
One, the First Amendment right to free speech and peaceable assembly trumps commuter ire, Seattle police Deputy Chief Chris Fowler said.
“Courts have found that the First Amendment trumps a lot of other laws and a lot of other conveniences,” he said. “We have a rich history in Seattle of allowing a lot of protests. In Seattle, we staff over 300 protests a year and we have a policy of allowing individuals to express their constitutionally protected First Amendment right on the streets.”
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Two, police have to weigh the short-term and long-term risks to everybody involved, Fowler said.
During Friday’s protest, for example, a handful of opponents to the county’s new juvenile detention building lay down in the middle of a few Seattle intersections with their arms anchored inside tubing.
That strategy is called the “sleeping dragon,” said Fowler, and it takes about 45 minutes to start getting people separated.
“It’s a big risk to everybody involved and it’s a use of force which could potentially turn a peaceful protest into a riot. That’s going to end up taking a whole lot longer and we could end up looking at lawsuits,” Fowler said.
Three, Seattle traffic is already so bad and so easily disrupted that any single incident, such as Friday’s protest, construction blockages, collisions and fish-truck debacles can turn the roads into commuter nightmares. Policy decisions cannot be based just on commuter comfort.
“We have to be able to articulate clear safety concerns and reasons for clearing people out of the street,” Fowler said.
He said police did not know about the protest, which did not have a permit, until it began Friday morning and traffic was already impacted. Command staff, however, decided they would not allow it to continue through the afternoon commute and were prepared to start clearing the streets shortly after 2 p.m., Fowler said.
The protesters disbanded before police action was necessary, he said.
Fowler said arrests would have been made if protesters had committed serious property crime and acts of violence.