As protesters moved to occupy a vacant house near Cal Anderson Park late Wednesday afternoon, a federal judge heard the case of a homeless woman who lives in the park claiming that the city of Seattle’s plan to remove her encampment is unconstitutional.
As of 6:30 p.m., the protesters and court case had brought the city’s encampment-removal plans to a temporary impasse.
“These are horrible circumstances … This is a horrible time to have to make this kind of decision,” said U.S. District Judge Richard Jones during the hearing.
As protesters and homeless campers argue the park’s occupants should be left alone to hunker down against the pandemic and the wet and cold winter, just days before Christmas, the city claims that health and safety hazards have grown too significant to ignore at Cal Anderson. Park neighbors and nearby business owners have complained about the park for months.
Seattle parks department employees posted notices Monday ordering people in the Capitol Hill park to remove their personal property by 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.
But by 7:15 a.m. that day, more than 100 black-clad protesters had shown up and were patrolling a perimeter around a cluster of tents. They stood in front of a barricade made of dumpsters, plywood, barbed wire and other salvaged materials.
Inside the park, more than 20 tents remained, though most campers had left. As recently as Tuesday, about double that number were in the park, and most of the tents clustered on the edges and in the middle of the park.
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 department spokesperson Rachel Schulkin said city departments were “currently assessing the site and have created a plan for a multiday intensive maintenance and cleaning.”
“City workers will be on site throughout the day,” Schulkin said. “[The Human Services Department] will be coordinating a resource tent to offer services, and city-contracted providers will continue to be on site to offer shelter.”
Schulkin said city-contracted outreach workers had made 17 hotel or shelter referrals ahead of the planned removal and had helped nine people relocate.
On the playfield nearby, people unassociated with the protest or encampments exercised and walked dogs.
Meanwhile, a woman who had been living in the park since the summer filed a civil rights complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle to stop the removal.
Ada Yeager asked the court for an emergency temporary restraining order against the city’s planned action, calling the removal “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.
“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.”
The lawsuit alleges the city is causing the homeless residents of 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 standards for the prevention of COVID transmissions among unhoused people.”
During the hearing, Yeager’s attorney claimed that she had not been offered shelter and that the city’s removal protocols separated homeless people from their belongings — and that this time of year is the worst for that to happen.
A city attorney explained 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?” Jones asked.
Jones is also presiding over a lawsuit by Black Lives Matter against the Seattle Police Department for using excessive force against peaceful protesters. In that case, Jones has already issued an injunction against the SPD and found them in contempt of court for violating it.
Jones heard the case at 3:30 p.m., Wednesday but did not immediately issue a ruling. He said that he could rule as early as Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.
By 6:30 p.m., no city employees had entered the park.
The dynamics of the standoff are driven by a collision of political pressures building during the pandemic.
Seattle stopped moving homeless people around the city in the spring, following federal public health guidance that encouraged governments to allow homeless people to shelter in place.
Since then, encampments have grown in parks and other public spaces.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council have come under pressure from some of the park’s neighbors to address what has arguably become Seattle’s most prominent encampment — Cal Anderson’s.
Bill Donner, president of label manufacturer Richmark Label, just off the southeast corner of the park, said Wednesday’s barricades had blocked shipments of raw material from getting to his facility that morning. Much of what Richmark Label produces are time-sensitive food labels, Donner said.
“The city is not helping at all,” Donner said. “It won’t tell us what they’re going to do. They aren’t shutting us down, but they are costing us money and we hope they don’t cost us customers.”
Donner also said he’s worried that the protesters blocking access to the park are more aggressive than the activists who filled the blocks of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP, in the same area after Seattle police left the East Precinct this past summer.
“It’s more exasperating because last June was so bad,” Donner said. “We were hoping that that part would not repeat itself, and here we are now.”
Wednesday’s action would have been the third time that Seattle has removed people and their belongings from the park since the city dismantled the protest encampment in July.
While the park has been officially closed since the summer, people have used the space to live in and recreate without interruption. It’s also repeatedly drawn protesters for near-nightly demonstrations and activists who have occupied park property to distribute food and clothing. Many of the people guarding the park Wednesday morning were there because of the summer’s protests and homeless outreach.
A protester who was involved in the occupation of a park facility this summer to distribute food and clothes to people living there said she was inside the barricades Wednesday morning because “people are going to be living outside, no matter what, if you don’t give them housing.”
“We’re out here to protect people’s basic human right to live,” the protester, who only gave her first name, Ali, said. “Also the CDC said literally not to do this,” she added, before using an expletive aimed at Durkan and the Seattle Police Department.
Shortly after 8 a.m., a tent full of fireworks exploded just outside the barricades, catching fire and sending a plume of black smoke into the sky. Protesters said it was intentional and prevented one person from putting out the fire.
Queen B, a 22-year-old woman who has been living in the park since the summer, was still inside the barricades Wednesday morning when protesters gathered and prepared for a confrontation with the city. She was deeply upset and disagreed with the protesters’ tactics.
“People ask, are you there for the movement [for Black lives], and yes I am,” said B, who is Black and of Cambodian descent. “But why do we have to be so violent?”
She said she has been homeless since she was 18. She came to Cal Anderson Park earlier this year to find members of the LGBTQ community, like herself.
“My group of friends, we were happy together, and happy how we found a home and it was Cal Anderson,” B said. “All of them are gone, but I’m still here.”
With a confrontation with the city on pause, protesters posted on social media in late afternoon that they had taken over a vacant home on the northeast corner of the park.
An address that some protesters made public, however, was not the address of the home they were claiming to occupy. The owner of one of the addresses posted on social media said he and his wife, both in their 80s, were occupying their own home and didn’t know what the protesters were doing.
King County property records for the home the protesters are occupying show that taxes have not been paid on the property since 2018. A banner unfurled on the roof of the house reads, “Housing is a human right!”
A voicemail and email to the company listed on the property were not immediately returned.
Due to an editing error, the original version of this story incorrectly described the scope of the encampment. Most of the tents were clustered on the edges and in the middle of the park, not most of the green space and sidewalk.