A large crowd filled the forecourt, the long staircase and the high balcony in front of Seattle City Hall on Sunday afternoon with boisterous chants calling on the City Council to defend the police department rather than defund it.
Below on Fourth Avenue, a thin line of police officers, some holding batons, others placing their bicycles as barriers, separated a small band of counterprotesters from the police supporters.
In conversations on the sidelines, participants expressed deeply-felt and complex opinions. Meanwhile, passionate shouts of derision and hatred spewed across the police divide between the two sides.
Participants in the pro-police rally, which was organized by the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), included off-duty officers and their families who spoke ardently of the need to convey a different image of the police department than the one seen during violent riots. They were joined by people unconnected to the police, Seattle residents concerned about the impact of the City Council’s proposed actions.
Across the street, counterprotesters moved close to the police line to shout insults and derided the SPOG rally as “a front for far-right politics.”
Police officers generally are barred from talking to the media without authorization, but one 32-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that though “I’ve never choked anyone. I’ve never shot anyone,” and is deeply involved in off-duty community work with immigrants, he finds himself lumped in with officers across the country who have brutalized African-Americans.
“It’s awful. With the hatred, and how vulgar people are, calling us pieces of (expletive) and things like that every day,” he said. “For the first time, in the last few months, I haven’t looked forward to going to work.”
Stressing the difficulty of the job right now, he said that he’d invite any City Council member “to come stand in the front lines, when the peaceful protest turns into a riot and show us how to do it — how to defend ourselves and clear an intersection or a freeway, after people become violent and start throwing stuff at us.”
Across Fourth Avenue, the mainly young, mainly white crowd, most clad in all-black, included both aggressive anti-police activists who physically confronted some not on their side and very young idealists.
A couple of 16-year-old girls from Ballard High School were up tight against the police line, standing out because they weren’t dressed entirely in black and didn’t have the goggles or bike helmets many others wore in case violence broke out.
One of them, Virginia — identified only by her first name because of her young age — declared the sight of the tiers of white people supporting the police “sad.”
“Black people are dying, and there they are defending the ones killing them,” said Virginia, who is Black. She said she believes there are decent and honest police officers, but “I don’t think there’s a decent and honest system.”
“The system is the problem,” she said.
The demonstration and counterprotest were largely peaceful, though a brief fistfight broke out a block away from the main action between about a half-dozen right-wing Proud Boys and a group of anti-police protesters.
The contingent wearing T-shirts identifying themselves as members of the Proud Boys defiantly walked over to the counterprotest side of the street and were quickly shadowed by a group of anti-police protesters.
The two groups threw insults at each other as the Proud Boys walked downhill to Third Avenue, where someone threw a water bottle into the Proud Boys group. A melee ensued.
Wild punches were thrown, and each side fired off streams of mace at the other. Several on each side fell to the ground with eyes streaming and pained. Then the sides parted, and it was over. No police were in sight, all of them busy a block up on Fourth Avenue.
“I’m using all my officers up here,” said the police commander on the scene, Capt. Matt Allen, soon after. He said the police role Sunday was to enforce restrictions to separate the opposing demonstrations “to maintain public safety and make sure each side can exercise their First Amendment rights.”
Up on the high balcony at City Hall, John Balph, a retired X-ray technician from Lake City Way, said he was there to send a message to the City Council that they need to listen to everyone “and not those with the loudest megaphone.”
Balph described Black Lives Matter as “a very worthy movement.”
“We have to change. Reforms are needed,” he said, but added that the Council’s latest move, to take police out of the homeless navigation teams as a first step toward defunding, seems to him a “haphazard response.”
He said three city parks in his neighborhood are now entirely taken over by encampments of homeless people, and the navigation teams are the only means to regulate those camps to ensure health and safety.
He said that on his way to City Hall he’d walked past the windows of businesses at Westlake boarded-up against riot damage.
“There’s bad enough news from the White House and Trump,” he said. “But it’s depressing to live in Seattle right now.”
“Is this the city the Council wants to represent, a deserted city?” Balph asked. “It’s not the Seattle I want to live in. But average citizens can’t do anything about it. It’s very frustrating.”
Using a loudspeaker to address the crowd, a representative of SPOG expressed that same sentiment in sharply political terms.
“Our entire city is at stake,” the SPOG representative said. “Public safety will fall apart if this fine agency is defunded.”
Kim Rendle, a music teacher from Renton, came to Seattle to support the police demonstration. She said that she sees the police role as defending the vulnerable and that the killing of George Floyd and other Black people represents only a “heartbreaking aberration.”
“A reasonable person of goodwill is deeply troubled by unjust death,” Rendle said. But she added that, without police, many more Black lives will be lost to crime.
Erin, the wife of a Seattle police officer, who asked that her last name not be used, said her husband went into the job to help people and make an impact on the community.
The police “are willing to listen to what people have to say,” she said. “But the Council’s actions have been only punitive.”
At this point, her husband, the police officer, interjected when he saw a couple of members of the Proud Boys walk past. He was eager to dissociate himself and the police from that group.
“This not our message,” he said. “Them being here is not a reflection of what today is about.”
But among the group of counterprotesters who later confronted and fought with the Proud Boys at Third and James, one black-clad young man — he said he was 23 years old, from north Seattle, and declined to provide his name — dismissed these sympathetic views of the police.
Wearing chemical splash goggles, a respirator and a bike helmet, and carrying an umbrella as a shield against streams of mace or tear gas, he was ready for a potential riot.
With studious glasses above his face mask, he seemed less angry than idealistic. Asked if he was “antifa,” he replied, hesitantly, “I am anti-fascist. So yes, I am Antifa.”
Just across the police line, he would have seen the nearest, most vehement group of pro-police supporters hoisting “Thin Blue Line” flags and placards denouncing his side as communist.
He said the presence of the Proud Boys made it clear that “SPOG is a front for far-right politics,” and he announced himself skeptical when told of the police officer who denounced the Proud Boys as unrepresentative.
“I would like the police disbanded and replaced with more community-minded individuals,” he said.
Back up on the balcony, the 32-year police vet expressed sorrow at the lack of trust setting back his profession.
He said he and his wife work to support Afghan Muslim and Ukrainian Christian refugees. He worked for more than ten years as a Christian prison minister and befriended ex-felons. At one point, as loud pro-police chants forced a pause to the conversation, he said “I wish we would chant right now, Black Lives Matter. Because they do.
“There are some of us out there loving on our community,” the police officer said, struggling for words. “I could start crying right now.”
Editor’s note: This story has been amended to remove mention of an alleged sexual assault. The woman who made the allegation to police asked that it be deleted.