A lawsuit filed Friday in King County Superior Court alleges the city of Seattle and Washington state failed to protect protesters from drivers who could hurt or kill them while also allowing protesters to be injured by the police response.
The plaintiffs in the case include the family of Summer Taylor, who was killed by a driver on Interstate 5 in July, and protester Daniel Gregory, who was shot and injured during a demonstration on Capitol Hill in June.
Other plaintiffs include protesters, live-streamers and a student journalist who say police grabbed them, hit them with explosives like blast balls, or doused them with pepper spray during protests this summer. Along with physical injury, some have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares and other effects, the complaint says.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions against the city following a summer of protests that have drawn a heavy police response and national attention. Protesters here have called for cuts to police budgets and more funding for Black-led community organizations.
Abie Ekenezar, a 41-year-old Navy veteran, said the city of Seattle failed to listen to demonstrators and that she had joined the lawsuit to bring the message and concerns of the protests into the courtroom.
“Money talks,” Ekenezar said. “If this is what we have to do in order to get our message across, and it helps, then other people can follow suit. There were so many people injured.”
Other lawsuits and claims have been filed by protesters, by the father of a 19-year-old man fatally shot in an area that became the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) and by residents and business owners in the CHOP area.
The new case alleges that the city and state acted negligently in failing to protect protesters from drivers. The complaint also claims that, in their response to demonstrations, police assaulted and unlawfully detained protesters, violated their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, and engaged in biased policing.
“We intend to investigate these alleged claims and will defend the City in this matter,” Seattle City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Dan Nolte wrote in an email. The Seattle Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The state has not yet had a chance to review the complaint, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said.
Dozens of protesters who are plaintiffs or expected to join the lawsuit gathered at Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix Park to share their stories of alleged police mistreatment, encouraging each other at the microphone when words failed. Afterward, some risked a hug.
Gregory, one of the plaintiffs, was injured during a June 7 protest on Capitol Hill when a man drove toward the crowd and shot Gregory as he reached into the driver’s window to stop the car. The driver then walked through the crowd toward a line of police, where he was taken into custody. Nikolas Fernandez has since been charged with first-degree assault in the shooting.
As the car approached the crowd and people shouted, “Stop,” Gregory “was instantly reminded of the Charlottesville, Virginia, car attack of 2017, when a man intentionally rammed anti-racism demonstrators with his car, killing one woman and injuring dozens more,” the complaint says.
The Seattle Police Department “made no attempt to prevent drivers from entering the area” or protect protesters from “reasonably foreseeable dangers” including drivers, the legal complaint alleges. “SPD had erected barriers to protect SPD, but not the protesters.”
“A vehicle never should have been going down that street,” Gregory said at a Friday news conference announcing the lawsuit. He wore a pair of buttons on his lapels, one with image of Summer Taylor and another that read “Breonna Taylor,” the emergency medical officer killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March, whose name is often chanted during Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
After the shooting, Gregory suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and needed surgery, screws and plates for the bullet wound, the complaint says.
“I can’t be around large crowds. I can’t trust people. I’m with myself a lot. I’m depressed,” Gregory said in an interview, adding that he now relies on his left hand for most tasks because his right arm remained weak after the shooting.
“I’m angry because I don’t have faith in the justice system,” Gregory said, calling the lawsuit “a step in the right direction” but adding that the city of Seattle also needs “dialogue” and to listen to the voices in the streets.
In June and early July, protesters frequently marched onto I-5. Throughout the protests, the Washington State Patrol closed the freeway to vehicle traffic, saying that was the best way to keep protesters and drivers safe. Although the agency blocked onramps, it relied on existing “wrong way” signs to stop drivers from using offramps to reach the freeway, according to court documents.
On July 4, a driver allegedly used an offramp to reach I-5, where he killed Taylor and injured another protester, Diaz Love. The driver, Dawit Kelete, is facing charges including vehicular homicide.
The lawsuit announced Friday cites internal State Patrol emails, reported by the Times this month, in which Capt. Ron Mead wrote after Taylor was killed, “Did our strategy give the protesters a false sense of security? Perhaps in retrospect it did.”
The complaint notes the history of freeway protests in Seattle, including a protest after the Kent State shootings in 1970, when thousands of people marched on I-5.
At the news conference, attorney Karen Koehler spoke on behalf of Summer Taylor’s mother, Dalia Taylor.
“We stand here because Summer Taylor lost their life for Black Lives Matter,” Koehler said. “We stand here today because that should not have happened and it was the government’s fault.”
Koehler said Dalia Taylor was receiving inpatient mental health treatment following the loss.
“She asked me specifically to tell you this, for community, so people who have lost their most treasured and beloved person can understand: It’s OK to grieve,” Koehler said.
Other protesters in the case allege injuries caused by police crowd-control tactics and weapons.
One protester struck with a police explosive on May 30 was forced to have a partial thumb amputation, according to the complaint. On June 7, a police officer told another protester, “I’m gonna beat the shit out of you,” and officers later knocked the protester unconscious, the complaint says. On the same day, police hit and bruised a student journalist for the The Daily, the University of Washington newspaper — who was wearing a hat and backpack labeled “PRESS” — with a baton round, according to the complaint.
Dozens of other protesters plan to join the case after filing tort claims (precursors to a lawsuit) and waiting the required 60 days, according to the complaint.
Steve Widmayer, 65, who has filed a claim and plans to join the lawsuit, said he counted 17 times in which he had felt the effects of tear gas in early June, including at his home in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
“I just got caught in the situation — peacefully protesting — but then the war came to my house, literally my house,” Widmayer said. “I had towels under my door. The gas was leaking in through the vents.”
Widmayer, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), said he had a lung evaluation in February before protests began. A recent evaluation showed he had lost 21% of his lung capacity, he said.
The lawsuit also alleges that the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) and its president Mike Solan have “presented slanted, misleading, or false narratives” about the protests and cites a city law barring police from communicating “information known to be false or derogatory with the intention of disrupting any lawful political or religious activity” unless the communication “serves a valid law enforcement purpose.”
SPOG did not immediately return a request for comment.
Seattle Times reporter Evan Bush contributed to this report.