Did Seattle crack down too aggressively on the protest movement last summer? Or was the real problem the reverse — that the city was too soft?
The political tide in the city has for months now been flowing mostly one way on this question — toward the conclusion that the city got too rough. The mayor, Jenny Durkan, faced a recall petition arguing she’d been too heavy-handed with the protests, and the 15-member Seattle Human Rights Commission recently called on Durkan to resign for allegedly fomenting police violence.
“General Durkan,” one Seattle activist dubbed her — because in his view she “seemed to look upon the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) as Gen. Douglas MacArthur did Korea” (in other words, as someone casting about for a pretext to invade).
So that’s one view. But in what amounts to an alternate universe of sorts, the legal world has begun sorting through some of these same questions. And at least in one marquee case, it’s pointing, so far, in the opposite direction — namely that Seattle may indeed have violated some civil rights, but in this case they weren’t the rights of protesters.
The news is that a federal judge last week allowed a lawsuit against the city by some aggrieved Capitol Hill business owners and residents to go ahead. The details, though, could hardly fit the General Durkan story line less.
The suit argues their companies were damaged, and their civil rights violated, in the course of all the vandalism, violent crime and loss of business that accompanied the police abandonment of the East Precinct building and resulting CHOP occupation. But notably the suit goes after the ways City Hall sought to enable and then prolong last summer’s cop-free protest zone.
By setting up concrete barriers on streets, providing medical beds and supplies and forming a “no-response” zone for many 911 calls, the city effectively sanctioned the CHOP, the suit argues.
“There was no notice, or opportunity to be heard, before the city took these drastic measures to basically cede 12 city blocks,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Angelo Calfo, speaking on a podcast called Legal Talk Today.
The judge, Thomas Zilly, for the most part agreed.
The residents and shop owners “plausibly allege that the City’s actions — encouraging CHOP participants to wall off the area and agreeing to a ‘no response’ zone within and near CHOP’s borders — foreseeably placed (them) in a worse position than they would have been absent any City intervention,” Zilly wrote. “Their allegations are sufficient to show that the City acted with deliberate indifference to that danger.”
This is a pretty big deal. Though this was a preliminary ruling prior to major fact-finding or a potential trial, “deliberate indifference” is not what you want to be on the hook for when damages could easily toll well into the millions. Nor when you consider that two young people were shot and killed in and around the CHOP.
The legal team going after the city in this case is headed by Patty Eakes, who prosecuted the Green River Killer back in the day. So it doesn’t seem all that likely the case is going to just wilt or wither away.
The city countered in court that it isn’t responsible for crimes it didn’t itself commit. That’s typically true, but the lawsuit stressed that city leaders, from Durkan through the City Council on down, were complicit this time. And the judge, at least at first blush, agreed.
“Clearly, the City’s conduct … may have been the ‘moving force’ behind the alleged constitutional violations,” Zilly stressed at one point.
I want to repeat that this ruling was about the theory of the case, prior to any vetting of evidence in a trial (that’s why the judge keeps saying “alleged”). So the debate and this case will go on, and who knows how it will ultimately turn out.
That said it sure seems like a warning for a city that’s actively engaged in defunding its Police Department. Can that be done in ways that increase safety for minority residents in their interactions with police, as the protest movement has demanded, while also protecting businesses and people of all types from the sort of mayhem that occurred at CHOP? Both are crucial. It’s why I continue to suspect that defunding or reimagining the police is going to end up costing more money than we spend now, not the same or less, and that we’ll end up with more public safety employees of one sort or another. Because it’s complicated, not reducible to a slogan.
Back to politics: It’s possible the real answer to the question of whether the city has been too hard or too soft on the protests is “both.” Too much aggressive policing doesn’t work. But neither, clearly, does none.
Fair or not, somehow finding that elusive just-right answer looks like it may determine whether General Durkan — or is it Mayor Deliberate Indifference? — keeps her job.