Protests over police killings yielded some initial legislative results in Seattle on Monday as demonstrators continued to honor people slain by officers and press for systemic changes — not only in a Capitol Hill zone that’s attracted nationwide attention, but also in neighborhoods outside that spotlight.
At City Hall, the City Council voted unanimously to ban police chokeholds and police crowd-control weapons like tear gas and the covering of officer badge numbers with mourning bands. Councilmember Kshama Sawant called the actions historic, describing them as steps toward demilitarizing and defunding the police department.
At a vigil in Columbia City, about 100 people lined Rainier Avenue South to remember George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — Black people whose deaths at the hands of police and others have contributed to a surging protest movement. Participants held signs with messages such as “Honk for Black Lives” and “Honk for Equality,” and passing drivers leaned on their horns, showering the crowd with cacophonous support.
The neighborhood is holding streetside demonstrations for police accountability every Monday this month. “We’re giving people an accessible way to engage, and it is community-bonding,” said Rainer Waldman Adkins, who helped start the vigils because his wife didn’t want him to join the more treacherous protests in and around downtown.
Monday’s three council bills were written in reaction to public outrage this month over the city’s response on multiple occasions to protests against police killings of Black people, police brutality and institutional racism.
As demonstrations broke out in Seattle and across the country over the killing of Floyd by Minneapolis police, officers here repeatedly used pepper spray, tear gas, flash-bang grenades and foam-tipped projectiles to disperse crowds.
In some cases, police said they were trying to quell looting and property destruction, and in other cases, they claimed they were responding to bottles and other objects hurled by demonstrators or provocateurs.
But news accounts, eyewitness accounts and viral videos showed large numbers of nonviolent protesters were targets — and in some cases, seriously injured or nearly killed — by the crowd-control weapons while trying to exercise their constitutionally protected free-speech rights.
For several nights, explosions reverberated and tear gas clouded Capitol Hill, choking demonstrators gathered near the Police Department’s East Precinct and seeping into homes where children slept. Public health experts worried such chemical weapons could increase the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
A video recorded by a Crosscut photojournalist showed a Seattle officer holding his knee on the neck of a detained person in a way that recalled the way a police officer killed Floyd. In this case, another officer moved the knee away. Protesters also raised concerns about Seattle police covering their badge numbers with black bands worn to honor slain officers from other jurisdictions.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best initially stood by the Police Department’s crowd actions, while promising individual complaints would be thoroughly investigated. And they initially dismissed the badge number concerns, noting officers also wear name tags. They altered some policies and apologized as public outrage grew, police-accountability organizations objected and council members vowed to pursue legislation.
Durkan and Best on June 5 announced a 30-day ban on tear gas, though the Police Department again deployed the weapon two nights later, citing a loophole for SWAT officers in “life safety” situations.
The police chief meanwhile announced a directive requiring officers to display their badge numbers, and the Police Department dismantled a barricade near the East Precinct, allowing demonstrators to establish a protest zone in the surrounding blocks.
Under Monday’s ban on crowd weapons, sponsored by Sawant, no Seattle agency may own, purchase, rent, store or use “kinetic impact projectiles, chemical irritants, acoustic weapons, directed energy weapons, water cannons, disorientation devices, ultrasonic cannons or any other device” used similarly.
The bill also applies to outside agencies providing aid to Seattle. It allows pepper spray to be used but not at demonstrations.
Despite the restraining order on tear gas, Sawant said the council needed to immediately “take these violent weapons out of the hands of police.”
The chokeholds legislation, also sponsored by Sawant, says officers may use neither “neck restraints” that block air through a person’s windpipe nor “carotid restraints” that constrict flow to the brain. Sawant described her bills as “the bare minimum,” saying the council next must slash the Police Department’s budget.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold sponsored successful amendments sending Sawant’s bills to the federal judge overseeing the city’s police-reform consent decree, for review. She also sponsored a successful amendment asking Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, Office of Inspector General and Community Police Commission to weigh in on whether certain weapons should at a later date be reauthorized to disperse crowds.
Under the city’s regular process for adopted bills, Sawant’s laws should take effect sometime next month.
Herbold sponsored Monday’s badge numbers bill, which says mourning bands may not obscure the numbers, putting Best’s directive into law. That bill will be effective immediately with Durkan’s signature.
The council last week began an “inquest” into the Police Department’s $409-million annual budget. That will continue Wednesday, said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who’s leading the process.
Additionally, Councilmember Andrew Lewis introduced proposals Monday to repeal Seattle’s drug-loitering and prostitution-loitering laws, which allow police to stop and arrest people based on behavior that may not have anything to do with drugs or sex work.
“This law has a racist history and historically criminalized ‘hanging out’ simply because someone looked like they were trafficking drugs, allowing racial profiling and the criminalization of communities of color,” Lewis said in a news release.
His proposals will be considered by the council in the coming weeks.
Down in Columbia City, Naomi Ashford showed up to remember her cousin, Charleena Lyles, who was fatally shot by Seattle police in 2017.
“It’s been very powerful and great to see the energy and support for Black Lives Matter,” Ashford said, holding a sign with her cousin’s name and the names of other people killed by police.
A neighbor with a “Black Lives Matter” sign said her reason for participating was simple. “Because it’s time,” she said. “It’s past time.”
Reporters Scott Hanson and Evan Bush contributed to this story.