Mayor Jenny Durkan sought to draw a sharp line Sunday between peaceful protesters who thronged to downtown Seattle the day before to demand justice for George Floyd — and other people who broke windows, looted stores, started blazes and threw projectiles at police officers.
At the same time, Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best faced questions over the city’s response to the turmoil, as some nonviolent protesters described escalations by officers early in the afternoon, and as business owners pondered why the police weren’t able to stop the chaos that erupted.
Many weeks may be spent reviewing what occurred Saturday, including muddled scenes like demonstrator Alex Jessup, 35, recalled being caught up in on Fifth Avenue as the situation devolved.
“I saw people with their hands up, shouting ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ and then people behind them throwing water bottles at the police,” said Jessup, compelled to protest based on Floyd’s death while in police custody, other such killings and his own interactions as a Black man with police. “Then the officers would throw a flash bang or tear gas just randomly into the crowd.”
Durkan began Sunday downtown, where volunteers cleaned up glass and graffiti. “It wasn’t a downtown that I recognized,” she said afterward, holding back tears at a news conference. “What I did recognize were the hundreds of volunteers and residents who came because they love Seattle.”
Speaking to media, she said that damage had been committed by people bent on “chaos, destruction and hate,” rather than by sincere demonstrators touched by a death that “echoes through too many decades of hopes dashed, promises broken and lives taken” from Black communities.
Much of the violence was, she said, “instigated and perpetuated not by the people most impacted by generations of discrimination and institutional racism but by young white men,” Durkan said. “These were not the acts of allies.”
Best agreed, though she didn’t share demographic information about the dozens of people she said were arrested Saturday on charges that included assault, obstruction, failure to disperse and burglary.
King County jail data showed a spike in burglary arrests, with 43 people booked between 7 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday. In the past year, only three people were jailed each day on that charge, on average.
“We’ve dealt with crowds of thousands of people before,” Best said, calling the situation the worst in her 28-year career. “But this crowd was different … The anger directed toward the Police Department was unprecedented and the numbers were unprecedented.”
While Durkan imposed a two-day, 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that she announced suddenly around 5 p.m., no one was arrested Saturday for merely violating that order, with most peaceful protesters leaving downtown soon after, Best said. “We didn’t have buildings burnt to the ground. We didn’t have major injuries,” she added, arguing Seattle made out better than some other U.S. cities.
What the damage-causing people “did not do and will never do is drown out” the righteous message behind the protests, Durkan said at another news conference later Sunday, held as protesters once again gathered downtown.
Several Black community leaders struck the same tone as the mayor. Not This Time!’s Andre Taylor, who led a large, non-violent protest in Westlake Park, praised the Durkan administration’s posture toward the situation.
“I’m tired, I’m angry” about Floyd’s killing and so many others, said Sheila Edwards Lange, president of Seattle Central College, who participated in the Westlake Park rally. “But I have to stand up for what I know to be right … I also saw groups of mostly white men with huge backpacks clearly not there for … hope and healing.”
The situation began to deteriorate around 3 p.m. Saturday, as police in certain streets near Westlake Park blocked certain crowds from the rally. That step was taken to exclude troublemakers from the demonstration, Durkan said.
Projectiles thrown at officers were first reported just before 2 p.m. on Fifth Avenue, between James and Madison streets, near police headquarters, the Durkan administration said. At 3:50 p.m., a patrol vehicle was reported vandalized and then set on fire.
By 4:30 p.m., there were reports of Molotov cocktails being thrown at officers, rifles stolen from police vehicles, the department’s headquarters being doused with accelerants, about 1,000 people shutting down Interstate 5, according to the administration, which was preparing a timeline Sunday.
“I’ve heard and seen some of those criticisms, that somehow it was the Seattle Police Department that instigated the violence and chaos, and it’s just false,” the mayor said.
Participants describe escalating tensions
Some protesters said that doesn’t quite match what they saw. Several demonstrators said they were surprised as they peacefully made their way to the Westlake Park rally and were repelled by a police force for reasons they didn’t understand.
It was about 3:30 p.m. when Ariana Dapra came upon a crowd blocked by a line of police at Fifth Avenue and Pine Street, she said. Dapra was waiting about three feet away when officers without warning shot what she described as pepper spray in her direction. Some hit her face.
“We weren’t even aware we were supposed to be moving or dispersing,” the 26-year-old said. “We were given no direction before they pepper sprayed into the crowd.”
Dapra said she couldn’t see for more than 10 minutes, until people poured milk and saline solution into her eyes. She listened Sunday as Durkan rejected the idea that police contributed to the tensions.
“I felt like I was being gaslighted,” she said about the mayor’s remarks. “It was not the experience I had.”
Jules Carson, 22, described a similar encounter, as she and her mother made their way toward Westlake Park. They and others were stopped near Fifth and Pine.
“People were completely peaceful, chanting, ‘No justice, no peace,'” she said. “Then at like 3:20 p.m., without provocation, there was a tear-gas canister fired into the crowd by the police and people started running.”
Minutes later, when she knelt down with “maybe 200” other people a couple blocks away, another canister was fired into the crowd, though no one had thrown anything at the police, she said. “None of us ever made it to Westlake,” Carson said.
Many demonstrators didn’t expect conditions to turn ugly so quickly. Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said he brought his two teenage daughters downtown for the rally.
In a Sunday email to Durkan, he rejected the violence that occurred while also questioning the mayor’s account, saying it “seemed to suggest … that officers had only been trying to keep the bad actors away from the peaceful protesters” at Westlake Park.
“I have to tell you that this account does not conform with what I saw yesterday,” Barón wrote, saying he and his daughters were blocked by police at Fourth Avenue and Olive Way.
“We did not witness any violence or disturbance at this point that justified the officers being deployed in this way,” he said.
They were blocked again at Fifth and Pine, “until we started sensing the crowd ahead of us begin to flee northeast and we heard loud bangs,” he added, suggesting the police lines “exacerbated the tensions.”
Videos capture downtown scene
Several alarming incidents captured on video and shared on social media also raised concerns.
In one, protesters helped a young girl who apparently had been hit by pepper spray or tear gas, wash her eyes. In another, an officer held a young man to the ground with his knee near the man’s neck until another office pulled the knee away.
Durkan said all questionable incidents would “undergo a high level of scrutiny and review” by the police department and its civilian watchdogs, including the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), though she also warned about relying on clips that don’t show what may have happened moments earlier. “If any use of force was outside of compliance, the officer will be held accountable,” she said.
The OPA, director Andrew Myerberg said, will look into a mind-boggling incident Saturday that saw two assault rifles removed from police cruisers, at least one of which was torched. A video posted on social media shows a private security guard who was protecting a Q13 television crew pointing a handgun at a young man holding one of the rifles, snatching it and ejecting the magazine.
Spokeswoman Sgt. Lauren Trustcott said a police-department policy requires that patrol rifles, when not in use, be secured in the police vehicle, in the trunk or a bracket mounted between the seats.
“We need to see who those vehicles belonged to and the circumstances under which this happened,” Myerberg said. “We certainly are concerned.”
Durkan visited the Chinatown-International District to meet with community leaders and business owners, including some who absorbed damage there. Meanwhile, others struggled to understand why the police were unable to stop the smash-and-grab activity that continued for hours after dark.
The 1,300-officer department isn’t large enough to handle what erupted Saturday night, said a high-level city source; at Durkan’s request, Gov. Jay Inslee sent state National Guard troops Sunday.
“It’s very, very difficult,” the source said, wondering why officers didn’t start seizing poles and other potential weapons sooner.
Later in the evening, when demonstrators shut down Interstate 5, the police appeared to almost abandon parts of downtown, allowing looting to ramp up there.
Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said his department handled 530 calls to 911 Saturday, representing a 40% increase over normal volumes.
Near Sixth Avenue and Pine Street, a man who gave his name as Steve stood guard outside an apartment building with an aluminum baseball bat and a handgun. “It’s anarchy,” he said.
By then, Durkan had issued an emergency order banning all weapons, including firearms, in central Seattle. But it remained unclear Sunday how the order was being enforced.
“I think people are going to be standing in line to file a legal challenge to this,” said Dave Workman, spokesman for the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation.
The Durkan administration said the ban was written to provide officers with discretion to confiscate any weapon as necessary.
Some people always will try to hijack protests to cause harm, said Norm Stamper, who served as police chief during Seattle’s notorious 1999 World Trade Organization demonstrations. To become more resilient, departments nationwide must give up more power and decision making to community members, he said.
“We have a tendency to not learn from history,” Stamper said. “We need to forge authentic partnerships.”
Seattle Times reporters Daniel Beekman, Mike Reicher, Mike Carter, Lynda Mapes, Paul Roberts, Daniel Gilbert, Mary Hudetz, Scott Greenstone, Steve Miletich, Asia Fields and Evan Bush contributed to this story.