As U.S. law-enforcement agents target crowds in Portland nightly with tear gas and “less lethal” projectiles, Seattle politicians, police, Black Lives Matter protesters and other residents are wondering what could happen next here.
The Trump administration’s actions in the area surrounding Portland’s graffitied, barricaded U.S. courthouse (including the use of unmarked vehicles to snatch people off the streets), could spur more protests three hours up Interstate 5, rekindle a debate over what tools the Seattle Police Department should use to deal with crowds and lead to a face off between City Hall and the federal government.
During a City Council briefing this week, amid threats by President Trump to send agents into more cities, Councilmember Lisa Herbold condemned the Portland deployments of agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and expressed anxiety about potential actions in Seattle.
“I just want to share with my council colleagues how concerned I am about what’s been happening in Portland,” she said, noting Oregon leaders have denounced the deployments and blamed them for inflaming tensions.
Herbold, the council’s public safety chair, said she would “never suggest” that protesters stop marching. But she said some behavior by certain protesters last weekend “did bring to mind my concern that the Trump administration could use (such events) as an excuse to do the same to Seattle.”
Some people vandalized buildings downtown Sunday and threw fireworks at officers, who shot blast balls and pepper spray, the Police Department said. The flare up was a departure from the recent norm, following several weeks of low-key protests.
Now, the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild is saying his union would welcome U.S. federal officers or any other law enforcement agencies to the city, and the Seattle division of the Pacific Northwest Youth Liberation Front, which has sent out calls for Portland protests, has announced plans to rally Saturday in Capitol Hill.
“Please continue your demonstrations,” Herbold said. “We need your voices to propel necessary change … But I plead with you to please do so peacefully.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis echoed that point. He, along with Herbold and several colleagues, have pledged to redirect 50% of the Police Department’s budget to community-based solutions. They have not yet executed that plan, however.
On Wednesday night, people broke windows at several businesses on Capitol Hill and set at least two fires, the Police Department said.
“We’ve made a lot of progress here … We don’t need to give the Trump administration an excuse to come in here and undermine that progress,” Lewis said in an interview Monday. “It undermines the core message when a couple people are allowed to break some windows … There’s no excuse for it.”
Jaiden Grayson, an active Seattle protester, said leaders should be concentrated on protecting people, rather than property, and said she thinks the feds may show up for political reasons, whether windows are broken or not.
The deployments of U.S. agents in Portland, though she opposes them, have added momentum to demonstrations there by exposing more people to the negative interactions with law-enforcement officers that Black people have long endured, she said, mentioning the moms and dads groups taking part.
“That is such a monumental shift,” she said. “Those people still sitting at home, once it happens to someone in their proximity, they’re going to join.”
Grayson said she worries that at some point U.S. agents may kill someone, and she thinks there’s a good chance Portland-style clashes could erupt in Seattle. Yet she added that the street uprisings are the route to real change.
“Our democracy is at stake,” she said, predicting that if U.S. troops show up, residents will move into the streets and “shut the city down.”
Seattle police may want to stave off the Trump administration by clamping down on upcoming demonstrations, but any that involve interactions between protesters and officers also will be shaped by legal and political pressures.
Protesters sued Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration last month after the Police Department repeatedly used tear gas and blast balls against crowds of protesters massed near the department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill. And they won an initial victory when U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones issued a temporary order barring the indiscriminate use of such weapons on crowds.
Days later, the City Council voted unanimously to ban most crowd weapons altogether; that law is set to take effect Sunday, and Jones has extended his order until September.
But the debate is continuing, because of an effort to recall Durkan over the Police Department’s use of chemical weapons after cops again used crowd weapons in early July as they dismantled and sealed off the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone. Durkan asked another judge last week to stop the City Council’s crowd weapons ban from taking effect.
Durkan said U.S. District Court Judge James Robart, who oversees Seattle’s 2012 consent decree to curb excessive use of force by officers and biased policing, should block the ban until he can — as required under the consent decree for relevant policy changes — assess its compliance. Robart declined in a ruling Wednesday afternoon, saying he would not step in at this point.
“Neither SPD nor the Mayor have made the required showing for the court to
impose such extraordinary relief,” Robart wrote, apparently clearing the way for the council’s law to take effect.
Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best didn’t immediately comment on the ruling and what strategies they would employ to handle protests, starting Sunday, without crowd control weapons.
In laying out her concerns last week, Best described the ban as hastily approved “legislation driven by politics and raw emotion” without thoughtful input from her department and the court.
“Simply put, while no use of force is ever desired, and certainly no use of force is pretty, the reality is that the availability of these tools … leads to less risk of injury and fewer applications of greater levels of force,” Best wrote, saying cops need options other than batons and Tasers. “The notion that” people only act out violently due to behavior by police is “simply naïve,” she added.
SPOG President Mike Solan made similar points in an interview Wednesday, mentioning objects thrown at officers.
“Losing those (less lethal) tools greatly hinders SPD’s ability to protect the public, let alone to protect themselves,” he said. “Now we’re back to where we were 30 years ago, when an officer was given a revolver and a baton.”
But David Perez, a lawyer for the protesters in the Jones case pushed back in an interview Wednesday, saying the Police Department has shown it can’t be trusted to use the crowd weapons in question responsibly and shouldn’t have tried to use the consent decree to preserve its arsenal.
“Mayor Durkan and Chief Best are making the false argument that you need tear gas and blast balls to control crowds because otherwise you’re going to use sticks and guns,” Perez said. “That’s a false choice.”
The Police Department should be able to pursue individual wrongdoers without targeting crowds, Perez said. “If someone is breaking into a store, they should go arrest that person,” he said. “Protesters have done a pretty good job of making sure that rabble rousers and trouble makers are pushed out.”
Seattle vs. Trump
Durkan has adopted a defiant stance against the Trump administration. She issued a statement June 1 that promised: “no U.S. Military troops are needed nor will they act as police in Seattle.” This Monday, she joined other big-city mayors in describing the Portland actions as unacceptable, unconstitutional and “chilling.” They said the forces should be immediately withdrawn.
In a CNN interview Wednesday, she accused the president of using law enforcement officers as a “political tool” to win conservative votes. When Trump last month threatened to send U.S. forces into Seattle to clear the CHOP, Durkan vowed to go to court to stop him, she noted in the interview, calling the president’s actions “so unsettling.”
Solan has struck a different tone. His union, expelled by the county’s largest labor group last month, would like to see U.S. agents help address what he described as professional protesters intent on injuring cops, he said.
“We’ll take any support we can get from any law enforcement entity,” Solan said. “It’s basically my opinion, the union’s opinion, that we need help.”
“When we see our officers continue to be injured by improvised explosive devices … then where are we in our community?” he added.
Solan’s similar comments in a KIRO radio interview, and a report that Portland’s police union leader has met with Homeland Security’s acting boss, led Herbold and Council President M. Lorena González to email Solan Monday asking to confirm that he had not and would not collaborate with the feds.
“We hope you recognize that you are not authorized to invite the presence of these forces to Seattle, nor to collaborate with them,” they wrote.
A spokesman for Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection division told Crosscut this week that agents were sent to the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in downtown Seattle ahead of the July 4 weekend.
But Durkan and Best have not been in contact with Homeland Security regarding protesters and will not coordinate with the department, they’ve said.
Lewis said Seattle leaders must be ready to sue the Trump administration as soon as U.S. agents are deployed on the city’s streets “in an arbitrary way,” he said, describing their recent actions in Portland as “goon tactics.”
“We need to be ready to jump and take them to court immediately,” he said.
Perez also said protesters would surely sue were the president to send troops. But he also said Seattle leaders shouldn’t gloss over the city’s own issues.
“The criticisms being lodged against the Trump administration’s tactics in Portland apply to some of the tactics used against protesters here,” he said.
“There is very little difference between what the city did here in June and what the Trump administration is doing in Portland in July.”