In a single 24-hour period this week, three separate demonstrations revealed a lot about the direction of the protests in the Seattle area. 

All three called for an end to racial injustice. On Monday morning, about 50 protesters marched into downtown Seattle, stopped traffic, played music and chanted demands to reduce police funding and redirect it toward community-led organizations. Twenty miles away in Kent, demonstrators gathered for the first court appearance of a police officer charged with murder for the killing of a person of color.

But the demonstration that got the most media attention happened later that night as a group of about 250 people, some carrying shields and gas masks, gathered for a nightly protest, this one in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. They marched from Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct on Capitol Hill to the West Precinct downtown, breaking windows at several businesses along the way, then graffitied and threw objects at the West Precinct. When they returned to the East Precinct, people started two fires outside the building; federal prosecutors say they poured quick-dry concrete into a door lock and could have trapped people inside.

Three months after the first protests in Seattle over the killing of Floyd and with the high-profile experiment of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) in the rearview mirror, frequent and decentralized demonstrations continue throughout the city.

After police ordered protesters at the East Precinct to disperse, someone lit a fire on East Pike Street. (Heidi Groover / The Seattle Times)
After police ordered protesters at the East Precinct to disperse, someone lit a fire on East Pike Street. (Heidi Groover / The Seattle Times)

The demonstrations, while near-daily, have mostly been smaller in the weeks following the breakup of the CHOP, particularly compared to larger protests in Portland. On most days, they’ve proceeded without confrontations with police and without reports of vandalism and damage. But on other days, the demonstrations have left in their wake shattered windows, graffiti and fires that have captured an increasingly larger share of attention.

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While local activists try to keep the public’s attention on the deeper issues of police violence, systemic racism and inequality, the destruction has fueled a charged debate over the tactics and meaning of protests — both locally and nationally. Competing narratives over property damage and violence — how prevalent they are during protests and what ends they serve — now challenge business leaders, politicians and also the activists striving for change.

The protests were a frequent theme during the four days of Republican National Convention that ended Thursday.

“From Seattle and Portland to Washington and New York, Democrat-run cities across this country are being overrun by violent mobs,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem declared in starkly exaggerated terms during the convention. “The violence is rampant. There’s looting, chaos, destruction and murder.”

Meanwhile, many activists say relentless focus on property damage or protest tactics allows people to willfully miss the movement’s point. 

“There’s a constant grasping of straws to focus on anything other than the fact — Black people are being murdered by agents of the state, and our Constitution protects that from happening,” said Tarika Powell, an organizer with Black Collective Voice. “People need to take an introspective look and ask themselves: ‘Why is a window at Nordstrom more important to me than an actual human life?’” 

The tactics of some of the protesters have also sparked familiar denunciations by law-enforcement officials and business leaders.

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“These in my mind aren’t protests — this is destruction,” said Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, in an interview Tuesday, echoing a view — one that is difficult to substantiate amid the ebb and flow of the ever-changing protests — that some of the damage is being done by people not connected to the issues behind the original protests or even to Seattle. “It’s much less about justice for Black lives and much more about destruction of capitalism and government and ‘the system.’” 

But to some protesters, whose chants and demands remain focused on police and Black lives, property destruction is a way to challenge the status quo.

“I myself am not going to engage in tactics that will incite fear, but I’m not going to discourage anyone who would,” said one protester at Cal Anderson Park on a recent evening, who gave his name as Hank McCoy and said he was speaking only on his own behalf.

“I’ve had to live in fear as a Black man my entire life,” he said. “If they taste just an ounce of that fear, maybe that will make them compassionate.”

To people angered or worried about property damage, he said, “ask them are their homes being destroyed, or have protesters focused on businesses who are complicit in white supremacy, who support gentrification, who are complicit in what’s going on?”

  ***

WHAT HAS MADE the debate even more complex is that the demonstrators defy easy labels or categorization, despite critics’ attempts to do so. 

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Some groups of protesters consider themselves leaderless, resist media presence and have evolving membership and tactics, making a full accounting of a group difficult. But for Every Night Direct Demonstration (ENDD), the purpose is in the name. As one of the groups that has been organizing current protests, it embraces direct tactics, including property damage. Some who join the demonstrations are familiar faces from the CHOP or other Seattle protests. 

ENDD marches included Aug. 14, when a group moved through Capitol Hill and broke windows at a T-Mobile and UPS store. That night, the Fire Department said it found a bottle containing a flammable liquid burning on the floor of a Starbucks, which firefighters extinguished. During an ENDD march to the office of the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) on Aug. 16, participants threw fireworks at police.

Meanwhile, other groups that do not focus on property destruction continue to organize, like the Morning March every weekday, and the evening Every Day March, which has protested in front of elected officials’ homes. On Wednesday, the Every Day March gathered at the Washington State Patrol office for a vigil and police used pepper spray on the crowd; on Thursday, they protested outside the home of SPOG President Mike Solan.

Other demonstrations didn’t always have clear organizing groups, but used similar tactics. In one example, on July 22, a group set a small fire on the outside of a new Uncle Ike’s location on Capitol Hill and broke the windows of a clothing store, where they gathered items from inside and set them on fire in the street outside. 

On July 25, a group set fire to several construction trailers at the county’s juvenile detention center and broke windows at a Starbucks and the bars Canon and Rhein Haus along 12th Avenue. Police said an explosive device thrown at the East Precinct left an 8-inch hole. 

The juvenile detention center has long been a topic of protest, with activists calling on the county to close it. Protesters have criticized Starbucks for donating to the Seattle Police Foundation. A Starbucks spokesperson said that a $15,000 donation supported anti-bias training and a banquet and that the company “does not currently have any partnership funding” with the foundation. The Capitol Hill clothing store is owned by the wife of one of the officers who shot and killed Charleena Lyles in 2017.

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Most of the destruction has targeted larger companies: Starbucks outlets have been hit especially hard, as was an Amazon Go store on Capitol Hill. Windows are still boarded at some outlets of other chains, such as Rite-Aid, Walgreens and Verizon, and some employees have become accustomed to unexpected closures. 

“It’s kind of a waiting game,” says Dylan Martin, a sales representative at the Verizon store on Broadway near East John Street, which has been boarded up since a window was smashed during a protest several weeks ago. “If there’s a protest scheduled, we close up shop.”

At some smaller shops and restaurants on Capitol Hill, owners and employees said they’ve been largely unscathed, in part because vandals seemed to be targeting corporate brands. 

“They’ve marched past but it hasn’t been an issue,” said Maxx Kautz, manager at Standard Goods on East Pike Street, just a stone’s throw from the fully boarded-up Amazon Go store. 

But several others said they feared their status as a small, independent shop wasn’t any guarantee they wouldn’t be hit. To some protesters, “a window is just a window,” said a shop owner on Broadway not far from the recently vandalized Starbucks, who asked not to be identified to avoid retaliation.

That fear of retaliation points to a broader paradox. Many small-business owners are strongly supportive of the protesters’ causes — that’s especially the case in a neighborhood like Capitol Hill, where many business owners are themselves part of communities, such as LGBTQ or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), that are often marginalized, says Louise Chernin, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Business Association and Capitol Hill Business Alliance. 

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“Capitol Hill … historically has been a center where protests do occur — it is the home of a very progressive movement,” says Chernin.

But even if progressive business owners sympathize with the movement and understand that, as Chernin puts it, “social change movements are messy,” the damage and uncertainty that has come alongside the protests adds yet another layer of risk to smaller businesses already hurt by the pandemic.

A barricade at the West Precinct downtown is covered with graffiti.    (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
A barricade at the West Precinct downtown is covered with graffiti. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

More than 100 businesses in the downtown core, Belltown, Chinatown-International District and Capitol Hill have been damaged in protests since May 30, while the pandemic-spurred recession has shuttered nearly 140 businesses in the city, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. Some merchants around Broadway and in the Pike-Pine Corridor say sales are down by around half their normal summer revenues.

“It puts (business) people in a very difficult situation, because you definitely want to be supporting (the protests),” says Chernin. “And yet, you are also trying to survive.”

***

THE DECISION for police to intervene in property damage can be a complicated one, said Seattle police Lt. John Brooks, who has served as an incident commander during recent demonstrations. 

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“We want to hold people who commit criminal acts accountable, but sometimes, it’s ‘what’s feasible, what’s safe?'” he said. “Are we going to make things worse in some way?”

In some recent protests, Brooks said demonstrators have been confrontational and coordinated. Some have been wearing all black, covering their faces, using shields and vehicles to block officers, Brooks said. 

With dozens of protesters working in concert, Brooks said. “It’s really tough to identify when and who is committing the criminal act and evaluating it. Often, we’re going to have move through the crowd to make that arrest.” 

Brooks said protesters have published group tactics online. He described how he’s seen it play out in the streets: 

“Umbrellas up front. People in the back throwing things at officers using strobe lights and lasers, like Portland, all designed to obstruct or really, more interfere with police response or, frankly, endanger officers.”  

In weighing the decision to intervene, Brooks said the priority is people — the safety of demonstrators, officers and others. 

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“When we start looking at property damage — quite honestly, at least over the last several months, it’s not uncommon to have a broken window. That’s quite different when we thought we had a fire on the bottom of an apartment building. It quite frankly comes back to this life safety concern,” Brooks said.  

Protests involving property destruction have resulted in dozens of arrests by Seattle police, but the cases have rarely resulted in immediate charges. 

For example: On July 25 and early July 26, police arrested 47 people

Of those arrested, police detained two on investigation of arson (one was released) and 13 on investigation of assault, and jailed the remainder on investigation of obstruction or failure to disperse, according to a review of the jail roster and court records. 

No charges have been filed yet, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office waived 12 cases from its felony first appearance calendar, allowing those arrested to be released. 

The information provided initially by police did not meet the office’s standards to seek bail, said Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office.

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Since, police have sent prosecutors additional documents in two of those cases, which prosecutors are reviewing. 

“We have not received referrals related to arson or fires or where an officer was injured,” said Stephanie Knightlinger, a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney. “I’m sure those remain under investigation.”

Police referred 29 reports of misdemeanors to the Seattle City Attorney’s office. 

“We declined charges on 27 of them, and two remain under review,” Dan Nolte, a spokesperson, wrote in an email. 

Police response to the protests has also drawn scrutiny. During one arrest at the march to the SPOG offices Aug. 16, an officer can be seen on video punching a person being arrested multiple times. In an officer’s narrative about one arrest near the SPOG building, an officer said he punched a person being arrested after that person punched another police officer. Other videos showed an officer pushing a legal observer to the ground and appearing to break the window of a vehicle participating in the protest while the driver was inside. 

The Seattle Police Department did not comment on the incidents but said videos from recent protests have been passed on to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA).

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***

AT CAL ANDERSON PARK on a recent Sunday night, several groups gathered in what has become a hybrid occupation and nightly protest. Near a cluster of tents and a supply table, a group listened to audio of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale.

“Anti-racism at its core must come from a place of anti-capitalism,” said one demonstrator who has participated in multiple protests this summer, including the CHOP, and declined to give her name.

Though she would not speak directly to the Every Night Direct Demonstration or its tactics, “I would tell anyone upset about property destruction they should be more upset about Black people being killed,” she said. “All the property in this city is worth less than Charleena Lyles’ life.”

In some protests, protesters wear black to move as a group and avoid being identified by police, a long-used tactic also seen in Seattle at the World Trade Organization protests and May Day. In the age of social media and with heightened attention from right-wing groups at some protests in the region, some also worry about having their identities posted online.

“Yeah we wear black to cover our faces, so we can’t get doxxed,” she said.

Property destruction or even violence as part of historical social movements have both aided and detracted from the advancement of causes, said James Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Washington who studies social movements. 

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“It’s situational,” Gregory said. “We have examples of protests, sequences, where it led to a backlash, so the goals of the demonstrations were hindered. And tactics that turned to property destruction or violence can lead to massive rejections by political leaders and the public.”

But Gregory said “Gandhian” tactics — nonviolence and peaceful civil disobedience — are also limited.

The nonviolent resistance approach taken by Black demonstrators in the South during the early 1960s “was very useful in securing sympathetic publicity from TV stations and media covering that and in securing the demonization of the white supremacists, the white segregationists in the South,” Gregory said, adding that more leverage was likely needed to move resistant political leaders.  

“As that period ended and the focus turned toward Northern patterns of racial injustice, the more militant action of African Americans was probably really necessary … They needed politicians to step up and do things in Washington, D.C., and legislatures and city councils,” Gregory said. “The threat of Black resistance was a motivator.” 

In the Midwest, some uprisings included fires and broken windows in which people would often be “choosing these sites strategically” to target symbols of the state, like police cars or businesses that had mistreated Black clients or employees, said Ashley Howard, a professor of African American history at the University of Iowa who has studied urban rebellions in the 1960s.

Modern history can oversimplify the civil rights era and the movement’s various tactics, groups and internal disagreements, Howard said.

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In 1966, a weekend of unrest in Omaha, Nebraska, included teenagers throwing fireworks toward police, breaking windows and setting fires and led to, among other things, the opening of an employment office that other groups had tried unsuccessfully to get for two years, Howard said.

“The uprisings we see historically or today did not come from nothing,” Howard said. “They’re very much tied to the previous activism people have been taking part in that those in power have ignored.”

Property destruction “forced people to pay attention,” she said. 

Community organizers today differed on the impact of property damage on the Black Lives Matter movement and its goals.  

“Our country likes to hyper focus on property damage when it comes to the protests of certain demographics,” said Powell, the organizer with Black Collective Voice, adding the tactic is “as American as apple pie” and that history books praise examples of white Americans using property damage as a tool of change. 

“The Boston Tea Party was property damage and vandalism,” Powell said. “Never is it referred to as vandalism or property destruction.”

Research of media suggests journalists often ignore protests until they create spectacle or drama. Tactics like property damage then become a coverage emphasis rather than protesters’ concerns or agendas, which can serve to delegitimize social movements.

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Powell said a fixation on property damage — which she described as a “red herring” — obscures the purpose behind protest and people use it to give themselves permission to miss the point. 

“They get to ignore the majority of protesters — ignore the underlying the cause of the protests and they choose a small amount of protest actions to invalidate the whole,” Powell said. “We are living through a historic moment, and when all people can focus on is property damage in one or two places — by one or two people — you are missing the entirety of the movement.” 

Powell said property destruction “is an act of people expressing rage” and noted that Martin Luther King Jr. warned during the civil rights movement that if Black people’s demands were not met through nonviolence that America should not be surprised when people turn to violent tactics. 

Victoria Beach, the chair of the Seattle Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council, said she was “disgusted” by protests that involved violence, which in her view included property damage. 

“It doesn’t solve anything. And I totally get the rage. I get it. I’m there also. And I know this is because Jacob Blake was shot seven times and it just added to George Floyd and all the others. And this killing and shooting by police has got to stop, but so does protesting in a violent way,” Beach said.

Beach said white people were responsible for much of the destruction that has resulted from protests, basing her assessment on her experience visiting the CHOP and marches.

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“The whites doing it, they can’t feel the same rage and pain we feel,” Beach said. “We need every race and every color protesting with us — but you need to follow our lead.”

Andrè Taylor, the founder of Not This Time, said recent “protests of agitation” — which have involved destruction — troubled him because they allowed an environment of violence. He called them a “distraction we can’t afford.”

Taylor and Not This Time have been contracted by the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods to consult on community-building and outreach. Taylor, who used the term “street czar” to describe his role, said he retains an independent voice and that the relationship is no different than that of other community organizations receiving city grants.

He and his organization led the passage of Initiative 940, a statewide measure that removed a legal barrier law that made it virtually impossible to bring charges against police officers believed to have wrongfully used deadly force. In the first case under the new standard, the King County Prosecutor’s Office earlier this month charged Jeffrey Nelson, an Auburn police officer, with second-degree murder and first-degree assault for the May 2019 fatal shooting of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey. 

“When you bring people together, you build power and you can force what you want legislatively,” Taylor said. “We proved bringing people together works, and we’ve proved the legislation works as well. The protest of agitation — what has that produced? It hasn’t produced anything but violence, separation.”

For others on the ground, there is validity in a variety of tactics.

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“You can’t tell a Black person how to grieve,” said Katie N., an organizer with the Morning March. “Personally, it’s not my route, but ‘by any means necessary’ to me means any means. All lanes are occupied.” 

The Morning March has stopped traffic, including on the Ballard Bridge, marched through neighborhoods and downtown, organized trash pickups and protested inside a grocery store. Varying the tactics can improve safety and make a bigger impact, Katie said. 

“When you do the same thing over and over again,” she said, “you kind of get the same results over and over again.”