Hundreds of Seattle protesters came together Saturday to voice the sadness and fury that has spread across the country over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after being pinned beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for almost nine minutes.
Largely peaceful at first, the demonstrations grew chaotic as the day wore on, with cars torched, looting, Molotov cocktails thrown, tear gas filling the air and two AR-15 rifles stolen from police vehicles, later recovered. Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a two-night 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for this weekend and told crowds to “disperse from downtown immediately.” Gov. Jay Inslee activated up to 200 unarmed National Guard troops for the next seven days at the request of the city.
Floyd’s death, another in a succession of Black individuals dying at the hands of police, has tapped into deep agony over violence against people of color, sparked protests in dozens of cities and led Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to mobilize the state’s National Guard in that state, too. President Donald Trump said he spoke with members of Floyd’s family and acknowledged their pain, but posted a number of controversial tweets, including calling protesters “thugs” and cheering the idea of sending “vicious dogs” after them.
In Seattle, some protesters marched onto Interstate 5, causing the Washington State Patrol to close the freeway between Interstate 90 and Highway 520.
Undeterred by rain and risks from the novel coronavirus, protesters throughout the day chanted “stop killing us,” “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe!” Floyd, a onetime high school football star, pleaded to officers that he was suffocating before he died — words heard on the video and now repeatedly aired around the world.
“We’re tired of unlawful law enforcement,” the Rev. Dr. Leslie Braxton proclaimed, speaking to a crowd at Westlake Center. “We’re tired of a criminally unjust justice system. We’re tired of police terrorism. We’re tired of blackness being a crime.”
The protests picked up where a Friday night demonstration left off.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best called Floyd’s death a “tragic murder.” Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was charged Friday with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Best also said it was especially troubling to see other Minneapolis officers stand by and told Seattle’s officers: “If you see a co-worker doing something that is unsafe, out of policy, unacceptable or illegal, you need to act.”
But the Seattle Police Department (SPD) itself faced questions for its tactics, including the use of flash bangs as it dispersed people Saturday, and for a videotaped incident Friday night of at least one officer punching a man as he was being held on the ground.
As Saturday unfolded, a group of demonstrators marched through the Lake City neighborhood, chanting “Black lives matter.”
Later, protesters gathered outside police headquarters downtown.
Geneva Bolar joined her mother, Heather, the organizer of the Justice for George Floyd protest, because she said it was important to make a statement.
“We are here for the Black community, for the problems they are still facing today,” said Bolar, 17, from Puyallup. “It is really sad and I hope people come together and realize that this is super important, and it is a problem that we still face today. We just all need to stand together because it doesn’t just affect the Black community.”
Demonstrators made their way to Westlake Center to join an event organized by Not This Time!, a nonprofit committed to reducing police shootings and led by Andre Taylor, the brother of a man shot to death by Seattle police in 2016.
Many protesters wore masks, and Seattle Parks and Recreation workers distributed them to those who didn’t bring their own. Yet people also clustered together, despite organizers’ request that protesters socially distance to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Naudia Miller, of Seattle, said she was motivated to come because she is a Black woman raising two sons and she wants to show solidarity with her community.
“When the Black community comes together and step into their greatness, the world will be a better place,” she said.
Miller also said she hoped white protesters would show support by standing between African Americans and police.
Kimaria Howard-Lewis, from Seattle, came to the protest with three friends.
“I’m tired of feeling helpless and feel like I need to be part of the solution,” she said.
Jermell Witherspoon, pastor of Everett United Church of Christ and Liberation United Church of Christ, standing near the stage at Westlake Center, said: “The fact of the matter is we have to do what has to be done in order for people to listen.”
“We still do not have privilege in a country we built. We are here today to make sure our voices are heard.”
He added he has been telling people in his church that the Black community needs support from white members of his congregations.
As he spoke, blasts could be heard in the distance.
There seemed to be at least two protests going on. One, taking the stage at Westlake, was purposefully nonviolent.
“We must not allow some white folks who think that’s the way to do things disrupt real change,” said Taylor, the leader of Not This Time!, referring to people he believed were set on violence. “Don’t let anyone change us from our narrative.”
Nearby, other protesters were more aggressive, confronting officers and throwing water bottles and fireworks. Flames and black smoke rose from a police car, as well as other vehicles.
Around 5:30 p.m., people began looting in the Westlake shopping area. Groups of people grabbed merchandise by the armful from stores including Arc’teryx, North Face and LOFT and stuffed them into bags. Some broke into Nordstrom and began throwing merchandise to the crowd.
“They are deeply separate gatherings,” Witherspoon said, adding he thought it was important to understand why some people resort to violence.
“It would be such a beauty if we could come together … The fact that we are on separate sides of the street but are on the same side of justice is sad.”
The Downtown Seattle Association took a harsher view. “It’s shameful that some individuals have exploited the tragic killing of George Floyd by resorting to violence and destruction, putting the lives of others at risk, including first responders and those who came downtown to peacefully gather. These are cowardly acts that have no place in our city,” said a statement.
As some demonstrators approached police lines, officers used flash bangs and pushed back people with bikes and pepper spray.
Police said they made several arrests as people in the crowd and officers were injured. “Following the onset of this violence, the police department issued a dispersal order to the crowd and it was ignored,” said an SPD statement.
“This is terrifying,” said Alex Carrosco, a Western Washington University junior who was standing amid a group of protesters that had marched back to police headquarters when she said officers fired flash bangs.
“We were just standing there and they just threw out flash bangs for no reason. I ran,” she said.
Luanna Blanco, a junior at Seattle University studying criminal justice, and the daughter of a police officer in Brazil, said this experience has made her question her academic focus.
A protest on Friday night in Seattle’s Chinatown International District also turned confrontational. Some in the crowd broke windows and set off fireworks. Officers used pepper spray and flash bang devices and made seven arrests on suspicion of assault on an officer, failure to disperse, obstructing and resisting arrest.
A widely circulated video shows an officer pushing a man to the ground during a chaotic scene. As the man was held down, at least one officer punched him, while a nearby demonstrator yelled, “That’s abuse!”
A high-level police source said officers were reacting to the protester trying to strike them with a frozen water bottle.
In a Saturday statement, the Police Department said: “Under SPD’s policies relating to crowd management and review of force, any force that is used during the course of last night’s event will undergo a high level of scrutiny and review by the chain of command, SPD’s Force Review Board, the Office of Police Accountability, and the Office of the Inspector General.”
The statement also defended the department’s record of monitoring hundreds of protests a year, “the vast majority without incident or arrests” and said it would “continue to support the peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights. We will not, however, tolerate violence and property destruction.”
The mayor also said she could not abide what she saw occurring.
“For periods, our firefighters could not access the fires to put them out, because it was not safe to do so,” Durkan said.
That was why, she said during a news conference, she had to sign emergency orders, including the curfew and a ban on possessing, transporting, buying or selling weapons in an area of Central Seattle. Not all of the details of the ban were made clear Saturday night.
She also said the city would investigate how police officers used force against demonstrators and hold officers accountable for any misconduct.
Seattle City Council leaders are asking Durkan’s administration for a briefing Wednesday on the Police Department’s response, as well as a “detailed after-action” report.
Council President M. Lorena González and Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said they want to hear about injuries and arrests, as well as “health and safety impacts on our downtown core.”
Despite the dark turn on Saturday, Marjae Cole, 21, said she felt hopeful as she left the Not this Time! rally, which she attended with family and friends. She said she was heartened by the turnout and diversity of people.
Protests have convulsed many other cities as well, most notably Minneapolis, where a police precinct went up in flames and the mayor declared a curfew.
A candlelight vigil was held in Olympia on Saturday night, with a speaker listing names of people shot or killed by law enforcement in Washington.
In Portland on Saturday, Mayor Ted Wheeler imposed a curfew to begin at 8 p.m. and work crews descended on downtown to put up particle board and plywood patches to the many storefront and office building windows shattered during outbreaks of vandalism and looting Friday night.
Graffiti also was sprayed on many buildings, which included threats to police and — repeatedly again — the circle-A, the symbol of the anarchist movement.
That protest started as a vigil in a park that drew hundreds of people, many who marched a miles-long route that ended near the Multnomah County Justice Center, site of the county jail. People then broke into the building, setting a small fire and damaging computers and other parts of an office before riot police moved in.
Other downtown targets for the vandals included high-profile shopping sites such as the Microsoft Store and the Pioneer Place shopping mall, which had many windows severely damaged.
Smaller businesses, including a shoe store and a jewelry store, were also hit.
Seattle Times staff reporters Nina Shapiro, Daniel Beekman, Hal Bernton, Jim Brunner, Christine Clarridge, Paige Cornwell, Asia Fields, Scott Greenstone, Scott Hanson, Mary Hudetz, Steve Miletich, Joseph O’Sullivan and Paul Roberts contributed to this report.