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News / Northwest

Protesters accuse Seattle police of ‘retaliation,’ say city violates court orders meant to protect demonstrators

By Heidi Groover, The Seattle Times
Published: October 1, 2020, 10:31am

SEATTLE — Seattle has “openly and willfully” violated federal court orders by allowing police to continue indiscriminately using crowd-control weapons against protesters, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington alleged in a court filing Wednesday.

The ACLU and others asked U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones to “intervene to curb SPD’s abuses of less-lethal weapons.”

The filing is part of a lawsuit brought this summer by the ACLU, Seattle law firm Perkins Coie and Seattle University School of Law on behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County and several individuals.

Jones issued a temporary restraining order in the case this summer barring officers from using pepper spray, blast balls, foam-tipped projectiles and other crowd-control weapons against protesters except in limited cases against a specific threat. Jones later added more conditions to the order, including barring police from using the weapons to reroute a protest, except in limited circumstances.

The filing this week is the second time the attorneys have filed a motion for contempt. The first came after a July 25 protest on Capitol Hill, when the groups accused police of using excessive and indiscriminate force against protesters, journalists and legal observers.

The new filing, accompanied by declarations from protesters, points to four demonstrations since and claims police violated court orders by using pepper spray, projectiles and explosive devices against large crowds instead of in a targeted response to violence or property destruction. In some cases, officers’ use of the weapons stopped protesters from being able to get out of the very area police were ordering them to leave, the filing says.

SPD declined to comment because the lawsuit is ongoing. Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said in an email, “We’ll now develop a response for the judge’s consideration. We welcome any guidance the Court may offer.”

In recent email exchanges with lawyers for the protesters, included in court filings, the City Attorney’s Office defended officers’ response to protests at the Washington State Patrol offices and the office of the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) in Sodo. Officers were responding to protesters “engaged in assaultive behavior, resisting arrest, or engaged in attempts to de-arrest others subject to arrest,” the City Attorney’s Office said.

Outside the State Patrol offices near Eastlake on Aug. 26, tensions escalated after police asked protesters to move some of the vehicles they said were blocking the street. The group refused and officers brought in tow trucks to remove them. Officers broke the window of one vehicle and arrested the driver. (Known as the “car brigade,” vehicles have become common at protests since a driver plowed into demonstrators July 4, killing Summer Taylor.)

Officers in riot gear pushed protesters out of the area and used pepper spray. In the process, officers “pushed protesters to and around the freeway ramp, creating a human bottleneck and causing people to trip over one another” and pepper-sprayed people who couldn’t retreat fast enough, the filing says.

In an email included in court filings, the City Attorney’s Office said the protest created a safety risk by blocking the State Patrol offices and a fire station and said members of the group shined lasers at officers and hit officers with umbrellas. The City Attorney’s Office also cited another protest earlier the same night, during which demonstrators broke windows and officers found Molotov cocktails. However, that was a separate event in a different neighborhood.

On Sept. 7, protesters marched from the Chinatown International District to the SPOG office. At that office, country music played from the building as a group of officers on bikes rode out from behind the building, ordered people to back up, rode into the crowd, grabbed umbrellas from protesters and used pepper spray, blast balls and projectiles. From the front of the crowd, there was no clear provocation that spurred the police arrival. Police later said they found Molotov cocktails in the area and said people in the crowd assaulted officers attempting to make arrests.

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The filing says officers that day threw explosive devices indiscriminately and “injured peaceful protesters and observers, including senior citizens wearing sandals and a 5-year-old child who got [pepper] spray in his eyes.”

Officers were attempting a “targeted arrest” in the crowd when members of the group assaulted officers, the City Attorney’s Office wrote in the emails included in court filings.

The filing also criticizes police response to two other protests last week.

On Sept. 22, the day City Council members overrode a mayoral veto of bills meant to shrink the police department, police responded in vehicles to a small protest. Video circulated online showing an officer throwing a blast ball that landed near a protester lying on the ground. “Every SPD vehicle had its lights on and sirens blaring at a deafening level,” the filing says, alleging, “This wasn’t policing; this was retaliation.”

The next night, a group gathered on Capitol Hill and marched downtown, with some breaking parking meters and windows at two Starbucks locations. Police arrived, used pepper spray and arrested several people. Later, demonstrators started a fire in the street on Capitol Hill and threw a firework at the East Precinct. Officers descended, using pepper spray, projectiles and blast balls or flash-bang grenades. Officers pushed protesters into Capitol Hill side streets.

One officer was caught on video rolling his bike over the head of a protester lying on the ground. In another video, a person in the crowd hit an officer in the head with a baseball bat.

In 90 minutes of “near-constant use of less-lethal weapons against retreating protesters,” officers “injured numerous peaceful protesters,” including sending one person to the hospital with a “bloody head injury” after hitting them in the head with an explosive device, the filing says.

Attorneys wrote in the filing they “repeatedly have brought these violations to the City’s attention, but the City has failed to take effective action to prevent SPD from continuing to…take these actions.”