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Charges likely against 6 in Gaza war protest that shut down I-5 in Seattle

By David Gutman, The Seattle Times
Published: February 5, 2024, 5:08pm

The Washington State Patrol will recommend charging at least six people in relation to the Israel-Hamas war protest that shut down Interstate 5 for nearly five hours last month, the agency said.

An additional 10 people involved with the protest, which led to backups extending miles south of Seattle, are still being investigated, said Chris Loftis, a State Patrol spokesperson.

The protest, with a blockade of cars and people, shut down northbound I-5 just south of Mercer Street on Jan. 6. It caused traffic to back up six miles at one point. No arrests were made at the time and the State Patrol said it was caught off guard by the scale and tactics of the Saturday protest.

Protesters were calling for a cease-fire in the now four-month-old war, as well as stopping all U.S. aid to Israel, freeing all Palestinian prisoners and Israel’s exit from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

Ultimately, the decision on whether to charge protesters will be made by King County prosecutors, after they review documentation and recommendations from the State Patrol.

Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office, said they have not yet received any case referrals.

“Investigations are handled by the State Patrol for possible violations of state law,” McNerthney wrote. “If or when cases referrals are sent to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, each case will be reviewed individually by senior deputy prosecutors.”

The most likely charges, Loftis said, would be disorderly conduct, which is a misdemeanor.

“Our interstates are designed for one thing and one thing only — the safe and efficient transportation of people, goods, and services at freeway speed,” Loftis wrote in an email. “Anyone who attempts to use them for their own and other purposes are placing themselves, the traveling public, emergency responders and our commerce and recreational systems in peril.”

Protests on I-5 in Seattle are nearly as old as the interstate itself. Demonstrators marched on the freeway to protest the Vietnam War. Police have, at times when protests are predicted, shut down the freeway, allowing protesters to enter, and at other times have formed barricades to block possible points of entry.

During the summer of 2020, racial justice protests shut down the highway nearly every night for weeks. Those protests culminated in the death of one protester, Summer Taylor, who was hit by a driver who swerved around a barricade of demonstrators’ vehicles. Since then, protests shutting down Seattle’s central automotive artery have been relatively rare.

The January protest began, State Patrol said, when a group of vehicles came to a choreographed stop blocking all northbound lanes of I-5 near Pine Street in downtown Seattle. Then, protesters walked onto the highway through a cut in a fence.

Protesters on the freeway were joined by hundreds of supporters gathered on nearby overpasses and roadways.

Days later, State Patrol said it had had no prior indication the protest was going to target the freeway and that by the time they got enough officers in place to consider arrests, protesters willingly left the freeway.