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News / Northwest

State Patrol refers charges for protest that shut down I-5 in Seattle

January demonstration called for end to war in Gaza Strip

By Heidi Groover, The Seattle Times
Published: February 11, 2024, 5:03pm

The Washington State Patrol is pursuing misdemeanor charges against five protesters who, according to the agency, participated in an hourslong demonstration last month calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and blocking all lanes of northbound Interstate 5 in Seattle.

The State Patrol said Friday night it referred charges for three men and two women “who played roles in the protest and purposeful blocking” of the freeway. The potential charges include second-degree criminal trespass, failure to disperse, disorderly conduct and obstruction. The State Patrol has also “identified” two other people who “remain under investigation with possible referrals in the near future,” the agency said in a statement.

The decision about whether to charge the protesters now lies with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors will review the referrals “to determine if charges can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt under state law,” spokesperson Casey McNerthney wrote in an email.

Although the prosecutor’s office typically charges felony cases, the office’s district court unit also handles alleged misdemeanors on state roads, McNerthney said.

During the January demonstration, protesters used vehicles to block traffic, then sat, chanted and waved Palestinian flags on the freeway, while hundreds of others joined on nearby overpasses.

After protesters parked a dozen vehicles on the freeway, the State Patrol said others “cut through a (Washington State Department of Transportation) safety fence and began to occupy the freeway road surface.” Eight of the protesters bound their arms together inside PVC piping using what is known as a “sleeping dragon” tactic, according to the State Patrol.

Troopers and Seattle police officers were on the freeway during the protest but did not make any arrests. Eventually, rain drenched the area and protesters left on their own.

Afterward, Falastiniyat, a Seattle-based group opposed to Israel’s war in Gaza, wrote online, “Drivers left their cars and traffic was disrupted. We sent a clear message that there will be no business as usual under genocide!”

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The high-profile demonstration was one of what had become near-weekly protests around Seattle denouncing the war and U.S. aid to Israel. Protesters also demanded that Israel free all Palestinian prisoners and called for an “end to the occupation of Palestine.” Organizers included Falastiniyat, the Seattle chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace and other local groups. Protesters said they were blocking traffic in the heart of the city to send a message that “business as usual” was unacceptable as the death toll in Gaza continued to climb.

The protest — and lack of immediate arrests — drew swift backlash from conservative commentators and politicians. In a report the following Monday, the State Patrol said it had received a “single and unverifiable” report of the planned freeway action but couldn’t substantiate details such as the time and location.

Seattle police had responded to previous protests against the war without needing assistance and “there were no strong indications to suggest Saturday’s event was going to significantly vary from earlier protests,” the State Patrol wrote in an after-action statement.

The agency said officers held off on making contact with protesters on the freeway as they waited for more personnel and because “rushing things had the potential to turn an otherwise peaceful event violent.” The King County Jail also “simply did not have the capacity to accept a large number of arrestees.”

Now, the State Patrol says its ongoing investigation is warranted because of “the extreme level of danger this sort of activity creates for all involved, added to the impact to local, state, and federal commerce caused by freeway closure, as well as the dangerous diversion of law enforcement resources from other emergency response duties.”

After months of protests, the decision to refer charges for the January demonstration “really signifies a serious escalation by the police and by the state,” said Hossam Nasr, an organizer who worked with the coalition of groups behind the Jan. 6 protest on the nearby overpasses but said he was not involved with the groups who organized the action on the freeway.

“They want to scare people. They want to diminish their motivations … but it’s going to have the exact opposite effect,” Nasr said.

Protesters, he said, “are going to continue showing up, so long as there’s a genocide we are funding.”

The State Patrol said it continues to investigate additional protesters by reviewing video and photos from the demonstration.