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News / Northwest

Seattle I-5 protest surprised WA State Patrol; arrests possible

By David Gutman, , The Seattle Times (TNS),
Published: January 10, 2024, 7:45am
3 Photos
Protesters calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war gesture a peace sign on an overpass to those below as they block Interstate 5 northbound Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in downtown Seattle.
Protesters calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war gesture a peace sign on an overpass to those below as they block Interstate 5 northbound Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson) Photo Gallery

The Washington State Patrol was largely caught off-guard by a protest Saturday that shut down Interstate 5 through Seattle, the busiest stretch of highway in the state, for nearly five hours.

The State Patrol, in an after-action report, said it received only a “single and unverifiable” report on Friday of a plan to take over the freeway and was unable to substantiate it. In response, it prepared a contingency plan, but never developed reliable enough information to bring in additional officers or teams to any specific location.

The protest on Saturday, calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, shut down northbound I-5 just south of Mercer Street from about 1 p.m. until about 6 p.m. It caused traffic to back up 6 miles at one point.

No protester was arrested, but that does not mean charges won’t be filed, State Patrol Chief Jon Batiste said in the report issued Monday night.

“Quite to the contrary,” Batiste said, “as our ongoing investigation continues, charges could very well be referred to the prosecutor’s office in due time.”

Batiste said the State Patrol respects people’s rights to speech and assembly, but that protests on the freeway are both unsafe and illegal. Still, he said, the safety of everyone involved — protesters, drivers and first responders — is the agency’s top priority when attempting to clear the freeway.

“While we recognize the enormous and very real impact of any freeway closure, we must move both quickly and carefully to resolve disruptive situations peacefully whenever possible,” he said. “I am proud of the manner in which my troopers and their leadership navigated this complex and difficult situation.”

Protests on I-5 in Seattle date back to at least 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 off 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 Israel-Hamas war has led to near weekly protests in Seattle since it began in October. Last month, protesters blocked the University Bridge, which unlike I-5 is a city-controlled roadway, for two hours.

In New York City, on Monday, protesters blocked entrances to the Holland Tunnel and the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. New York City Police said they arrested 325 people at all four sites, The New York Times reported.

In Los Angeles, last month, authorities arrested 75 people, the Los Angeles Times reported, after they blocked one of the busiest freeways in the region, calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

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The protests in Seattle, and the response, drew criticism from some Republican officials.

“I’ve been asking for weeks if State Government has a plan for this and for possible disruptions at the Legislature,” wrote state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, the former leader of House Republicans. “No sign of a plan to date.”

Former U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican candidate for governor, criticized the protest but not the response.

“I am tired of watching the few violate the rights of the many,” he wrote. “I am tired of those few not respecting the rights and freedoms of their families, friends and neighbors.”

On Saturday, protesters handed flyers to drivers that apologized for the inconvenience and said, “We would not have taken this action if it weren’t an emergency of life or death for thousands, if not millions, of people.”

The day after the protest, organizers celebrated its success.

“Drivers left their cars and traffic was disrupted,” wrote Falastiniyat Seattle, a Palestinian activist group. “We sent a clear message that there will be no business as usual under genocide!”

Falastiniyat and Jewish Voice for Peace, another organizing group, reiterated their demands, which include not only a cease-fire, but also 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.

“No business as usual until Palestine is free,” the groups wrote on social media.

The State Patrol said previous protests have been managed by Seattle police, which had not needed assistance from other law enforcement agencies.

“There were no strong indications to suggest Saturday’s event was going to significantly vary from earlier protests,” the State Patrol said.

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

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

State Patrol said it had to call in additional troopers before making contact with protesters. About eight protesters had chained themselves together using a “sleeping dragon” strategy, in which they are linked with their arms inside a piece of PVC piping, making it difficult to safely cut or remove the chains.

Assembling enough officers to make mass arrests takes time, State Patrol said, and despite the traffic impacts, the situation on the highway was stable and nonviolent.

“Rushing things had the potential to turn an otherwise peaceful event violent,” the State Patrol wrote.

State Patrol talked with King County Jail leaders and was told that the jail, which has struggled with understaffing for years, “simply did not have the capacity to accept a large number of arrestees.”

There was also confusion over whether an official dispersal order had been given. While Seattle police were talking with protesters, trying to get them to leave voluntarily, there was a miscommunication between police agencies.

At 3:40, about two-and-a-half hours into the protest, Seattle police posted on the social media platform X that State Patrol “with the assistance of SPD” had issued an official dispersal order. About 45 minutes later, Seattle police wrote that a second dispersal order had been issued on behalf of the State Patrol. The State Patrol retweeted both posts.

In fact, no dispersal orders had been issued. State Patrol said it had intended to issue such an order but was delayed because officers called in to potentially arrest protesters were slow in reaching the scene, having to navigate the same traffic congestion that was snarling up everyone else.

Before a dispersal order was given, protesters left the freeway willingly.

But that didn’t open up the highway. Demonstrators abandoned about a dozen vehicles they had used to initially block traffic. This was a new “tactic,” State Patrol said, and before they were towed away, police called in bomb-sniffing dogs to make sure the abandoned cars weren’t a threat.

“There should be no confusion: the WSP was willing and fully prepared to make arrests had the situation not resolved itself,” the agency wrote. “The crowd size necessitated waiting for the additional resources to ensure the safest possible outcome of a potentially mass arrest incident.”

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