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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Other Papers Say: Dissuade freeway protests

By The Seattle Times
Published: January 15, 2024, 6:01am

The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:

Public officials at every level of government have a responsibility to ensure highway protests do not become regular occurrences.

This will take law enforcement coordination and a clear message that those seeking to influence national and international politics must not have unfettered ability to inflict pain on local residents.

Demonstrators calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war blocked traffic on Interstate 5 in Seattle for hours on Jan. 6. All northbound Interstate 5 lanes were blocked between Interstate 90 and Mercer Street.

Washington State Patrol Public Information Officer Rick Johnson first posted about the demonstration just before 1:30 p.m. At 3:40 p.m., Washington State Patrol, with the assistance of the Seattle Police Department, issued a dispersal order for protesters to leave the freeway, according to the agency’s social media feed. Demonstrators left about a dozen vehicles on Interstate 5. The State Patrol said tow trucks removed them and the freeway reopened shortly after 6 p.m.

Freeway protests are distressingly common. In 2022, Interstate 5 was shut down by protesters drawing attention to war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in 2020, protesters repeatedly blocked Interstate 5. An activist, Summer Taylor, was killed by a 30-year-old man who drove a car through a group of demonstrators.

Residents have a right to protest. But that can’t devolve into regional extortion. Any reading of the reaction to the recent freeway fiasco on websites and social media makes clear: The people are not with the protesters. This isn’t about changing hearts and minds. It’s about putting pressure on elected officials until they break.

Let’s look at how other cities handle such disturbances, which have become a daily occurrence in many places.

As The New York Times reported, pro-Palestinian demonstrators last week blocked entrances to bridges and tunnels to Manhattan. Shortly after they gathered, they were arrested by police, and traffic quickly resumed.

In Los Angeles, 42 people were arrested after a protest calling for a cease-fire in Gaza briefly shut down the 110 Freeway last month. The demonstration began just after 9 a.m.; California Highway Patrol declared an unlawful assembly and all lanes reopened around 11:30 a.m.

Around here, the region must do more than create an effective law enforcement strategy. What’s needed is leadership.

To that point, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, could be eminently helpful. Jayapal should make a statement directing those supporting a Gaza cease-fire to express themselves forcefully but lawfully. She obviously has clout with this crowd.

As chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jayapal has long championed the Palestinian cause. She was one of six lawmakers to vote “present” on a House Resolution supporting Israel in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack. All other members of the Washington congressional delegation voted to approve the resolution, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Seattle’s freeway demonstration happened in the middle of Jayapal’s district. In this time of escalating tensions, the region needs leaders who can bring calm and stability. The alternative is more disruptions, more headaches and a local tragedy waiting to happen.