Protestors gather behind a police barricade at the East Precinct building, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” on Sunday, May 31.
Protesters gather behind a police barricade at East Precinct, chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” on May 31, 2020. (Photo by Ethan Campbell)

Mayor Jenny Durkan did a victory lap on national media yesterday declaring Seattle free of federal agents, but local residents noted that the Seattle Police Department (SPD) continued to aggressively deploy the same weapons and tactics she decried from federal police. In fact, the City of Seattle is being sued for it.

Videos from protests this weekend showed SPD officers indiscriminately targeting crowds of protesters with blast balls, pepper spray canisters, and rubber bullets in violation of a restraining order from a federal judge that banned exactly this kind of indiscriminate use of chemical weapons and rubber bullets.

The Seattle City Council attempted to ban chemical weapons outright, but the Durkan administration went to court to temporarily block the ban. With a legal respite and implied permission from the Mayor, police seemed to use their weapons with vengeance and targeted people trying to render medical aid and those documenting the protests as journalists or legal observers. Mayor Durkan forgot to mention this on MSNBC and CNN.

Although the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had made the Mayor promises before and broke them–triggering a strongly-worded letter–Durkan said she believed assurances were for real this time. In a press release, Mayor Durkan said she had “received confirmation that the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol Tactical Unit has demobilized and left the Seattle area.”

The Mayor correctly identified that police using excessive force and strong-arm tactics escalates situations and increase violence. She just didn’t apply that analysis to her own police force. Troublingly, she sought to hang all accountability for policing decisions on Police Chief Carmen Best rather than herself.

“The president’s actions to target and ‘dominate’ Democratic cities through the use of federal forces is chilling. It has increased violence in Portland, Seattle and other cities across the country, which was what the president intended,” Mayor Durkan said in a statement. “Policing decisions in Seattle should be made by Chief Best–not Donald Trump, and we can rest assured that they will be. We will continue to heed this moment in history and to work with the community to make systemic and generational changes to make Seattle more just.”

The Mayor’s double standard

On CNN, Mayor Durkan argued federal police escalating violence in Portland and inciting larger protests proved that strategy didn’t work.

“We’ve seen that in Portland. It has proven the case the federal agents presence there has escalated things to the point where thousands of people turned out against that action,” Mayor Durkan said. “I think that tells all we need to know about whether they made it better or whether they made it worse.”

The Mayor didn’t apply that same standard to SPD, which had escalated violence and incited larger protests for two months running. Those protests peaked at 60,000 and are building strength again as SPD cracks down once more.

Instead of linking growing and escalating protests with counterproductive policing tactics, Mayor Durkan and Chief Best have consistently responded with more of the same, and they continue to put the blame on the protesters for violence.

Yet again this weekend the video evidence tells a different story. The vast majority of videos show SPD firing on nonviolent people, which seem to compose 99% of protesters. As with Portland, a “wall of moms” formed seeking to defuse the situation and SPD fired anyway. SPD targeted not only these would-be peacekeepers, but also legal observers (clearly marked in green hats), journalists, and medics, as both witness testimony and videos attest.

While SPD did face a real improvised explosive device this weekend, they responded disproportionately. They also continue to damage trust by spreading misinformation in previous weeks, such as the infamous explosive that turned out to be shattered candle example.

SPD violating federal injunction on crowd control weapons

SPD actions have evoked legal action. A suit filed by Black Lives Matter King County-Seattle marks the third recent attempt to limit SPD’s weaponry and targeting of peaceful protesters. The Seattle Times reported the suit include two dozen sworn declarations of injuries inflicted by Seattle police, included gruesome rubber bullet contusions and shrapnel lacerations from blast balls:

“The City of Seattle has willfully and brazenly violated the preliminary injunction,” wrote lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Seattle and the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie, representing Black Lives Matter-Seattle King County, which had sought the injunction last month after protesters clashed violently with police during mostly peaceful protests calling attention to racism and police brutality.

The motion was accompanied by 24 sworn declarations describing in “horrific detail” the injuries inflicted by police officers on protesters, legal observers and journalists.

The motion asks for additional safeguards to be put in place to prevent police from using blast balls, tear gas, projectile weapons, batons or other less-than-lethal weapons indiscriminately, and asks the court to order police particularly to leave journalists, medics and legal observers alone. It also asks for the city to pay its attorney and court fees.

Mike Carter, Daniel Beekman, and Lewis Kalb, The Seattle Times

In Seattle City Council’s Monday briefing, several members condemned excessive force and indiscriminate use of banned weapons. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said the continued use of tear gas, pepper balls, and mace–all major lung irritants–on people would make them more susceptible to Covid-19 and worsen the pandemic, as she also emphasized when the council passed its chemical weapons ban.

Councilmember Tammy Morales accused the Durkan administration of continuing to play “word games” rather than grappling with the issue.

“I will say it was really disturbing to see our police department again using crowd control weapons in ways that were blatantly indiscriminate,” Morales said. “This council has been pretty clear in our interest in seeing the end of these kind of tools and weapons used against our community it doesn’t build trust to play semantic games and promise community you won’t use tear gas knowing full well officers will be geared up with pepper spray. I believe this is a cynical attempt to evade responsibility for the actions we are asking to end and the responsibility to keep our community safe and frankly, the community sees through those word games.”

However, as The Stranger’s Nathalie Graham pointed out, these condemnations are starting to feel like a time loop; SPD remains defiantly violent.

Today, the Council’s budget committee continues to look at cutting SPD’s budget, and the hundreds of public comments were predominately supportive. Led by Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, protesters have demanded a 50% cut to SPD’s budget to fund community-based health and public safety. While the Mayor has portrayed this demand as naive, impossible, and dangerous, it’s increasingly clear there may be no other way to rein in an out of control police department operating with violent impunity.

The featured image is by Ethan Campbell.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.