BLM accuses Seattle police of ambushing demonstrators

say police are in contempt of court over weekend clashes

Author: Mike Carter, Daniel Beekman, and Lewis Kamb, Seattle Times staff reporters

Posted on August 03, 2020


image of woman being carried away by policeAttorneys for Black Lives Matter-Seattle King County have asked a federal judge to hold the Seattle Police Department in contempt of an injunction prohibiting the indiscriminate use of tear gas, pepper spray or other crowd-control weapons, alleging officers “ambushed peaceful protesters” and trampled journalists and medics trying to help the injured.

“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.

“We’ll review the claims, investigate the assertions, and respond accordingly,” said Dan Nolte, spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.

Meanwhile, Seattle police posted its own account of Saturday’s events, including photographs of injuries suffered by officers struck with rocks, water bottles and fireworks, police said. The department says at least 59 officers were hurt.

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Elise Barrett, an intensive care nurse at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, said in a sworn declaration that she was dressed in scrubs as part of an organized group of medical professionals who had volunteered to help injured protesters. She said she was knocked to the ground and pepper-sprayed in the face by police as she tried to pull an injured protester to safety. The incident was caught on video and posted to Twitter.

“I was not a threat, I was not dangerous, I was not breaking anything, or hurting anybody,” she said. “I am a nurse.”

To many, according to documents filed Monday evening, the police reaction felt like “vengeance.”

Kathryn Forest described herself as a mom from Tacoma who works in special education. She came to Seattle Saturday to join the “Wall of Moms” that has sprung up as a peaceful barrier between police and the protesters.

Forest said she was targeted with blast-balls and pepper-sprayed full in the face.

“I’m still in shock from this experience. … It seemed like the police wanted to attack us,” she said. “We posed no threat to anyone. We are moms standing up for racial justice, and exercising our constitutional rights. That’s all.”

Another protester recalled watching police officers throwing blast balls “overhand into the crowd indiscriminately” and being hit by a blast ball on the thigh.

“The force was strong enough that it knocked me to the ground and ripped holes in my jeans, shirt and jacket,” the protester said, including photos of angry welts in a starburst shape. “The doctors and nurses said they had never seen anything like my injury. They had to teach me how to clean and dress the wounds.”

Alexandra Chen, one of the original defendants in the case, said she was hit with shrapnel from flash-bang devices and, having attended several recent protests, now has frequent nightmares and jumps “at everyday loud sounds.”

Some of the declarations are accompanied with grisly photographs of injuries.

On Sunday, Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said the Police Department would send complaints about its actions over the weekend to the Office of Police Accountability for review. Nyland said the mayor considered allegations that legal observers and journalists were targeted “deeply troubling” and said Seattle police Chief Carmen Best would not tolerate such actions.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones last month ordered police to stop using violence on peaceful protesters after finding evidence that the Seattle Police Department used excessive force and violated the free-speech rights of thousands of demonstrators during protests downtown and on Capitol Hill. That order is in place through Sept. 30 and prevents officers from using pepper spray, tear gas, foam-tipped projectiles or any other force against peaceful protesters.

In his June 12 order, Jones found that police had in some cases used such “less-lethal weapons … disproportionately and without provocation.” In instances where looting or vandalism was occurring, the judge said, police should pursue the offenders, not turn their weapons on the entire crowd.

Jones said there was evidence that the SPD’s violent actions against the crowd were in retaliation for the very message that brought the throngs to the streets in the first place: police brutality and racism.

“The use of indiscriminate weapons against all protesters — not just the violent ones — supports the inference that SPD’s actions were substantially motivated by Plaintiff’s protested First Amendment activity,” Jones wrote. “Police cannot interfere with orderly, nonviolent protests because they disagree with the content of the speech.”

Since the injunction, police and crowds have clashed multiple times and on Saturday police declared protests on Capitol Hill had devolved into a riot. Officers again deployed pepper spray, foam-tipped projectiles and batons against throngs of protesters who had gathered outside the SPD’s East Precinct. Several businesses were vandalized, windows broken and fires set.

The construction site of King County’s new youth detention center, at 12th Avenue and East Spruce Street, bore the brunt of property damage during Saturday’s protests.

Some protesters vandalized about 10 county employee-owned cars, broke or damaged glass panels on the building under construction, set fire to or overturned three construction trailers and damaged an excavator, according to statements from the county.

Neither the county nor the contractor provided a damage estimate for the construction equipment, but county facilities officials estimated the cost to replace the building’s broken glass panels “is likely to exceed six figures.”

Protesters also broke windows and sprayed graffiti on nearby two bars, Rhein Haus Seattle and the Canon Bar, said Louise Chernin, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Business Association.

The owner of Canon declined to comment on Monday. Co-owners of the Rhein Haus did not respond to messages.

Saturday’s damage was far less extensive than what business owners were bracing for, Chernin said.

“Most of the protests were peaceful,” she said. “There was a small contingent causing the damage, but I think most of it was broken windows and graffiti – things that can be cleaned up or replaced. What we’re far more concerned about are fires and the kind of violence that can put people’s lives at risk.”

A few business owners who were trying to leave to avoid the protests also “got caught in the crossfire and were subjected to pepper spray from the police when they were just trying to get out of there and get home,” Chernin added.

During a meeting Monday, several Seattle City Council members were critical of the police response to the weekend’s protests, though they didn’t clearly identify their next steps on the issue.

“People are demonstrating for different reasons,” Councilmember Tammy Morales said, citing the deployment of federal agents to Seattle, a push to move public funds from the Police Department to community solutions and police racism and brutality.

“This council has been pretty clear in our interest in seeing the end of these … weapons used against our community and it doesn’t build trust with our community to play what in my mind are semantic games,” she added, referring to Best promising that tear gas wouldn’t be used and then allowing officers to use pepper spray in a similar way.

Teresa Mosqueda was among several council members who expressed frustration that U.S. District Judge James Robart last week granted a restraining order sought by the city and Department of Justice to block a ban on crowd-control weapons passed by the council from taking effect Sunday.

“I think it is really unfortunate, at best, that Trump’s DOJ [Department of Justice] ultimately had the same goal that Mayor [Jenny] Durkan had, to continue to be allowed to use gas,” said Mosqueda, whose husband is a journalist. “There are other strategies we can use.”

Councilmember Kshama Sawant described Robart’s ruling as “shameful” and as a “serious threat” with a chilling effect on demonstrations “in tandem with Trump’s decision to send border patrol agents like an occupying army to Seattle.”

She said the ruling allowed the Police Department to use an “arsenal of weapons to violently suppress” the protests.

“The crocodile tears Durkan cried about Trump sending federal agents were absurd,” Sawant said, because police officers engaged in similar behavior.

“The city and the DOJ are supposed to be opposite parties in the 2012 consent decree requiring Seattle to curb excessive force by police, but both sides “want to continue the use of chemical weapons,” said Sawant, who has repeatedly demanded that Durkan step down.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, condemned those who caused property destruction Saturday.

“I will continue to speak out against property damage and call for peaceful protests,” she said. “Nevertheless, as a public official I have the responsibility to be most focused on addressing the actions of public agencies.”

The council member said she watched live streams Saturday in which journalists and legal observers were targeted.

“This does not seem like the use of these munitions was done in a way consistent with our expectations as a city nor with” the Jones injunction, Herbold said.

She mentioned that she sent a letter to Durkan and Best on July 10 about journalists being exempt from Police Department dispersal orders.

“I’ve not yet received a response to that letter,” she said.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or; on Twitter: @stimesmcarter.
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or; on Twitter: @dbeekman. Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman covers Seattle city government and local politics.
Lewis Kamb: 206-464-2932 or; on Twitter: @lewiskamb.


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