After WTO: Seattle police navigate May Days, political brawls and blocked streets
The fallout from Seattle’s WTO protests in 1999 became a case study in what NOT to do for police departments nationwide. SPD officials say they've also drawn lessons from those events.
But protests in Seattle continue to evolve, bringing new challenges with them.
On the morning of November 30, 1999, Seattle defense attorney Neil Fox was looking down at demonstrators seated in the intersection at Sixth Avenue and University Street.
“And seeing police in riot gear who looked like they came out of ‘Star Wars’ stomping on people. Like walking on them," he said. "There was tear gas, pepper spray, projectiles. There was no attempt to arrest anyone.”
Read the rest of this series:
- 'Smoke in the street.' Unions grapple with the complicated legacy of the Battle in Seattle
- A cop shot this wooden bullet at me at the WTO protests in Seattle. Here’s the story it tells
Arrests came later. Fox spent that week trying to get access to lawyers for hundreds of detained people.
The lesson, for him, was that civil rights are fragile, even in a democracy.
He said, “We expect that what happens in places like Hong Kong or Moscow can’t happen here.”
On that day, current Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was the department spokesperson under then-Chief Norm Stamper. She remembers facing the world’s press corps outside the convention center.
Best said SPD’s approach to subsequent demonstrations — from 'Occupy' and 'Black Lives Matter' to the Seattle Womxn’s marches — has been very different.
“We have really worked hard to work with organizers, to make sure, whether permitted or unpermitted, that we provide appropriate escort, that we block down the right streets, that we’re doing whatever we can to facilitate First Amendment free speech," she said. "But we also weigh that against the time, place and manner in which those events are occurring.”
(The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government can place reasonable restrictions on the “time, place and manner” of free speech, to protect public safety.)
During WTO, SPD was criticized both for using harsh tactics against peaceful demonstrators and for standing by as violent demonstrators destroyed property.
A decade later, May Day demonstrations presented a similar combination of peaceful marchers and small groups bent on vandalism.
Former SPD commander Jim Pugel was the incident commander during WTO. “It was what they call a ‘harbinger event,’” he recalled. “No one had seen anything like that since the 1960s.”
Pugel said more recent May Day encounters were yet another learning experience for SPD.
“Those were hard to police because not only do police responses and preparation evolve, but demonstrators evolve. We are almost always reactionary,” he said. “I think the main thing is, get the individual leaders who are inciting the crowd incapacitated legally as soon as possible, and then let the peaceful protest go on.”
Best agreed with Pugel’s assessment, saying their top priority during May Day has been to stop demonstrators committing acts of violence.
“That’s a non-starter for us, so we have to take action on those. But to the degree that we can facilitate marches peacefully, we will," she said.
More recently, SPD has been tested by political rallies that draw opposing groups eager for a confrontation. These included a permitted gathering of Patriot Prayer and gun rights activists at City Hall plaza in August 2018.
At the event, congressional candidate Joseph Brumbles pointed to the counter-protesters standing behind barricades across Third Avenue.
“Do you hear Antifa over there trying to silence us, trying to distract people, making as much noise as they can?” he asked his supporters. Meanwhile, other Patriot Prayer attendees offered to provoke their opponents, with cameras rolling.
Best said at these events, police work to keep the opposing groups separated and to prevent violence, but both groups frequently accuse police of favoring their opponents whenever an arrest occurs.
“We often end up engaged in the middle of those types of disputes, but really we’re just focused on behavior,” she said.
After WTO, some cities tried to create designated enclosures or “zones” for protest. Some have been successfully challenged in court, like Cleveland’s protest zone for the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Best said they haven’t used those in Seattle. “We typically don’t use that ‘zone’ approach for the very reason that people don’t want to be herded into a certain area,” she said.
Former SPD Chief Norm Stamper, who retired soon after WTO, said creating zones can sap protests of meaning.
Protest "is going to be loud and noisy and maybe a little messy. So what,” he said. “That’s part of the fabric of a free society.”
Stamper said his views on policing mass demonstrations have changed dramatically since the day he authorized tear gas to clear city streets. Stamper now calls that the worst tactical decision of his career, and says police could have left peaceful demonstrators alone.
“They are not hurting anyone, they aren’t destroying property, they aren’t committing acts of personal violence. They’re blocking an intersection,” he said.
Seattle streets have been blocked more recently in opposition to the county’s “youth jail,” immigration policies, and fossil fuel projects. Protesters have chained themselves together to form what’s known as a “sleeping dragon.”
How long to allow protests to close city streets remains a contentious issue. Chief Best said she weighs factors like time of day, and the types of activity being blocked.
“Every situation is unique, and we look at the circumstances that are before us,” she said. “We try to employ common sense to a lot of this, as well as the legal parameters we’re obligated to follow.”
But she indicated that the pressures caused by Seattle's population growth are making authorities less tolerant of street closures.
“Our approaches to these things have to evolve over time,” she said. “The days of letting four people shut down a major thoroughfare in Seattle are over.”
City Attorney Pete Holmes also warned in an August 2018 op-ed in the Seattle Times that "my office can’t turn a blind eye to these actions."
Defense lawyer Neil Fox represented protesters arrested for blocking Second Avenue with teepees outside Chase Bank in May 2018.
He calls SPD’s current approach to these protests "arbitrary," and notes that city statute says constitutionally protected speech, like pickets or protests, "shall not constitute obstruction of pedestrian or vehicular traffic."
He said, “Just because speech is inconvenient, just because you disagree with the content of the message, is not a reason to disrupt that speech."
In contrast, Fox calls the police and public support for the massive Seahawks victory parade in 2014 a high point for free speech in Seattle. Roads were blocked for hours, but no one was arrested. That held true for the Sounders victory parade this month as well.
Fox says it was inconvenient for people trying to get around town … and that’s fine.