Another Day of Protests, Small Concessions from the City, and Calls for Systemic Change in Seattle

Community activist and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver speaks at a rally in the Central District while two people film on their phones.

Protests against police brutality in Seattle have produced multiple lists of concrete demands from activists on the ground, the leader of the city’s civil rights department, and the three organizational pillars of the city’s police accountability structure. And while action from the city itself has been minimal—nightly curfews ended yesterday, police officers will display their badge number, and cops will stop using tear gas against protesters for 30 days—the protesters are far from done.

It’s hard to see the big picture while events are unfolding. We don’t have the benefit of hindsight or distance, and no one—even reporters with five streaming windows open on their laptops—can be everywhere at once. With that in mind, here are some snapshots of the last two days in Seattle.

• Mayor Jenny Durkan received significant credit for lifting a citywide curfew that was originally put in place at 5pm on May 30, but behind the scenes, the city council may have forced her hand. On Wednesday evening, the council was preparing a motion to lift the curfew on their own, and Durkan reportedly got wind of this information. Shortly after 7pm, Durkan lifted the curfew, saying that she made the decision after meeting with community leaders who told her they didn’t want anyone to be arrested for violating curfew. In fact, the community groups’ demands included the release of anyone arrested during the protests, including but not limited to anyone arrested for violating curfew.

The somewhat last-minute (or last-two-hours) decision to grant a minor concession to protesters was of a piece with Durkan and Chief Best’s announcement yesterday afternoon that they would change the policy on “mourning badges”—black bands that Seattle officers use to cover their badge numbers to mourn fallen officers, in this case a state trooper and Bainbridge Island police officer who died in March and April, respectively—so that the public could identify officers by their badge numbers, not just by their last name and first initial.

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The change to the mourning-band policy happened overnight, after both Best and Durkan said repeatedly that it could not “happen overnight.” Nonetheless, the change is a change in policy, not in legislation, so the council may choose to change the law itself to require that officers display both names and badge numbers, not just last names and first initials.

Durkan attempted to deflect criticism for the city’s motion to terminate a sustainment plan established as part of the federal consent decree, saying repeatedly that she did not support, and would not seek, the termination of the consent decree. However, the motion to terminate was a step toward just that. Yesterday, city attorney Pete Holmes withdrew the motion in response to police actions during the protests. Durkan has not spoken in detail about that decision, and her name was not on the announcement.

• The mayor made a small concession on the use of tear gas against demonstrators—she’s banning it for 30 days so that the Community Police Commission, Office of Police Accountability, and Office of Inspector General can review the use of tear gas and other chemical weapons, such as pepper spray, and make policy recommendations.

Those three groups, however, had already expressed their unanimous opinion that the city should stop using tear gas, full stop—asking the mayor and police chief Friday morning to “stop using CS gas, commonly known as tear gas” and calling it “a serious and indiscriminate use of force.” In a letter elaborating on their announcement, the three groups noted the adverse health impacts among people exposed to tear gas and to note that its use in warfare is banned by international convention.

A partial view of the crowd at Friday’s rally and march in the Central District. More photos available on Instagram @ericacbarnett.

 

The CPC asked the city to ban the use of blast balls, pepper spray, “and other projectiles” during demonstrations back in 2016. At a press conference on Friday, both Durkan and Best said that they were not aware of these recommendations, which were covered in the Seattle Times.

Later in the day, Office for Civil Rights director Mariko Lockhart—a Durkan appointee—sent an open letter to the city’s race and social justice “change teams” calling on the mayor to “immediately halt the use of militaristic law enforcement against demonstrators”; cut the police budget and “invest in community infrastructure within Black and Brown communities”; and stop sweeping homeless encampments and “shift funding away from the law enforcement component of the Navigation Team and invest more deeply in outreach, support services, and preventive strategies.

The leaders of the of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative Change Teams, as well as other groups representing Black and brown city of Seattle employees, are also drafting letters that will call for immediate changes to police use of force against demonstrators and significant longer-term changes to the way the city holds police accountable for violence against civilians.

• The mayor has often taken a defensive tone in responding to complaints about police brutality, the use of military-style weapons against large crowds of peaceful protesters, and requests for relatively minor policy changes like the use of mourning bands that cover badge numbers. For example, Durkan has emphasized the fact that the federal judge overseeing the consent decree “approved the crowd management plan” for back in 2017, “before I took office.”

Similarly, a letter from Durkan to city staff today recalled the mayor’s comments earlier that people “apparently” think that cops should display their badge numbers in addition to their last names and first initials. After centering her comments, as she has consistently, on large, systemic national issues (rather than the specific Seattle issues around which the protests have coalesced), Durkan wrote, “While Chief Best and I each have worked for decades for greater police accountability and a more just criminal justice system, we now hold positions where holding us accountable is also critical.” It’s the non-apology apology of conciliatory statements: We hear your concerns, but perhaps you didn’t realize that, actually, we’re on the same side.

• Late in the day, the leadership of the 43rd District Democrats created a petition calling on Durkan to resign, saying that she “has repeatedly used her powers to declare curfews that infringed on the First Amendment rights of protesters to peacefully assemble” and “failed to implement meaningful police reform to address police violence, specifically against Black and Brown communities (Durkan is up for reelection next year, assuming she decides to run). At this writing, it has more than 1,300 signatures.

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