Above, is a scene from Pine Street, 15 years ago this week. It probably looks familiar to anybody who has been on the streets between Capitol Hill and downtown as Ferguson-related protest continues in Seattle — especially Monday night as more cops “hardened up” with body armor and SPD rolled out an even larger numbers of police than previous nights after Mayor Ed Murray’s statement promising a solidified response to the unrest.
The apparent policing strategy deployed on the streets is also familiar. “The marchers want to head west, back to downtown on Olive,” The Stranger’s Ansel Herz reported Monday night. “Police won’t let them. ‘You’re going east,’ cop yells. Crowd: ‘Why?'”
A standoff: The marchers want to head west, back to downtown on Olive. Police won’t let them. “You’re going east,” cop yells. Crowd: “Why?”
— The Stranger (@strangerslog) December 2, 2014
The crowd’s response Monday night is a question people on Capitol Hill have been asking since at least WTO in 1999 when protesters were seemingly herded out of downtown and into Capitol Hill, filling the streets with jack-booted police and sometimes violent clashes. Five years back, CHS looked at the situation on the 10-year anniversary of riots:
- The battle for Capitol Hill
Monday night, after a march was repeatedly stopped and funneled back up to be scattered across lower Pike/Pine and Melrose, CHS asked Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, head of SPD’s public information officers, why it seems like the strategy is for police to shove protesters onto Capitol Hill.
It’s not punishment for progressive viewpoints, being gay-friendly, or our wicked, liberal ways, Whitcomb says.
“It’s not so much that we’re pushing anybody anywhere,” Whitcomb said, describing SPD’s change in tactics using sports terms — “a switch from zone to man-to-man defense.”
“It’s kind of organic the direction it goes,” he said.
Without revealing tactical planning, Whitcomb said SPD’s response during the Ferguson protests is about ensuring safety and the protection of everybody’s rights — holiday shopper and protester alike, he said.
“We have an obligation to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected,” Whitcomb said. Monday night, he said police ” knew [the marchers] had the stated goal of disrupting downtown shopping.”
The decisions to channel the protest groups up Olive Way and into the densely populated areas of lower Capitol Hill were a function of the situation and geography, Whitcomb said. “It’s a direction that makes sense.”
To be fair, you can’t drive protesters west into Elliott Bay. Sending them north might be too long a haul to remove crowds from a business and commercial environment free of tempting targets for vandalism and property damage. South might be a similar equation. Capitol Hill, instead, presents a close at hand location to move people from the commercial core — and has the undeniable benefit of high controlled access thanks to the relatively few crossings above I-5. Add a relatively rich area for public transport, and you have a handy receiving area during martial moments of crowd control in the central city.
Whitcomb also pointed out that a lot of protests and protesters originate on Capitol Hill — which is partly true for the protest part of the equation but increasingly less accurate when it comes to the pricing out of young radicals from the neighborhood.
There is also this significant question: where else? Would we all be happier if protesters were pushed into Yesler Terrace, not down the street in front of Melrose Market? Perhaps the neighborhood needs a Young Radical Preservation District, Seattle City Council.
Whitcomb said he planned to take the issue back to command so new SPD Chief Kathleen O’Toole hears more about the concern. Whitcomb said there could be a directive to alter how protest policing works when it comes to the area between Capitol Hill and downtown “if there was an expressed desire to do something different.”
Of course, you could also simply let the protesters march and not push them anywhere at all — something the police force and the chief now seem extremely reticent to let happen after Friday night’s mall closure made for sensational sound bites and Saturday night’s anti-police violence marred what had been a sometimes disruptive but mostly peaceful week of outcry for justice for Mike Brown.
It’s unknown if Tuesday night and beyond will bring more unrest to the base of the Westlake Christmas tree but SPD’s Whitcomb said his department’s job is to make it safe to protest. “This is a very significant conversation that is happening right now,” the public information officer said, “and these demonstrations are very important.”