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Why does the Seattle Police Department push protests up Capitol Hill?

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1999 — “Riot police move east on Pine Street as they drive protesters up to Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 1999” — Seattle Times photo used with permission

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 1999 — “Riot police move east on Pine Street as they drive protesters up to Capitol Hill on Nov. 30, 1999” — Seattle Times photo used with permission. Our look at “The Battle for Capitol Hill” is here.

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?'”

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:

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.

(Images: CHS)

(Images: CHS)

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.”

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39 thoughts on “Why does the Seattle Police Department push protests up Capitol Hill?

  1. I am still flabbergasted about the Police reaction from the WTO meeting in 1999. In brief, downtown was a fortress. Cops everywhere in riot gear, barricades, command centers, checkpoints. So what do the police do? They move thousands of people up to Capitol Hill. No barricades, guards or anything. If there were people out to hurt cops, they would have had ample opportunity to ambush them and kill or injure police by the score. Or burn the neighborhood. Turns out these were peaceful people. No serious damage to property and no harm to people.

    Well, the powers that be got what they deserved. Police Chief resigned and our Mayor didn’t even survive the primary. And no lessons learned. Wait. One lesson learned — SPD priority is property over people.

    • I felt so disrespected as a Capitol Hill resident during WTO. Its’s as if the police felt Capitol Hill were a dumpster and they were taking out the trash.

    • Exactly my feelings — and the post from Timmy73 sums up my sentiment both then and now. The police officers (a great majority of whom were brought into Seattle/Capitol Hill from other areas rather than the East Precinct) were unbelievably heavy-handed (literally). They were harassing people as we disembarked from the bus on Broadway when returning from work; they utilized so much tear gas all of the way up Broadway to where the Fed-X/Deluxe Grill that the wind picked it up and sent it into neighboring homes through assorted air vents and affected any pets that were outdoors; and what really ticked me off was that these same “officers” then elected to assault virtually anyone who may have been outside (I helped one such woman who was wearing the distinctive red cross medical insignia and was simply attempting to assist others who may have been injured). Inexcusable. Absolutely utterly totally inexcusable.

  2. Not really that shocking. The overwhelming majority of protests originates on Capitol Hill and come straight downhill. Why wouldn’t you just push them back where they came from? Especially since it’s uphill, which makes it more physically tiring on those who aren’t peaceful. Plus opportunities for dispersing and circling back are fewer with fewer streets in&out. Logistically it just makes sense. It’s not a value judgement on Capitol Hill.

    • Why not just keep them in the business core. It’s less harmful to do that then to have them pushed up into a residential neighborhood. So many innocent non-protesters are beaten and tear gassed by police by pushing them into a residential neighborhood. Keep them in the business district. I’d rather the businesses get looted than residents get pushed into a protest against their will. Or teargassed for going to get groceries.

      During WTO the idiot, jack booted, thug cops actually shot a tear gas canister into The Broadway Grill. WTF. And most of the leadership in SPD are the same idiots who were responsible for WTO.

      • Because the protestors who cause mayhem and break things (especially the idiot “anarchists”) rarely target residential buildings. They break nice big juicy windows on banks and storefronts. Residents rarely “get pushed into a protest against their will”. They have the sense to move out of the way, or stand back, and they don’t engage in the stupidity those destroying things do. Larger crowds of uninvolved people downtown means more likelihood of innocent bystanders getting hurt, than uphill where’s there’s fewer people. People just don’t get “teargassed for going to get groceries”. It doesn’t happen. Yeah, I’m sure a teargas canister might have made its way into the Broadway Grill, but it doesn’t happen anymore. But the asshole anarchists are still breaking things just like always. Being downtown just gives them more things to break. Oh, I mean “protest”, right?

      • It does happen. It did happen during WTO. Nobody inside the Broadway Grill was protesting when the tear gas cannister was shot into it. If I’m not mistaken a couple of women were assaulted by a cop and actually won a settlement. They were not in any way participating. There is no logical reason for them to push them into a residential area. None. Who cares if they bust up some business windows, that’s what insurance is for.

        This situation is very clearly a result of the fact that the downtown business association has more clout than the capitol hill business association and by way of political contributions they decide where, when and how the police send protesters. Period.

      • I lived on Capitol Hill during the WTO protests and, like some of my fellow commenters, was very angry about the city’s decision to push the protesters up to the neighborhood. I strongly disagree with Jim98122 about residents not being affected by this action. On the first night of the protests, I got out of an evening class at Seattle University and was walking home northbound on Broadway when I saw the police and protesters clashing in the block ahead of me. I had to then try to find a safe route around the protest just to get home. After I made finally my way around, there were others coming out of restaurants and stores who were caught unaware and were shocked by the situation. Behind us, we could hear the protest and the police response getting more violent, and I can say that people were scrambling to get to their homes. There were a few people walking back toward the protest activity, and they were clearly looking to get involved. However, the majority of people had no prior warning about the activity and wanted nothing more than to be safely in their homes.

      • Right. And with the tiniest bit of effort you managed to not walk right into the middle of the ordeal and not get involved, did you? I didn’t say you’d never come face-to-face into the middle of it. You “had to try to find a safe route home”. How hard was that? Not very. You walked around it.

  3. Police should protect people first, property second. If people are exercising their constitutional rights to gather and express their political beliefs, police should stand back and make sure no one is disrupting them and they are not causing harm to others.

    It might have annoyed people to have the Tree Lighting interrupted by protesters, but no where is it written that there’s a right to have a protected ceremony. The police protected a private event over people’s rights because people with money asked them to.
    What public safety objective was there to blocking off Pike/Pine to protesters?

    • So what you’re saying is that people have the right to destroy property?

      So what you’re saying is that people have the right to terrorize other people?

      So what you’re saying is that people have the right to trespass into private and disrupt private businesses?

      I’m all for peaceful protests, it crosses a line when it comes to destroying property, terrorizing others and trespassing. When protests cross that line It’s not protests anymore, it’s terrorism. Keep the peaceful protests, throw away the terrorism.

    • The police have an obligation to protect the old coots and small children at the tree lighting from that tiny group of folks (who piggyback on to and ruin every single protest in Seattle) throwing glass, full water bottles, etc. at cops and in to the crowd. One guy even trying to spray the cops with pepperspray and, in running while doing it, spraying civilians while missing the cops completely. It’s never just disrupting an event now. It’s always some degree of throwing stuff and otherwise possibly injuring civilians that means the police must be there.

  4. We all have a say in having our downtown not over taken by the anarchists. It won’t take a lot to let our downtown devolve to how most of America’s downtowns have devolved.

    I understand the protests, but the property violations have nothing to do with justice for young black men. Weed out the anarchists, and let’s get a dialog going with action between our minority communities and the police. But destroying downtown will not be a benefit to our society.

    • I think a great idea would be a volunteer squad of law-abiding people tailing the anarchists, each person assigned to one, and documenting/recording everything their one assignee does. They don’t have to engage or speak to them. Just follow and record, one volunteer per child (oops, I mean “protestor”). Cellphone in hand, taking pictures and videos of all the shit the babies get up to. Yes, there’s a risk. But it might put a damper on the destruction.

  5. the recurring theme is the anarchists are fucking it up for peaceful protesters everywhere. The peaceful protesters have something real to say. The anarchists seem to have this misguided belief that their right to free speech includes their right to damage the property of the rest of us.

    I say leave them downtown too.

  6. I’m at a loss to understand why the police don’t simply pull aside the anarchists (they’re readily identifiable and their stated goal is, well, anarchy) and, in fact, anyone who is wearing a face covering and let them cool their heels in a metro bus or police van. During the WTO protests, it wasn’t the peaceful protesters who broke the windows, it was the anarchists whose sole aim was to do nothing more than destroy property. I recall having gone over to a line of policemen downtown who were “guarding” SEATED protesters (none of whom appeared to weigh over 100 lbs soaking wet) and telling them that store windows were being broken and they said they couldn’t leave their present position! Hello? Free speech is to be protected; those who destroy, injure and engage in violence should be stopped before they can have a chance to begin. Protect and respect SPEECH. Stop and arrest violent ACTIONS.

    • the problem is that it’s not illegal to either be an anarchist or wear a face covering. proactively detaining people because of their political beliefs or the manner in which they dress is a violation of someone’s civil rights

      don’t get me wrong, i’m not pro-anarchist. but until they violate a law (like smashing windows this past saturday) they do have a right to be in attendance at rallies and protests. the problem is, they aren’t content with peaceful protest; they want to destroy. and when they do that, that’s when i wonder why the police aren’t doing more to put an end to the childishness that is seattle anarchists.

    • I think part of the problem is that the police wear that idiotic gear that makes them look like fools. They can’t possibly see what’s going on wearing those face shields. When our local police look more like an invading army than our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan do then we have a problem. And we have a serious problem.

      • They wear the faceshields because of the rocks, fireworks, bottles, bricks, and other items that are thrown at them every year before and since WTO. Seattle has the most protests in the U.S., next to Washington DC. Howevery 99% of them in Seattle are peacful on both sides. We need to remember that a minority of protestors as well as a minority of police cause the problems. Overall, it’s statistically clear that we are capable of protesting in this city without issues or interference from the police. We have to face the facts for what they are. We are allowing a minority of violent immature children to become the face of all protestors. It’s just like the cops, a minority of them make all cops look like violent thugs, but the majority aren’t. A minority of protestors have made Seattle Protestors look like violent thugs, but the reality is the majority are peacful. It’s kind of ironic, the same problem on both sides.

    • you can detain without arresting. it’s legal and happens all over the country all the time.

      Until such a time as the anarchists are driven, nobody will be able to peacefully protest anything.

  7. Add’l post to answer your question, Justin: Regardless of what you were told by Whitcomb, Capitol Hill has traditionally been considered the most liberal neighborhood in Seattle. SPD, like cops everywhere, tend to look at situations in very regimented, black and white terms. Capitol Hill residents, on the other hand, see varying shades of grey (no pun intended). Further take into consideration that a lot of our police officers don’t even reside in Capitol Hill, or Seattle, for that matter. In my view, our police force has become increasingly militant with an enforcement mentality. Hence, whenever there is a protest of any sort, I have always figured it is misplaced retribution by the SPD to give our neighborhood what they believe it deserves. I am going to paraphrase (from memory) a line from Gail Sheehy’s book, Passages: “Beware of the one who offers to protect you for that is the very one against and from whom you will eventually require protection.”

  8. The WTO protests/riots were major events over several days, and the various protests since then have been relatively minor and peaceful. The WTO was an anomaly (fueled by large numbers of people from other states), and it was 15 years ago, so it’s not fair to make grand anti-police statements based on what happened then.

    • It is absolutely fair because most of the police leadership is the same and they didn’t learn anything from that debacle. They continue to use the same harmful policing that got them in trouble in the first place.

      I think we need to move away from a patrolling and anticipatory police force to a responsive only police force. Like Fire and Rescue. I think the police presence creates rather than defuses most of the problems.

      We don’t have firefighters wandering the streets looking for fires or paramedics looking for people having heart attacks. We don’t need police looking for crime and getting bored and causing trouble where none existed. I see this daily on 3rd ave between pike and pine. The police are more of the problem than the people they constantly harass.

      • “I think we need to move away from a patrolling and anticipatory police force to a responsive only police force”

        So this would suggest waiting till the Anarchists are literally right in the middle of smashing and breaking things before the cops get called? It’s not like their MO of smashing windows, etc. isn’t the same every time. They’re not doing it just because the cops are there. They look forward to it.

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  10. Frankly, it’s the height of stupidity ,not to mention hypocrisy, to bemoan the “outrage” of property destruction and vandalism ON Capitol Hill by the very people intent of doing exactly the same downtown! By redirecting the “protesters” back into the residential areas of The Hill, the Police wisely added a large percentage of the protesting public who had a vested interest in protecting the property and possessions of the area in which they lived. I highly doubt we would have seen so many people ,literally, handing the group of bandanaed “anarchists” a backhanded smack down when they tried to “tag” and smash business windows where other protesters shopped and/or worked. The “self-policing” and “property protection” by the vast majority of the Hill protesters was rather impressive!

  11. I really don’t understand the strategy behind these protests. It all just seems so ritualized. Same basic marching route. Same problems with so-called “anarchists”. Same comments about prior WTO protests. Same complaints about the cops. Blah, blah, blah….. Why not come up with something more original? Why not really get organized and do a protest somewhere else? Maybe Bellevue Square? Having a protest march which originates in a neighborhood where most of the people agree with the basic premise of the march followed by a little foray to Westlake just seems….well….predictable.

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