By Sydney Brownstone / The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — After days of intense anxiety and speculation about what the presence of federal agents could mean for the Seattle protest organized by the Youth Liberation Front, much of Saturday’s events recalled strikingly familiar confrontations between protesters and the city’s police force.
The demonstration, convened in support of protesters facing off with federal agents in Portland, circled around the same standoff location on Capitol Hill where police met protesters with flash-bang grenades and tear gas in early June. Nearly two months later, police again used flash bangs and pepper spray on protesters, who had brought umbrellas, gas masks and at least one leaf blower in anticipation of the confrontation.
The federal agents, sent by the Trump administration against the wishes of local officials, stayed largely out of sight as the afternoon escalated into violence. By late evening, 45 people had been arrested.
Saturday’s protest, which included scattered vandalism and fires along the route, followed a tense several days, as politicians, protesters and observers worried federal agents could stoke violence and create a scene like the one that has played out repeatedly in Portland.
There, the Youth Liberation Front has emerged as a major organizing force fueling weeks of demonstrations. Fires, graffiti and broken windows are all seen as forms of resistance to an oppressive regime.
Mayor Jenny Durkan on Friday described Portland’s demonstrations as “two sides bent on a fight that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“A lot of people believe that a firmer response will result in the restoration of peace and I think that what we’ve seen in Portland is that’s not the case,” Durkan said. “It’s not made Portland any safer. … In fact, it has escalated the violence.”
In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on Friday, nine members of the state’s congressional delegation warned the presence of federal agents would “only serve to escalate and prolong protests.”
Kathryn, a protester Saturday who declined to give her last name, said the presence of federal agents in Seattle was “100%” of why she was there. The 45-year-old mother of two had joined the demonstration as a part of the “wall of moms,” a feature also present at the Portland protests.
“This is my first protest,” Kathryn said. “This is an absolute abnegation of federal power.”
Sonia Alexander, another “wall of moms” participant, said she came out in support of the movement for Black Lives.
“I’m not here as an anarchist,” Alexander said. “We are patriots. Our tax-funded border patrol and federal agents have no constitutional reason to be here.”
But by 10 p.m., nine hours into the protest, federal agents had played no visible role in the clashes on Capitol Hill. Instead, Seattle police deployed flash-bang grenades as well as pepper spray and sponge-tipped impact rounds.
Protesters began the afternoon marching and chanting through Capitol Hill.
A mostly young crowd followed leaders through Capitol Hill and First Hill along Broadway before making their way toward King County’s juvenile detention center, where protesters hopped the fence and lit construction equipment on fire. Five construction trailers were on fire at one point, according to the Seattle Fire Department. Some in the group reportedly slashed tires and spray-painted vehicles.
The group marched along 12th Avenue, where some in the crowd broke windows on businesses, including a Starbucks and the Canon and Rhein Haus bars. Police Chief Carmen Best later told reporters that protesters had started a fire in a Starbucks along the route and people living in apartments above the fire had to be evacuated.
Outside a Maserati dealership on 12th Avenue, an armed man stood guard and was shouted down by protesters.
Seattle police declared the disturbances a riot after the vandalism on 12th Avenue and requested help from the King County Sheriff’s Office, which deployed additional officers. As the protest group reached the area near the Police Department’s East Precinct, the site of repeated clashes last month, police began using pepper spray and flash-bang grenades on protesters and journalists, including some at close range. Protesters threw rocks, water bottles and colorful smoke bombs toward the line of police. It’s unclear which side struck first.
At a later press conference held at SPD headquarters, Best said that an explosive device had been used to blow an eight-inch hole through a wall of the East Precinct, at which point police declared the riot.
“It was not a peaceful demonstration at all,” Best said. “And criminal acts were occurring throughout the city.”
Best also said she did not have contact with federal agents dispatched to Seattle, adding that she did not see them present at the protests.
Skirmishes broke out at several locations in the area as police declared the group an unlawful assembly and pushed protesters through the neighborhood near Cal Anderson Park and Seattle Central College.
One police officer in riot gear wore a patch that read, “Stop screaming, I’m scared too.”
Police said some in the crowd threw explosive devices toward officers. Seattle police said 21 officers were injured, including one who was hospitalized with a leg injury “caused by an explosive.” Harborview spokesperson Susan Gregg confirmed an officer was admitted with a knee injury and said he was in satisfactory condition.
The full scope of injuries was not immediately clear Saturday evening. The Seattle Fire Department responded to multiple calls in the area, but could not immediately give an accurate assessment of protest-related injuries, a spokesperson said.
At one point Saturday afternoon, protesters used umbrellas to block a photographer for a local TV station from shooting the events. A protester grabbed onto his camera and pushed it away.
The presence of journalists at recent protests has sometimes caused tension with protesters who seek to remain anonymous. The Seattle Times and other media outlets are fighting a subpoena from the Seattle Police Department to turn over raw footage from protests on May 30.
On Thursday, a judge ruled that local media would have to turn over the images, a decision strongly opposed by journalists who say they must remain independent and will not be used as agents of local law enforcement.
The deployment of federal agents to Seattle followed clashes in Portland, where federal agents used force on protesters who have embraced a style of protest familiar to Seattleites who have witnessed anti-fascists’ May Day demonstrations in years past.
The confrontations on Capitol Hill Saturday recalled those moments, as well as scenes from last month, when Durkan’s administration and the police faced criticism about their crowd-control tactics.
Initially faced with largely peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations near the East Precinct, but saying some in the crowd tried to breach a barricade or threw objects at police, officers last month repeatedly lobbed tear gas, pepper spray and flash-bang devices at protesters.
Whether the officers are local or federal, riot gear, pepper and flash-bang grenades— if used prematurely during a demonstration — can be counterproductive to dispersing a crowd, instead fueling even more protests, said Ed Maguire, an expert in protest policing and professor at Arizona State University.
“When members of crowds perceive law enforcement authorities as taking indiscriminate enforcement action against an entire crowd, many of whom are behaving peacefully … they’re typically not going to do what law enforcement officials think they’re going to do, which is get scared, go home and comply,” Maguire said. “Typically it’s the exact opposite reaction. People get defiant.”
Seattle City Council members denounced Seattle police tactics on Capitol Hill last month and passed a law banning chemical agents, blast balls and other devices. A federal judge’s emergency ruling late Friday blocked that from going into effect, adding another layer of anxiety ahead of the weekend.
Seattle’s police chief had repeatedly criticized the new law, saying it would not allow officers to do their jobs safely and force them to resort to other means of crowd control.
“I’ll be taking this pepper spray off of my belt and putting a riot stick on there,” Best said Friday morning.
After the judge’s ruling, Best said officers would be armed with pepper spray and blast balls Saturday, though they would not deploy tear gas.
By Saturday evening, protesters returned to the area near 11th Avenue and East Pine Street, where signs read “Enough,” “Defund the police” and “#Jenny gotta go.”
At 8 p.m., the Youth Liberation Front’s Seattle Twitter account advised protesters to “get a good rest and gear up for tomorrow.” An hour and a half later, another event had been posted to the protest organizers’ Twitter feed: a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, beginning at Westlake Park on Sunday, 11 a.m.