At a press conference at City Hall this afternoon, Mayor Mike McGinn announced that he was issuing a rare proclamation of a "civil emergency"---the likes of which has not been seen since the WTO riots of 1999---enabling the police department to confiscate any items that "could be used as weapons" from May Day protesters. Some of those protesters, McGinn said, were "using the cover of crowds for vandalism," trashing downtown storefronts and downtown's old federal courthouse early this afternoon, throwing paint, smashing store windows with dowels and boards, and vandalizing cars.
The vandals, who the mayor associated with the anarchist Black Bloc movement, shed their black garb after the march, changing into regular street clothes and dispersed into the crowd of about 300 at West Lake Park. [pullquote]"The first amendment uses of five-foot-long, three-inch-wide sticks is outweighed today by our desire to protect public safety."— Mayor Mike McGinn[/pullquote]
McGinn and SPD Chief John Diaz, who spoke with McGinn this afternoon at City Hall (where the Fourth Ave. side of the building had been closed so security could more easily track the people who were coming and going ) believe there will be more vandalism early this evening if there are any impromptu marches from Westlake Plaza.
Diaz had briefed McGinn two weeks ago when SPD, which was monitoring anarchist websites and noticing the politicized tagging for the May 1 strike around town, "had stepped up more than I'd seen before." Late last week, as McGinn noted several times during the press conference, he had alerted the public to possibility of anarchist vandals commandeering the protests.
"I try not to worry the mayor often," Diaz said, "But I was worried about it. This new order will be very helpful to us."
The proclamation of expanded police power reads: "Based on my review of the present circumstances. I have determined that the foregoing described circumstances constitute a civil emergency with a high degree of risk of injury to persons, including deaths, as well as damage to property which has occurred or is likely to occur in the near future."
"What we know from WTO is that when you get a group of people who are committed to causing damage and are carrying weapons ... that when they move quickly and disperse rapidly and hit multiple [targets], it's difficult for police to react rapidly enough," McGinn said. "My directive to the police is that I expect them to respond to lawbreaking swiftly and aggressively.
Specifically, the order stipulates that:
"the weapons the anarchists will bring may include tire irons, metal signs with finely sharpened edges that can be wielded like knives or thrown at people, unusually heavy-duty pieces of lumber such as bats or 2X4 inch boards that may be disguised with protest signs and can be used for infliction of serious bodily harm, and a metal wheeled cart with sharp protrusions intended to be used to ram into persons and police horses."
When I asked McGinn whether police would be targeting people wearing specific types of clothing, such as black shirts or hoodies, he responded, "We are arresting behavior, not individuals. ... We are not arresting people unless we have prior information about individuals who are known to have committed crimes."
"The First Amendment uses of five-foot-long, three-inch-wide sticks is outweighed today by our desire to protect public safety," McGinn said.
The order applies only downtown---specifically, between I-5 and Elliott Bay and Roy and Royal Brougham. That means that officers cannot confiscate potential weapons at this afternoon's 5pm march from Judkins Park in the Central District to Westlake Plaza---which McGinn said the city worried anarchists would try to "infiltrate"---until the marchers enter the downtown area.
Police chief Diaz said there had been at least two "confirmed arrests" so far, and added, "We will be asking for the highest charges possible for these individuals." (If property damage exceeds $350, it could be a felony.)
Both McGinn and Diaz stressed that most of the protesters were not bent on damaging property.
"The vast majority of the people are out there for peaceful purposes," McGinn said. "And our goal is to preserve public safety so protesters can peacefully express their views." (Asked if he sympathized with those views—as he made clear he did during last year's Occupy Protests—McGinn demurred, saying that that was not the subject of today's press conference.)
Diaz added that Seattle is a city that "loves protests and does it right almost all the time."