Seattle's Summer of Protest for Black Lives: A Timeline
Photo by Stefan Milne.
Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, a group of Seattle protesters, starting in the Chinatown–International District’s Hing Hay Park, marches through downtown. Ultimately, they break windows and throw fireworks. Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers, clad in riot gear, deploy pepper spray, throw flash bangs, and—in an incident still being investigated by Office of Police Accountability (OPA)—appear to pin a protester to the ground and punch them.
A big crowd gathers at Westlake to condemn police brutality against Black Americans. The day begins without conflict. In the afternoon, some protesters face off with SPD officers in riot gear and lob water bottles. SPD turns tear gas and flash bangs on the crowd and allegedly pepper sprays a child (still being investigated). A march on I-5 stops traffic. At 4:46pm, mayor Jenny Durkan announces a 5pm curfew. Governor Jay Inslee says he’s sending in the (unarmed) National Guard. An SPD officer kneels on a protester’s neck. Police cars burn; people loot stores; someone lifts a cheesecake.
Some Seattleites head downtown to clean up graffiti and board up windows. Durkan and SPD chief Carmen Best give their first of many press conferences, lamenting some protesters’ “chaos, destruction, and hate." At a rally, activist Nikkita Oliver has a different take: "I don't give a fuck about a car. The SPD has $410 million a year to oppress us, to over-police us. They can buy a new car. We can't buy a new George Floyd. We can't buy a new Charleena Lyles." A smaller demonstration returns to downtown that night. Another social media video shows cops punching a protester on the ground. More blast balls. A group gathers at Capitol Hill’s East Precinct.
The Seattle Office of Police Accountability gets some 12,000 complaints about SPD’s response over the weekend, many of those from about 10 incidents, such as the kid getting pepper sprayed (OPA now has a dashboard where you can check in on investigations). A daily standoff begins at the East Precinct. Flouting curfews, protesters arrive for all sorts of reasons. Demands take shape: Defund SPD; invest in the Black community-led alternatives; free protesters. Demonstrators take a cue from Hong Kong uprisings, meeting SPD’s barricades and riot sticks with a wall of protective umbrellas. That night, a cop snatches a pink one from the frontline. A scuffle. SPD hits the crowd with pepper spray, flash bangs, and tear gas that spreads into apartments nearby. That umbrella becomes a protest icon.
A Washington State Patrol officer tells troopers how to deal with protesters who continue to demonstrate at the East Precinct: “Don’t kill them, but hit them hard.” WSP later apologizes for the comment, calling it a “poor choice of words.”
Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes rescinds the city’s motion for SPD to be removed from the federal consent decree, brought on by its excessive force and racial bias. SPD will stay under federal oversight. Durkan ends the nightly curfew.
Following a couple of largely peaceful daily protests at the East Precinct barricade—where free hot dogs and live music have cropped up—Best and Durkan announce a 30-day moratorium on tear gassing protesters and ask for police accountability groups to look into SPD’s crowd control policies.
The second Saturday of protest sees marches all over the city: thousands of health care workers coursing through downtown, another group heading from Magnuson Park to University Village, a third from the Space Needle to Capitol Hill. There, at the East Precinct, police order dispersal and use pepper spray and blast balls on the large crowd. SPD tweets that people threw rocks, bottles, and “improvised explosives” at officers, along with a picture of a broken candle.
Best changes the East Precinct barricades to reduce the “militarized” vibe. A large protest gathers at Othello Park. That night during the Capitol Hill protest, a man drives into the crowd and shoots a protester in the arm. Citing the shooting and “heavy projectiles” coming at them, SPD orders dispersal and throws blast balls, pepper spray, and tear gas into the crowd in such quantities people living in the neighborhood complain of it seeping indoors again. A blast ball hits a 26-year-old protester in the chest. She goes into cardiac arrest—three times that night—but medics and doctors bring her back.
SPD abandons the East Precinct. Later a Crosscut report finds that it wasn’t clear who ordered the retreat—if anyone. Best says she did not. Protesters rearrange barricades and declare the area Free Capitol Hill, then the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). In the coming days, the space swells with conversation, music, film screenings, co-ops, and a community garden. Some occupants carry guns, working as volunteer security. Media and commentators soon impose a spectrum of narratives: everything from block party to anarchy. Within a couple days, Black Lives Matter is written on Pine Street.
On behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle–King County (BLMSKC), the ACLU of Washington and others sue the City of Seattle for using crowd control weapons, such as tear gas, against protesters.
Donald Trump tweets that Durkan and Inslee need to “take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly Anarchists must be stooped [sic] IMMEDIATELY.” The next day Durkan tells CNN’s Chris Cuomo the protest is “more like a block party atmosphere” and says, “We could have the summer of love.” Best orders all cops keep “body worn video recording during demonstrations.” City council member Kshama Sawant and protesters occupy city hall for about an hour. SPD claims businesses say they're being extorted in CHAZ.
Best says, actually, the extortion “has not happened affirmatively.” SPD heard a rumor. The Seattle Times does not find evidence that it’s true.
BLMSKC calls for a general strike and march in support of Black lives. Some 60,000 walk in silence on a dreary Friday from the Central District to Beacon Hill. Fox News publishes altered photos of Seattle protests (an armed CHOP denizen gets placed by a broken window downtown), as well as an image of St. Paul, Minnesota, on fire on May 30 above a package of stories about Seattle and the headline “Crazy Town.” A federal judge decides that sometimes “SPD has in fact used less-lethal weapons disproportionately and without provocation.” He puts a temporary restraining order on SPD using force against peaceful protesters.
CHAZ has now become CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized—or Occupied—Protest). The city reduces its size, changing barriers to allow for more traffic flow and to increase protester safety. Seattle City Council unanimously votes to ban SPD chokeholds and crowd control weapons. The 30-foot sculpture of a Black Power fist is raised on Cal Anderson Park’s field.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. County Labor Council—the biggest labor council in the county—expels Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), the larger of SPD’s two unions.
On Juneteenth, rallies and marches spread all over the city: one in Ballard, one in Shoreline, a couple in the Central District, and one at CHOP centered on Black healing.
At 2:19am, 19-year-old Lorenzo Anderson is shot in CHOP. Street medics take him to the hospital, where he’s pronounced dead. Best later claims protesters kept Seattle Fire Department medics from reaching him. A KUOW report in July will show instead miscommunication between SFD and SPD caused the delay. DeJuan Young, 33, is also shot near CHOP. Protesters take him to the hospital, and he survives.
A 17-year-old in CHOP gets shot in the arm at night. He won’t talk to cops.
Durkan, referring to CHOP, following the shootings: “It’s time for people to go home.” Seattle City Council votes unanimously to end loitering laws against sex workers and suspected drug traffickers.
Around 4:37am, a man in his thirties gets shot near CHOP, at the north end of Cal Anderson Park. He survives, but won’t talk to cops. After weeks of calls to defund SPD by 50 percent, and facing an enormous budget deficit due to Covid-19, Durkan proposes about a 5 percent cut.
The Seattle School Board unanimously votes to suspend its deal with SPD, removing five armed cops from five schools.
A group mostly composed of Capitol Hill businesses—Car Tender, Madrona Real Estate Services LLC—files a class action lawsuit against the City of Seattle for its choice to “actively endorse, enable, and participate in the occupation of CHOP.” After weeks of various non-Black media and commentators offering takes on CHOP, a group called the Black Collective Voice holds a press conference rejecting the “false narrative that protesting police brutality caused the crime that has always been prevalent at and around Cal Anderson Park.”
Protesters, including Kshama Sawant, lead a march to Durkan’s house and hold a rally there.
Two boys are shot in CHOP early in the morning. One, 16-year-old Antonio Mays Jr., dies. The other, 14 years old, lives. Though fewer in number, protesters continue to occupy the site.
Durkan sends a letter asking that city council investigate Sawant for trespasses like the rally and her allowing protesters inside City Hall. The council does not. Durkan in an executive order declares CHOP an “unlawful assembly” and cites the "pervasive presence of firearms."
SPD sets about clearing CHOP and arrests some 44 people.
SPD demands news organizations—The Seattle Times, KIRO 7, KING 5, KOMO 4, and KCPQ—hand over unpublished images and video taken at the May 30 protest. The media outlets fight the subpoena.
During early morning protests, stretching from the night before, an off-duty SPD officer drives their car through a group of protesters downtown, though no injuries are reported. About an hour and a half later, on I-5, a driver hits and kills protester Summer Taylor and sends another, Diaz Love, to Harborview. Later that day, Fourth of July protests gather across the city.
Dawit Kelete is charged with killing Taylor. Kelete claims he was going through Percocet withdrawal.
A King County judge permits a petition to recall Durkan from her position as mayor.
Calls to defund SPD by 50 percent make headway, with seven of the city’s nine council members signing on for cuts. Durkan disagrees with the plan and offers around a 20 percent shift, mostly by moving things like the 911 call center out of SPD. Best calls the council’s plan “reckless.” Twelve protesters or their families file claims against the city, county, and state for injuries and deaths during demonstrations.
Protesters gather at Westlake Park. The march moves out of downtown and up to Capitol Hill. Some smash windows at places like Starbucks, Amazon Go, and Seattle Municipal Court. SPD arrests two people, saying they’d thrown fireworks at the East and West precincts and injured officers.
The mother of Lorenzo Anderson, the first person killed in CHOP, files a wrongful-death claim against the City of Seattle, saying officials didn’t protect her son. Unease mounts over national reports of, among other things, federal agents snatching Portland protesters from the streets in unmarked vans. Durkan and other mayors call these federal maneuvers “the tactics we expect from authoritarian regimes.”
A King County judge decides that the media organizations must give unreleased images to SPD.
As tensions run high in the city with a weekend of protest planned, the U.S. District Judge behind the consent decree temporarily blocks city council’s ban on crowd control weapons, arguing that it may violate the decree.
With an eye toward Portland and with feds landing in Seattle, thousands of protesters take to the streets. Some turn to property damage, including setting construction trailers on fire at the King County juvenile detention center. A rally on Capitol Hill seemingly skips back in time to early June: Citing property damage, SPD turns pepper spray and flashbangs on the crowd. SPD declares a riot. Protesters lob objects and fireworks. Some 45 people are arrested, including a woman who says she was peacefully protesting but was held for around 24 hours and not given her anti-seizure medication.
Prosecutors charge Marcel Long with the murder of Lorenzo Anderson in CHOP, but Long remains at large.
A pro-police demonstration put on by SPOG gathers outside of City Hall. Anti-police demonstrators show up to counter-protest. So do a few Proud Boys, who fight with the anti-police crowd.
Seattle City Council dips its toes into defunding SPD, trying to cut 100 police jobs this year, scrap the Navigation Team (which does homeless encampment sweeps), and trim some salaries—about a $3 million cut, a fraction of the 50 percent protesters demand. Council members promise bigger cuts next year. Citing the proposed SPD layoffs and friction with city council, Best announces her resignation from the department, effective September 2.
The media outlets under subpoena for images appeal the state supreme court.
Video shows an SPD sergeant drive onto a sidewalk chasing a “bad guy.” He calls protesters “cockroaches,” saying he gets paid $200,000 a year to babysit them. He’s later placed on leave during an investigation.
SPD’s three accountability groups say the department should have some access to crowd control weapons, but not for use on peaceful protests. In Cal Anderson, police remove a mutual aid group occupying a building and supporting homeless people.
SPD declares a riot outside of SPOG headquarters. Again: fireworks and bottles from protesters, blast balls and pepper spray from SPD, 18 arrests.
Durkan shuts down city council’s approved 2020 budget, which contains cuts to SPD. City council goes into recess—returning September 8—and defunding the department remains in limbo. The Office of Police Accountability announces it's received around 19,000 complaints about SPD’s response to protests. They’ve yielded 87 cases that OPA is investigating; 58 are for excessive force, spanning from May 29 to August 15. Complaints include using a “knee on neck” hold; tackling, punching, and dragging protesters; and targeting journalists, legal observers, a medic tent, and a nurse. You can check on their progress here. So far one investigation, concerning alleged unprofessional police radio talk, is completed. OPA deems it unfounded.
After the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, protesters march, tangle with police, and set fires outside of the East Precinct. Along with the fire, some demonstrators attempt to seal one of the station's doors with quick drying cement. SPD takes one person into custody to investigate arson.
A daily protest group, Seattle Every Day Morning March, blocks the Ballard Bridge for eight minutes and 46 seconds (the amount of time, at least symbolically, that the officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck). Later SPD makes arrests in a different group of protesters breaking windows on Capitol Hill. And, after that, SPD pepper sprays a third group of protesters holding a candlelight vigil for Summer Taylor.
The father of Lorenzo Anderson, the 19-year-old killed in CHOP, files claims against the city, state, and county for $1 billion each.
Federal prosecutors charge a 19-year-old from Alaska with arson at the East Precinct on August 24. He reportedly confesses to setting trash bags on fire: “My stupid ass got angry. So that’s exactly why I was acting the way I did. I’m accountable.” Anchorage police killed his 16-year-old brother in February. The East Precinct, like the West Precinct, gets a wall of concrete barriers around it.
Police remove protesters and the mutual aid group from Cal Anderson again.
On his first day, interim police chief Adrian Diaz announces that 100 cops will be moved from speciality units to street patrols. Following a Seattle Times report that a single SPD patrol officer made $414,543 last year, the move partly aims to get overtime under control.
Daily protests continue, even when they aren't making headlines.