by Jessie McKenna
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on June 12 with eye-witness account from Ben Crowther, the man who recorded partial video footage of the incident in question.
At approximately 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, June 10, a man reportedly drove his car into cyclists in front of youth protesters gathered in the street outside of the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct, causing minor injuries and destroying at least one bike. Seattle Bike Brigade cyclists, there to protect protesters, threw themselves at the car in an attempt to stop it, and one of them reportedly threw his bike under the front of the car in a last-ditch effort to slow it down. A partial video of the event was posted to Facebook by Ben Crowther.
The incident reportedly left some with scrapes, but the most physical damage done was to a bicycle caught in the car’s undercarriage — as the driver continued on and pulled into a parking garage on Ninth Avenue just south of Virginia Street — and to the back window of the vehicle itself, which was busted out in the altercation between car, bodies, and bikes.
The video apparently starts after the car reportedly hit Bike Brigade cyclists who were corking the youth protest, meaning they were providing physical support at all potential vehicle entrances to where protesters were gathered, including streets and alleys. In the video, a black sedan approaching on Ninth Avenue appears to swing wide into a turn, dragging a bicycle under its front end as two people attempt to stop the car with their bodies. The car makes a left, pulling into a driveway for what looks like a parking garage entrance. More people can be seen running toward the front of the car and also from behind. Four others with bicycles can be seen in the foreground appearing to block the road just ahead of the car before moving toward it. The majority of the protesters, who can’t be seen in the video, are reportedly at the time gathered just behind the video’s perspective, on Virginia Street and in the intersection of Virginia and Ninth Avenue outside of the West Precinct, according to witness accounts and images taken at the event.
The event was organized by Seattle Change Coalition and kicked off in the late afternoon with a rally at Volunteer Park. Protesters, overwhelmingly youth, marched from Capitol Hill to the SPD’s West Precinct where they congregated around the front of the building. The majority of the youth protesters sat in the street and on sidewalks and various people spoke using a megaphone before the incident. The event follows several recent youth-led protests that have taken place since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police on May 25.
Robert Svercl, who posted a video to Facebook of an encounter that he and another member of the Bike Brigade had with the driver minutes before the incident, said the protest was entirely peaceful prior to — and after — the incident.
Svercl joined the group by happenstance when he got off work and encountered the march heading toward downtown as he rode his bike to Capitol Hill. When asked if he was a member of the Bike Brigade, who have been showing up to protect protesters at events since people in Seattle started turning out to protest the murder of George Floyd, Svercl said, “I was kind of conscripted into it.” A certified Cascade Bicycle Club ride leader, 35-year-old Svercl had used his skills keeping people safe on the road and directing people and traffic while on a bicycle to help out with other protests. On Wednesday, said Svercl, “I saw there were people on bikes, corking the intersections to block it off to traffic,” and decided to help out. He said the protesters looked like mostly high school students and seemed like they could use a little bit more protection.
Svercl was not expecting the events that unfolded once protesters reached downtown. He said when the protesters arrived, they held a “moment” of silence for eight minutes and 49 seconds, the length of time Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck before he died. Svercl said after the silence, some of the marchers spoke to the crowd. “These are teenagers, just talking about what the Black Lives Matter movement means to them,” said Svercl. He said he was really inspired by the youth that day.
According to Svercl, he and another cyclist were stationed at the mouth of the alley behind the Spruce Street School, half a block away from the youth protesters they were there to protect. Then, Svercl says, a black Honda sedan drove down the alley toward them. “He comes up pretty fast on us and stops, and the driver yells at us to get out of the way,” said Svercl. “We’re standing less than 50 feet from where there are teenagers sitting on the pavement,” Svercl told the Emerald. They told the driver a march was in progress and they would not allow him through, and he yelled, “I live here!” The driver apparently gave up after spitting some expletives at the cyclists. Then, according to Svercl, he put the car in reverse and began backing down the alley. A pedestrian who was not part of the protest was walking through the alley behind the car and had to move out of the way, Svercl said, noting that it was lucky he was not hit. He says the driver then sped in reverse down the alley, which his video confirms.
The driver backed out onto Lenora Street and Svercl didn’t see him after that. But a few minutes later he heard a commotion nearby. “We hear what sounds like some sort of crash — a smashing sound,” says Svercl. “The crowd — everyone freaks out because no one knows what just happened. People panicked. They started running down the street.”
Svercl said he and his comrade tried to redirect some of the protesters to keep people from getting trampled. People were running into the alley, according to Svercl. “The first thing everyone thought about was the incident on Capitol Hill,” he said, referring to Nikolas Fernandez driving into a crowd of protesters near the SPD’s East Precinct on June 6 and shooting a protester, Daniel Gregory, who attempted to stop him.
In his video post of the incident, Ben Crowther said in a comment to the post thread, “I’m safe. I don’t think anyone got hit. But he sure seemed like he wanted to hit people.” Ben Crowther lives in the building the parking garage belongs to, The Cosmopolitan, on Virginia Street, and was walking home from dinner out with his husband when they encountered approximately 300 peaceful, mostly youth, protesters sitting outside the West Precinct, he said. His husband went home but Crowther stayed to observe. Protesters were speaking, talking about their experiences as Black folx coming up in a racist society, said Crowther. Then the peaceful protest was interrupted suddenly by a commotion coming from the intersection opposite the protest, at Ninth and Stewart Street.
Crowther was sitting on the edge of the sidewalk in front of his building about 20 feet from The Cosmopolitan’s parking garage entrance, he said, on the protesters’ side, closest to Virginia Street, when he heard the commotion. “I heard the sounds of a car accelerating aggressively towards the crowd,” he said. There had been a Bike Brigade barrier set up — cyclists using their bikes to create a barrier for traffic — at the end of Ninth Avenue where it met Stewart Street and a car had gotten through it. The car paused for a moment before swinging into his building’s parking garage and, during that pause, Crowther says he started filming. Another Bike Brigade barrier was in the street, on Crowther’s side of the garage entrance, and the cyclists scattered as the car accelerated toward them, some running toward it with their bikes. Crowther feared the driver was armed and retreated upstairs to his condo where he observed the events below from his balcony.
In another comment on the thread for his video post to Facebook, Crowther stated it was “ … difficult to believe it could be innocent. It was at least reckless. No one should aggressively accelerate towards a crowd of youth sitting in the street while honking their horn.” When the Emerald asked Crowther what he felt the intentions of the driver were, he said he couldn’t know. “But, from my perspective,” he said, “he behaved at least irresponsibly and aggressively,” and added that “Given the recent event on Capitol Hill [when Nikolas Fernandez drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot a protester, Daniel Gregory], if I were driving down the street, I would have been coasting at 2 mph with my blinkers on, windows rolled down, letting folks know I was friendly and carefully navigating around folks in the street.” That’s not what happened, he said, and “it suggests the driver chose to behave aggressively and recklessly.”
When things seemed to be settling down, Crowther says he went back downstairs to join the protesters, but in The Cosmopolitan lobby, he found the concierge and HOA president reviewing security camera footage to identify the driver. There he learned the driver was a resident of his building and that he was still in the parking garage. He ran across the street to the West Precinct, found an officer, told him what happened and asked him to accompany him back across the street to check it out. Crowther said the officer “didn’t seem concerned,” and informed him that the officers’ orders were to stay in the precinct building, but added that, “he knew where to find us.” Crowther said he clarified that the driver had almost hit many people — Crowther can’t confirm that the driver collided with anyone, though the Seattle Times reported that he did — and said it seemed like an urgent matter they should consider more seriously. The officer said “he’d call it in,” spoke with someone over the radio for a bit, then said Crowther could go back to his building and that “they might be over in a few minutes.”
Eventually, Crowther said, about 10 officers in apparent riot gear with face shields and the like appeared in The Cosmopolitan lobby and started taking witness statements from he and half a dozen other residents gathered there. Some had watched the event from the street, some from their balconies, and others from the building’s rooftop deck. Crowther said the building security video was provided to the police and soon the driver was “walked back to the building and escorted to his unit by officers.” Crowther was unaware until this point that the man was not still in The Cosmopolitan building or parking garage.
According to a Facebook post from activist/organizer Nikkita Oliver, who was at the protest, she saw the driver, who she says was White, getting into an elevator after the incident and confronted him asking, “What is wrong with you?” Then, she says in her post, he walked “straight to the WEST precinct saying his car was vandalized and I was accosting him!” She also said that police “walked” the suspect into the station. It’s not clear if the man was arrested, but it appears he was not. The Emerald reached out to SPD’s Public Affairs Department for a statement more than 24 hours ago but has not received a response.
Svercl said it wasn’t until he got home after the protest that he saw the video posted to Facebook by Crowther and realized that the driver who ran his car into cyclists on Ninth Avenue around the corner from Svercl was the very same who had tried to get through the alley where he was posted a few minutes before. Svercl’s video shows the driver’s license plate number and a partial view of the man’s face as he’s shouting.
Soon after the incident, according to Svercl, an organizer got on the loudspeaker, said the situation was over, and announced that the march would continue back to Volunteer Park. Svercl said it took the protesters a few blocks to shake the event, but then the energy they’d had before came right back. He said he and other Bike Brigade members reminded the marchers to make sure they stayed in the street on the other side of them.
Crowther remained in the lobby of his building for about an hour, talking to officers and other residents and later comforting the concierge, who he said was shaken up. She told him that earlier, before the incident, the driver had walked through the lobby, apparentlyupset and muttering something about “bullshit” as he walked by. This further confirmed to Crowther that the man felt hostility to the protesters from the start, he said, especially when coupled with the incident that took place in the alley in Svercl’s video, which he later saw. That said, it’s unclear when the driver left the building and returned with his car, how we was able to get it out of the garage during the protest, or if his car was parked somewhere else and he went on foot to retrieve it.
Another protest event outside the precinct took place a couple of days prior, Crowther said, but the protesters weren’t there for very long. Though there is only one entrance to The Cosmopolitan’s parking garage, he said that during the previous protest and the protest on June 10, there was plenty of parking around The Cosmopolitan and that pedestrian access was not impeded.
Back at Volunteer Park, Bike Brigade members spoke to the group of cyclists who’d helped out with crowd safety for the protest, Svercl said. They talked about what had happened and reminded the group that incidents like what had happened that day were why they were there — to keep people safe and to de-escalate situations. They emphasized that one of their members had thrown their own bike down in front of the car, sacrificing it for the cause. One of the other members offered their own bike to the cyclist who sacrificed their bike and people offered to Venmo the cyclist to help them with costs to replace their bike.
The Emerald asked Svercl if he would be more proactively looking to join the Bike Brigade at future events and he said he would be attending one tomorrow. “It’s a role that I feel like I fit into well,” he said. “I already know what to do.” And, Svercl said, he’s been looking for ways to help. “This basically checked all the right boxes.”
Crowther said the officers that spoke to he and other residents at The Cosmopolitan made clear that, for the county prosecutor to take action, “we would need to demonstrate that the driver intended to hit people” and that someone who was injured would need to press charges. He doesn’t know if anyone who was injured or whose bikes were damaged have or will come forward. “Without them coming forward,” said Crowther, “there may not be any legal accountability.”
In response to the incident on Wednesday, the Seattle Peoples Party, of which Nikkita Oliver is a member, created a GoFundMe to support the Seattle Bike Brigade. They have currently raised over $21,000.
Jessie McKenna is a member of the Seattle Peoples Party. She was not aware of the GoFundMe or any SPP affiliation with this story when she sought to report on the incident.
Jessie McKenna is a marketing and communications specialist with a focus on South End nonprofits and small business. She began working for the South Seattle Emerald in 2017 as a volunteer and eventually as a content contributor and content manager. She lives in Beacon Hill on unceded ancestral lands of the Duwamish people.
Featured image: Youth protesters sit outside SPD’s West Precinct on June 10, 2020. (Photo: Robert Svercl)