by Erica C. Barnett
About 10 hours after Seattle police officers moved in to remove barriers, tents, artwork, and people from the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area Wednesday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan, police chief Carmen Best, and other department heads called a press conference to explain their actions.
There was a lot to unpack. Why did the mayor issue the executive order in the pre-dawn hours, a time when most people living in tents in the area (and most reporters) would be asleep? Will the city prevent protesters from gathering at the East Precinct building in the future, and are they planning to use force? What will happen to the art and community gardens? Why did the city expel members of the media from CHOP, when the press is explicitly allowed to remain in an area after an order to disperse?
Durkan did get into a few specifics. For example, the mayor said the city would consider “memorializing” the protests by creating space for “a new garden, a speakers’ corner, or new art,” and would add a “community room in the East Precinct and things in and around Capitol Hill and the East Precinct.” It’s unclear how a community room could fit into the cramped layout of the East Precinct, leaving aside whether anyone would want to go there.
For the most part, though Durkan’s comments focused on lofty, nonspecific goals, like “statewide reforms,” “generational change,” and “investing in community.” The word “reimagine” appeared no fewer than seven times in Durkan’s 12-minute statement. “I will continue to refocus our energy on the hard but critical work to answer the voices demonstrating and demanding change, to reimagine, with Chief Best, what policing looks like in our city, and to invest in the true health and safety of our communities,” Durkan said.
Best described the CHOP in near-apocalyptic terms. “If you have watched the news footage you have seen how absolutely devastating the damage to this neighborhood is,” she said. Walking around the perimeter of the area, she said, “I was just stunned by the amount of graffiti, garbage, and property destruction.” She described residents and business owners coming out of their homes, like survivors of a natural disaster, to “profusely” thank her officers. “We don’t even know how much trauma” the protests caused to residents and business owners in the area, she said.
Durkan has reportedly been at odds with Chief Best in recent weeks, but there was no sign of division this afternoon. Instead, Durkan effusively praised the police chief and her officers (who Durkan described, in an apparent slip of the tongue, as “troops”), calling her “one of the best leaders in this country on policing” and crediting her “very steady hand” for this morning’s relatively smooth removal of tents, people, and barricades from the CHOP.
Durkan said she was expediting assistance to businesses in the area that experienced property damage or lost revenues, and had already spoken to the city attorney’s office about expediting their tort claims so that they could get financial reimbursement quickly. “I heard very clearly from them the pain of seeing their businesses close, the graffiti on their walls, calling back their employees but not yet able to open,” she said.
Asked whether she bore any responsibility for the two young men who have died in shootings in the area, Durkan declined to answer the question directly, calling the deaths “regretful” and saying that she hoped to meet with the victims’ family members. “We’ll have lots of opportunities to do after-actions on what people could have done at what junctures,” she added.
Best said the police would welcome peaceful protests outside the reopened East Precinct, but “there’s not going to be lawlessness.” The police force is under a federal court order that bars them from using “less lethal” weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, and blast grenades, and the city council passed legislation barring the use of such weapons last month.
Earlier this week, city council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold wrote a blog post revealing that Best had confirmed that one of the police department’s primary reasons for setting up heavily fortified barricades around the East Precinct was not true. The chief and mayor had previously claimed the FBI had informed them of specific threats to bomb or burn down the East Precinct. In fact, Herbold revealed, what Durkan previously described as “credible threats” were actually “a generalized assessment of threat to ‘police and government structures’ in Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle.”
The mayor and police chief have had to walk back a number of false or misleading statements about the protests, including claims that armed guards were forcing people to hand over ID and pay a bribe to enter (not true) and that police used force against protesters because one threw an “incendiary device” (it turned out to be a candle.)”
This afternoon, Best was not ready to let the matter rest. She said she knew there might be a question about whether the threats were real, then added “threats to police precincts and to government facilities,” Best said. “We verified that and that information came from our local special agent in charge at the FBI.”
The area that used to be CHOP will be closed to anyone who isn’t a resident or business owner for the next 10 days, Best said. According to at least one report on social media, police are requiring people to show identification to enter their own homes or businesses — exactly the scenario police department officials accused protesters of setting up last month.
Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle politics since 2001 for print and online media. Read her latest at The C Is for Crank.
Featured image: Erica C Barnett