by Paul Kiefer
(This article previously appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Late at night on September 11, during the worst of the past summer’s wildfire smoke, a driver pulled over in a Bothell parking lot. Less than an hour earlier, the driver — who asked to remain anonymous because of pending felony charges — had been a part of the Car Brigade, a group of drivers who use their cars to protect protesters from attacks.
That night, the group had formed a protective perimeter around a relatively small and subdued protest march in Seattle. Driving at a walking speed, the motley crew of luxury cars, nondescript sedans, and massive SUVs maneuvered to keep other drivers from entering alleyways, parking lot exits, and intersections.
After months of practice, angry honking from inconvenienced drivers doesn’t phase the Car Brigade. The protest ended with no police in sight, so the drivers went their separate ways, expecting to make it home without issue. But when he reached Bothell, the driver saw police lights in his rear-view mirror. “There was never a siren,” he said. “It seemed like they had just silently followed me all the way to Bothell.”
To his surprise, the officer who approached his window was from the Seattle Police Department (SPD). According to the driver, the officer “told me I had three seconds to open my window or he would smash it. I didn’t really have time to react or think. I was still trying to remember where the door handle was when another officer walked up and smashed the window. The funny thing was that my doors were unlocked anyway.”
That night, the driver was booked into the King County Jail for allegedly obstructing a public officer at a protest several days earlier. He was released only a few hours later, but SPD had impounded his car and was waiting for a warrant to search it. Without his cell phone — which SPD had also seized — the driver spent the early hours of Saturday morning searching for some way to make his way to his home in a suburb east of Seattle. “I’ve never been so happy to see a Yellow Cab,” he said.
The arrest in Bothell was not an isolated incident: between August and mid-October, arrests of Car Brigade members were an almost weekly phenomenon. In total, SPD detained drivers on more than a dozen occasions and impounded 13 drivers’ cars; some, like the driver arrested in Bothell in September, were arrested more than once.
Incident reports and search warrants obtained by PubliCola offer a glimpse at what might lay behind the arrests: A larger SPD investigation into the Car Brigade’s connections to property damage and arson at last summer’s protests, driven by the department’s belief that the volunteer drivers are not good Samaritans but accomplices who provide cover and support for property damage, arson, and other crimes.
Five Car Brigade drivers who spoke to PubliCola believe that SPD has an ulterior motive for the arrests, impoundments, and investigation. They describe SPD’s treatment of the Car Brigade as a “scare tactic” intended to punish drivers for protecting marchers, undermine marchers’ safety, and finally bring an end to the nightly marches. And the tactic may be working: drivers say that a dwindling number of drivers are willing to risk losing their vehicles and potentially face felony charges in order to protect protesters.
SPD did not respond to questions about specific arrests or the broader investigation, so the details of arrests included in this story reflect the drivers’ own accounts, as well as SPD incident reports.
The Car Brigade formed earlier this year in the wake of the the July 4 attack on I-5 that killed Summer Taylor and injured Diaz Love. In the weeks that followed, one organizer told PubliCola, marches were flooded with volunteer drivers. “There were 40 or 50 drivers a night,” she recalled, “but it was chaos. The only coordination came from one person running from car to car to relay directions.” The playbook the Car Brigade now uses was the brainchild of a group of former marchers and new volunteers, she said. The team developed nicknames, a weekly driving schedule, and an emergency fund to cover gas and window replacements; by August, the Car Brigade was a well-oiled machine.
Over those months, the Car Brigade drivers maintain, their presence at marches has served one purpose. “What we do is protect protesters — that’s the entire reason we’re there,” the driver arrested in Bothell said.
When the Car Brigade was formed, vehicle attacks loomed large in the mind of protesters across the country; in the first month of protests last summer, the country saw at least 50 reported vehicle-ramming incidents targeting Black Lives Matter protesters. Eighteen of those, including incidents in Richmond, Virginia and Bloomington, Illinois, were investigated as intentional attacks. (The motives of Dawit Kelete, the driver responsible for Taylor’s death on July 4, remain unclear.)
Though the size of marches has shrunk significantly since June, Car Brigade drivers told PubliCola that the risk of vehicle attacks and collisions hasn’t subsided. “At any given protest, we stop at least one car from driving through marchers,” the driver arrested in Bothell told PubliCola. “Sometimes they’re actually there to cause trouble, but it seems like it’s usually just impatience.” But whatever the motivation, he added, a driver entering a crowd runs the risk of hurting or killing marchers, so the Car Brigade remains necessary.
He also argued that marchers need to be protected from vehicle ramming by SPD officers, pointing to two incidents during the last summer. On July 4, hours before Summer Taylor’s death, off-duty SPD officer Molly Clark apparently attempted to drive her car into protesters near downtown; a pre-Car Brigade driver providing protection for protesters stopped Clark from fleeing the scene, and within a week, SPD announced that she was no longer employed with the department.
Then, on August 12th, SPD Sergeant Michael Tietjen — whose 20-year career with SPD was marked by a handful of ethics and use-of-force complaints — drove an unmarked police vehicle onto a sidewalk and toward a small, unprotected group of protesters on Capitol Hill, prompting an investigation by the Office of Police Accountability that is still ongoing.
Just two days after that incident, on August 14, Tietjen was back on Capitol Hill overseeing the first arrests of Car Brigade drivers. That night, drivers had arrived to escort a small march north along Broadway, and as they moved, some of the marchers smashed windows and parking meters. Within an hour, three Car Brigade members were in SPD custody, accused of “rendering criminal assistance” by “attempt[ing] to block [officers’] view and access” to those damaging property, according to an SPD incident report. All three were released without charges the next day. (Shortly thereafter, SPD placed Tietjen on administrative leave pending the outcome of the OPA’s investigation.)
A “rendering criminal assistance” charge can range from a misdemeanor to a felony, depending on the crimes the defendant is alleged to have “assisted.” Famously, after Maurice Clemmons killed four Lakewood police officers in 2009, several of his friends faced the same charge for driving him away from the scene of the shooting and lying about his whereabouts to police. In the case of the Car Brigade, SPD alleges that drivers conspire with marchers to prevent SPD from arresting people damaging property or committing arson; the drivers accused of providing cover for arsonists on August 14, for instance, could face felony charges.
When asked for comment about the Car Brigade arrests at a press conference on October 19, Acting Police Chief Adrian Diaz told PubliCola that in his view, “the Car Brigade would not be an issue if there [wasn’t] destruction going on in the crowd,” adding, “[they] can’t allow that property damage — [they] become complicit.”
Others in the department apparently believe that the Car Brigade is not only complicit but has an active hand in orchestrating property damage: in a search warrant affidavit — a request for a search warrant — obtained by PubliCola, an SPD detective assigned to one of the impounded vehicles accused the group of “furthering criminal activity, preventing [and] delaying police response, and generally providing material support to those individuals committing crimes” at protests. (PubliCola obtained the unsealed affidavit from a Car Brigade driver, who believes the document was sent to them in error; the King County Superior Court sealed other warrant affidavits related to the Car Brigade until November 28th at SPD’s request).
In the warrant affidavit, the unnamed detective accuses Car Brigade members of providing cover for an array of crimes, including “malicious mischief,” arson, possession of explosive devices and failure to disperse. Specifically, the detective called out the Car Brigade’s use of hand-held radios to “coordinate the movements of [drivers] and marchers” as evidence of their complicity, also arguing that by positioning themselves between SPD vehicles and marchers, the Car Brigade specifically intended to prevent SPD from conducting arrests.
The Car Brigade drivers don’t deny being present at marches that involved property damage; however, they say their role at those marches was the same as their role at any other march: they were on hand to prevent vehicular attacks, not to block officers’ line of sight or prevent arrests. “SPD thinks drivers are somehow involved in organizing the marches or have a hand in what marchers do,” one driver told PubliCola. “Really, when I’m driving, I don’t even know where we’re turning next.”
Coordinating movements with marchers, she added, isn’t inherently criminal. “If we’re going to protect marchers from cars,” she said, “we need to know where they’re going, right?” According to that driver, the coordination between drivers and marchers is minimal: one on-the-ground coordinator relays driving directions to Car Brigade volunteers and points out gaps in their line.
Drivers argue that SPD has used every tactic at their disposal to undermine the Car Brigade as a way to discourage nightly protests. They point to Diaz’s comments at press conferences in September and October that his officers are eager to return to “real police work” — as opposed to protest response — as evidence of the department’s eagerness to bring an end to the protests. Cassie Trueblood, an attorney representing one of the drivers, shares that perspective. “To me, it seems pretty evident that [SPD] thinks that if they get rid of the Car Brigade, the protesters won’t come back,” she told PubliCola. “And the Car Brigade are also easier to target [because they are easily identified by their car and license plate], so [SPD] is throwing everything they can at them to see what sticks.”
Specifically, Trueblood said she has reason to believe that SPD has used impoundments as opportunities to punish drivers for their participation in the Car Brigade. As an example, she pointed to the first Car Brigade arrests on August 14, when police accused drivers of rendering criminal assistance by blocking their view of people damaging property. That night, though they arrested three drivers, SPD only impounded two vehicles; officers allowed the third driver (who, unlike the other two car brigade members, is white) to park his car on a side street before transporting him to the King County Jail for processing.
Only a few blocks down the hill, a second driver called their partner and handed the phone to an awaiting officer. The driver’s partner was on the other end of the line — the couple share a car and she needed it to get to work the next morning, so she offered to rush to Capitol Hill as quickly as possible to drive the car home and avoid an impoundment. “She said she could be there in 10 minutes,” the driver told PubliCola, “and [the arresting officer] said he wouldn’t wait that long and hung up the phone. But we then had to wait at least ten minutes for a tow truck to show up.” The couple were left car-less for the next two weeks.
If all three drivers on August 14 were arrested for the same reason, Trueblood said, SPD’s decision not to impound one of the cars is a sign that the cars themselves aren’t vital to the department’s investigation of the Car Brigade. (Once again, SPD did not respond to PubliCola’s questions about inconsistencies in impoundments of Car Brigade vehicles.)
Moreover, Trueblood argued that if the arrests and impoundments were genuinely related to protest violence, the department would not have arrested drivers and impounded cars during completely nonviolent demonstrations, including an August 27th vigil for Summer Taylor where SPD arrested the same driver who called their partner on August 14; during the arrest on the 27th, SPD told the driver that they were “obstructing a public officer,” and impounded their car a second time.
Trueblood also noted that in several cases, SPD has arrested drivers and impounded their cars several days after they supposedly broke the law. “If they have probable cause to search my car and they could get a warrant,” she told PubliCola, “at any time over that span of several days, they could come to my house, hand me the warrant and search my car in my driveway. They don’t need to impound the car.”
In her view, SPD’s use of impoundments may have taken advantage of a legal gray area. Trueblood pointed to a 2019 Washington State Supreme Court case, Washington v. Villela, in which the court ruled that law enforcement may only impound a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe it was used “in the commission of a felony offense”; if not, officers may still impound the car if they have “reasonable and proper justification,” but they must first consider reasonable alternatives to impoundment, including allowing “the defendant, the defendant’s spouse, or friends” to move the vehicle, which Trueblood said SPD has not done.
“If they don’t look for alternatives, that means they need to believe they can find evidence of a felony in the car,” she said. “But they don’t know what that evidence would be, and they aren’t always arresting for felonies.” The arrest at the August 27 vigil stands out as an example: that driver was arrested for obstruction of a public officer — a misdemeanor — and their car was impounded; the driver told PubliCola that SPD didn’t offer any alternatives for the impoundment.
The search warrants obtained by PubliCola (all signed by a King County Superior Court judge) gave permission for SPD to seize any “implements associated with riots,” including hand-held radios, gas masks, and body armor, as well as drivers’ cell phones, onboard navigation systems, insurance papers, email passwords, and “methods of payment.” Trueblood told PubliCola that the scope of the warrants raises red flags. “Search warrants are supposed to be specifically tailored to exactly what they’re looking for,” she said. “They are not supposed to be this broad — they’re not supposed to be ‘poke around in this phone and see what you can find.’”
No charges have been filed against any of the Car Brigade drivers, but the ongoing SPD investigation worries them. “The statute of limitations for the [rendering criminal assistance] charge is three years,” one driver told PubliCola, “so even if the [King County Prosecutor] said they aren’t charging protesters, it’s hard not to worry that their tone will change next year.” Trueblood said that she and other attorneys representing drivers are reluctant to put pressure on SPD to return their clients’ belongings. “We think the seizures were illegal, but we also don’t want to get our clients onto [the prosecutor’s] radar,” she said. Like SPD, the prosecutor’s office would not provide comment on the Car Brigade cases, and their office can’t review law enforcement investigations before their completion.
The months of arrests, impoundments, and threats of felony charges have already taken their toll on the Car Brigade. “I’ve had to ask to be moved to a position in the line that’s easier to get out of, because I know that as a Black woman, I’m at higher risk of being targeted,” one driver told PubliCola. “I feel like I’ve dodged arrest only by a hair. And other people are choosing to join jail support [the volunteers who pay bail for detained drivers and offer rides home after release] instead of protecting marchers because it’s safer.”
Another driver shared that she lost her job after an arrest in September. “I work as a nanny, and the mom was really upset that I ended up in the jail population,” she said. “She’s told me since May that she’s supportive of protests, but the day I got arrested, that changed. It’s partially because of COVID, and it might have something to do with her not wanting a nanny who’s been to jail.”
And the blow to the Car Brigade’s morale may soon begin to take its toll on marchers, she said. “We didn’t want to cause a panic, but now the word is getting out,” one driver said. “Marchers might be showing up today, but once they start realizing that there will be fewer cars to keep them safe, I’m not sure they’ll keep showing up.” And the Car Brigade wants one thing to be absolutely clear: they never want to be the center of attention. “We’re here to make sure that the Black Lives Matter movement can keep up momentum,” a driver said. “The marches need to continue; we need to do what we can to make sure they do.”
Paul Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive Magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was recently hired on as the police accountability reporter for PubliCola.
Featured image: Oct 26 March commemorating 150 straight days of Seattle protests, by Alex Garland.