Protesters and ACLU sue Seattle, blame mayor and police chief for ‘unnecessary violence’ at demonstrations

SEATTLE — The city of Seattle has violated the constitutional rights of people at recent demonstrations against police brutality and racism by allowing Seattle Police Department officers to deploy “unnecessary violence” in controlling and suppressing crowds, says a lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday on behalf of Black Lives Matter activists, protesters and a journalist.

The lawsuit alleges the city has deprived protesters and others of their First Amendment rights by using chemical agents such as tear gas and pepper spray, as well as projectiles such as flash-bang grenades and blast balls, to crack down on the free speech demonstrations sparked by the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other Black people. The lawsuit also alleges the city has deprived protesters of their Fourth Amendment rights by subjecting crowds to excessive force.

Though the lawsuit names the city as the defendant, it repeatedly calls out Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best as responsible for authorizing the police actions.

“On an almost nightly basis, the SPD has indiscriminately used excessive force against protesters, legal observers, journalists, and medical personnel,” the lawsuit says. “For example, SPD has repeatedly sprayed crowds of protesters with tear gas and other chemical irritants —including as recently as (the early hours of) Monday, June 8, just days after the city pledged a 30-day moratorium on the use of tear gas.”

The lawsuit also says: “With limited exceptions, these protesters have been overwhelmingly peaceful. But nearly every night, city law enforcement tactics to deter these protests have escalated in severity.”

Durkan and Best have mostly stood by the Police Department’s actions, while blaming problems on bad-actor provocateurs mixed in with nonviolent protesters and while promising to have allegations of police misconduct thoroughly investigated.

The mayor and chief did apologize Sunday for instances in which they said officers may have failed to de-escalate tense moments, used disproportionate force and deployed crowd-control weapons too quickly. Referring to police actions on Capitol Hill, Durkan said, “I know that safety was shattered for many by the images, sound and gas more fitting of a war zone, and for that, I’m sorry.”

Hours after their remarks, tear gas was again deployed on Capitol Hill. Police said people in the crowd threw bottles, fireworks, rocks and other projectiles at officers. In a dramatic shift in tactics Monday afternoon, the Police Department boarded up and barricaded its East Precinct and then abandoned the surrounding streetscape to protesters. The night passed peacefully.

Durkan’s office didn’t immediately comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

Lawyers with the Seattle firm Perkins Coie, American Civil Liberties Union and Seattle University School of Law filed Tuesday’s lawsuit on behalf of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, four protesters, one would-be protester and a journalist with The Stranger newspaper.

The lawsuit asks for a temporary and permanent court order forbidding Seattle from continuing “using less-lethal weapons to control and suppress demonstrations,” along with a declaration that the city has committed constitutional violations.

Until recently, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County urged would-be protesters to exercise caution before joining street demonstrations, due to COVID-19 risks coupled with concern about police using chemical agents, the lawsuit says, alleging that the city’s aggressive response has taken the group’s time and energy away from its core mission.

“These daily demonstrations are fueled by people from all over the city who demand that police stop using excessive force against Black people and … that Seattle dismantle its racist systems of oppression,” Livio De La Cruz, a board member with the local Black Lives Matter group, said in a statement.

“It is unacceptable that the Seattle Police Department would then respond to these demonstrations with more excessive force, including using tear gas and flash-bang grenades,” De La Cruz added.

“Rather than trying to silence these demonstrations, the city and SPD must address the protesters’ concerns by focusing on its policies and systems regarding police practices, use of force, and accountability.”

Seattle isn’t the first city to be sued for its response to recent demonstrations. A judge in Denver this week issued a temporary injunction limiting tear gas and other techniques. Edward Maguire, an Arizona State University expert on protest policing, said he expects to see a wave of lawsuits around the country, with similar rulings.

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The other plaintiffs in the Seattle lawsuit range from Abie Ekenezar, a veteran with disabilities who’s been subjected to chemical agents twice during the demonstrations, to Sharon Sakamoto, a retiree who says she was deterred from protesting because of health concerns over weapons like tear gas.

“During her time serving in the military, Ms. Ekenezar participated in tear-gas drills and is familiar with the effects of tear gas,” the lawsuit says. “Based on that experience, she believes that the chemical agent the SPD used on her and other protesters on May 30 was tear gas. The tear gas stung Ms. Ekenezar’s eyes and triggered her asthma.”

Deeply committed to advancing civil rights and racial justice because she survived incarceration as a Japanese American child during World War II, Sakamoto “was frightened away from joining the protests because of the SPD’s use of violence,” the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs also include Muraco Kyashna-tocha, a protester who struggled to see after being exposed to police tear gas and pepper spray at a Capitol Hill demonstration she described as nonviolent.

“Ms. Kyashna-tocha did not hear the officers issue any verbal warnings that they planned to deploy chemical irritants,” the lawsuit says. “Ms. Kyashna-tocha has participated in over 100 protests, but she has never participated in a protest in which the police deployed chemical irritants without first warning the crowd.”

The lawsuit blames Durkan and Best as the decision-makers at the city.

“Mayor Durkan and Chief Best have acted with deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of protesters and would-be protesters by authorizing, both explicitly and implicitly, the use of less-lethal force against protesters who do not pose any safety threat; by failing to properly train, supervise, and discipline SPD officers regarding appropriate use of force against protesters; and by failing to rectify the SPD’s unconstitutional custom of using less-lethal force to control and suppress demonstrations.”

Durkan and Best have continued to authorize unnecessary violence, despite mounting complaints and despite “acknowledging that the majority of protesters have been peaceful,” the lawsuit says, citing statements to that effect by the leaders and apologies they’ve issued to protesters.

The lawsuit says tear gas at a demonstration downtown made protester Alexander Woldeab “feel like he was suffocating,” and says Seattle University student Alexandra Chen dealt with days of skin irritation after tear gas became trapped under the mask she was wearing to protect against COVID-19.

It says multiple journalists also have reported being “gassed or subjected to flash bang devices by SPD simply for being present and documenting” demonstrations, mentioning a national TV correspondent who was hit by a flash bang grenade while recording live.

The lawsuit also says Nathalie Graham, a journalist with The Stranger, had to stop covering demonstrations on May 30 and June 2 because she was having trouble seeing and breathing after tear gas and flash-bang grenades were deployed.

“Witnessing the aggressive, indiscriminate deployment of chemical agents and flash-bang grenades by police at these protests has made me reconsider how I approach my assignments,” Graham is quoted as saying in the lawsuit.

“There is a new element of trepidation, anxiety, and fear to my experience of being a journalist.”