Seattle police say protests that create long-term traffic blockages cannot be allowed to continue and its policies are evolving to address the issue.
Police arrested over a dozen hotel workers near the Westin downtown Monday night after some allegedly blocked traffic.
“There’s just not a lot of margin built in when roads get closed,” said department spokesperson Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.
Last week, Seattle city attorney Pete Holmes wrote an op-ed addressing unpermitted protests that block streets and divert emergency resources.
“If you are arrested for an unpermitted street-closure protest that requires the redirecting of critical lifesaving emergency-response resources that may be needed elsewhere on a moment’s notice, it’s likely my office will file charges against you,” Holmes wrote. “If you want to make your point for a few minutes and get symbolically arrested to amplify your cause, SPD can do that, and my office will consider those incidents based on the circumstances of the disruption.”
At least two high-profile protests blocked traffic during rush hour and created significant traffic jams earlier this year – in one, activists erected ‘tarpees’ in the road, in the other, a group linked themselves together in what police call a “sleeping dragon."
“We know that we have to take to the streets in order to fight back and win,” said Kelsen Caldwell, who was arrested at one of those protests.
“We don’t participate in these protests to inconvenience people,” said Alec Connon of 350 Seattle. “We don’t participate for the sake of being disruptive. We participate in these protests because we recognize the inconvenience of climate change, the inconvenience of having families torn apart, are infinitely greater than the inconvenience of being stuck in traffic for a few minutes.”
In a statement Tuesday, Holmes responded to criticism from the activists.
“I wrote the Seattle Times piece to explain my reasoning for pressing charges in these unpermitted road closure protests, in that the decision could easily be misperceived,” Holmes said. “It was never about suppressing anyone’s voice.”
Holmes added that he is working to fight climate change and support immigrant rights, contrary to criticisms.
The speed of SPD’s arrests Monday night, Whitcomb said, are informed by impacts of past traffic-blocking protests.
He said there’s no hard line, and SPD plans to continually negotiate options with protestors. Whitcomb said on Monday all protestors in the road were told they had the opportunity to leave the street prior to arrest but declined.
The department handles hundreds of protests a year, some permitted and some not. Whitcomb said merely stepping into the street without a permit will likely not end in arrest, but sustained activity there cannot be allowed.
“In 2018, you can be in the street, but at some point in time your demonstration in the street needs to get back on the sidewalk,” Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb added these unplanned protests create more strain on department resources. As Seattle grows, he said, this policy change is more necessary.
“We want to support First Amendment rights, and everyone’s ability to have a demonstration even if it means slowing down traffic or having a traffic disruption,” Whitcomb said. “But at some point in time we’re going to say, that goal has been achieved, and it’s time to move on the sidewalk where everyone can be safe.”
None of the protestors arrested Monday have been charged yet, according to Holmes’ office.