You can thank the Seattle Police Department for making Seattle's anti-war marches increasingly militant. Heavy handed, riot-control tactics deployed against peaceful, permitted rallies on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday scared away a lot of the moms in tennis shoes, dads in raincoats with their kids riding on their shoulders, labor union members, and sincere churchgoing folks who've filled out the ranks of larger peace demonstrations in recent weeks. Late on Thursday evening four cops on horseback and dozens of armored riot-control police attempted to herd a couple thousand peaceful demonstrators into the barricaded plaza in front of the federal building, shoving and menacing people in a way that made no sense at all (when a half hour later the rain came and largely did their job for them). It could have gotten very ugly, and the cops seemed to want that to happen very, very much.
By Saturday afternoon, the crowd was smaller--a few hundred people--and more radical, pissed off by the SPD's tactics. The march, however, was peaceful. Without a permit, the organizers reminded people repeatedly that they had to stay on the sidewalk and obey the walk lights. For the most part, everybody did, even though the sheer mass of people made it hard to stay crowded together, 60 or 70 people in a bunch, on street corners waiting for the lights to change.
Then the SPD got into the act, splitting the demonstrators and causing absolute mayhem. The tactic was simple, stupid, and incendiary: when the light turned red and the demonstrators stopped crossing the street, a line of police would block the crosswalk, cutting off the next group of marchers from the group in front of them on the next block. Then the cops would pick off and arrest angry people or anyone who stepped one of their feet down off the curb.
In addition, a wider ring of riot police created a closed box within a ten-block radius of the federal building and refused to allow anyone out, demonstrator or not--a clear violation of people's rights to free speech and access to public accommodations in the absence of any crime being committed. Indeed, the crime was being committed by the SPD, with their chief of police, Gil Kerlikowski, on the ground directing the operation.
I observed numerous peaceful people, including parents with small children, office workers trying to go for a coffee run, people trying to get half a block north to catch their bus in the bus tunnel, and men in business suits, attempt to get out of the SPD box. All were turned back, deemed criminals, and denied their right of passage, even though none had anti-war signs or were part of the march.
The SPD is spoiling for a lawsuit. I hope they get one.
What's clear is that these tactics are harassing anti-war protesters and denying them their right to peaceful assembly. By driving away those who don't want to be run over by horses or confronted with armored cops carrying tear gas guns and much more menacing armaments, the SPD has whittled the anti-war crowd down to only the very brave and the very angry--and ensured that the demonstrations will be much, much more militant and could grow violent, regardless of what the organizers have planned. Mayor Greg Nickels obviously approves of such tactics, but the Seattle City Council should step in and grill Kerlikowski severely. He needs to be reminded that anti-war protesters are not terrorists. Civil disobedience and political speech are rights to be protected, not crimes to be suppressed and punished. Whether the group has a permit or not, a march should never, never be treated the same way as a riot.
And a police chief
who can't distinguish between a riot and peaceful demonstration
should be sent packing.