The 500 or so protesters who gathered outside the downtown Red Lion Hotel Monday night, June 2, already were convinced that police routinely abuse their power. For their part, Seattle police turned out in force to face protesters they clearly believed were potential trouble. All it took was a spark, and that spark was a smoldering American flag. The resulting conflagration seemed largely unnecessary and preventable.
The loosely organized protest was intended to draw attention to the annual training seminar of the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit (LEIU), a 47-year-old private organization that serves to share intelligence data from criminal investigations. The LEIU's members include more than 250 law-enforcement agencies from across North America. It gets money from member jurisdictions, whose taxpayers ultimately pay the bill. What little public information exists about LEIU, much of it 30 or more years old, suggests that it has been a shield to evade the accountability usually demanded of police departments. This year's LEIU seminar topic, "Criminal Intelligence and the War on Terror," combined with the Bush administration's post-9/11 encouragement of domestic spying, turned the LEIU gathering into a lightning rod for activist fears. (See "Paranoia Seminar," May 7.) Had the modern LEIU been a little more transparent, the latest battle in Seattle might never have happened.
BUT IN TRYING to explain its purpose, the group's members, some of them prominent local law enforcers, never got past an occasionally earnest, sometimes condescending, always vague assurance that the LEIU is a no-big-deal, benign trade organization. It didn't help the organization's credibility when, in the days leading up to the protest, the city of Seattle sprung an unprecedented demand for liability insurance for the permitted rally. The risk? An electrical cord for the sound system.
But the afternoon before the protest, an agreement was reached, and early that evening, as protesters listened to Westlake Park speeches and then marched south to the Red Lion a few blocks away, it seemed as though SPD would stay low-key, even if their omnipresence looked like they were guarding the president.
The disorganized mass of activists gathered on the 1400 block of Fifth Avenue, surrounding the Red Lion, with most congregated near the Fifth Avenue entrance of the hotel. A brief flare-up on the Fourth Avenue side seemed to change the police mood. Incidental contact with police in a line guarding Carroll's Jewelers resulted in a rapidly escalating shoving match, with officers running the length of the block to chase down and arrest a young woman. "So much for nonviolence," said one SPD officer. Later, the site commander, Seattle Police Capt. Mike Sanford, would say, "These are people who came to riot."
Meanwhile, on the Fifth Avenue side, a group of young activiststheir faces covered with bandannas, as if to ensure they alienated anyone who was still forming an opinionburned several American flags. One was posturing atop an awning next to the Red Lion Hotel when he managed to set fire to Old Glory.
SANFORD SAID POLICE were dead set on arresting the would-be pyro when he came down from the building. In a similar flag-burning incident last November, officers waited until their suspect was leaving before they arrested him without incident. This time, undercover officers chose to arrest the man in the crowd, dragged him across the street, and hurled him over 3-foot-high metal barricades that surrounded the hotel courtyard, where a line of officers awaited. That's when things got really ugly. Some protesters rushed the barricades. Police responded with streams of pepper spray and an exploding grenade that was tossed right into the crowd. Then came a line of bicycle officers, who established something of a picket line in front of the barricadesand used their bikes to hit anyone in front of them. The police issued no dispersal orders.
At least one person, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) legal observer wearing an identifying armband, was hit in the mouth with a bicycle's handlebar. Shannon McConnell, who's also a law student at Seattle University, suffered a split lip. "I want to know why they are using bikes as weapons," McConnell says. Another woman, Kristen Anderberg, suffered a fractured wrist when she fell during the police charge.
But bikes weren't the only police weapons. As officers moved protesters away from the hotel, they repeatedly unloaded charges of pepper spray on the crowd. Several protesters were hit square in the face and required treatment from medics in their ranks.
Then on Fourth Avenue, as the crowd was returning to Westlake Park, some in the crowd began to pelt police with plastic water bottles and garbage. Police would later claim that ball bearings, sticks, and rocks also had been flung their way. Three newspaper boxes were dragged into the street by protesters. Until then, police had confined their actions to protesters directly in front of them. Now the whole crowd was implicated, and police fired five exploding grenades indiscriminately into what was a fairly spread-out, retreating crowd of about 200 people. A Seattle Weekly reporter was hit by a projectile from the grenades.
After the fusillade on Fourth, the crowd returned to Westlake Park, where it had a permit to assemble. There, several protesters, including a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild, displayed welts on their backs and bruises on their legs.
Twelve protesters were arrested on suspicion of property damage, assault, and reckless burning. At least four protesters were taken to Swedish Medical Center with minor injuries. Other protesters reported minor injuries but did not require hospitalization.
SPD Capt. Sanford wasn't forthcoming about what objects police fired into the crowd. He said he didn't know what gear his officers carried. Asked what objects blast out of the grenades when they are detonated, he said: "I don't know." Accountability generally was in short supply that evening, on both sides of the barricades.