Seattle is taking a harsher stance against protesters who block traffic, after several demonstrations involving dozens of people closed off downtown streets earlier this year.
City Attorney Pete Holmes filed criminal charges this week against 15 people who blocked Second Avenue in May while protesting the construction of an oil pipeline. Holmes also plans to file charges against about a half-dozen immigrant-rights activists who were arrested in June who blocked the same street.
The decision comes after city police came under criticism from residents for not arresting demonstrators in March who closed off intersections downtown when they came out against the construction of a jail for youth. The Seattle Police Department, which says it handles about 300 protests per year, is having to contend with continuously evolving techniques used by demonstrators who make it harder to disperse them.
Holmes said he could no longer “turn a blind eye.”
In announcing the charges, Holmes said he has “an obligation to help keep the streets of the city open.”
“When expensive resources have to be deployed to clear them, protesters should expect me to file charges,” he said. “I do not want to tell anyone how to exercise their First Amendment rights. I respect them.”
The protest that took place in May was aimed at Chase Bank for its investment in tar-sands development and the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Demonstrators, who were arrested after blocking traffic for five hours by sitting on wooden tipis that they built in the middle of the road, were charged in Seattle Municipal Court with pedestrian interference and obstruction, which represent a misdemeanor and a gross misdemeanor, respectively.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office declined to comment specifically about the charges brought against Seattle protesters. Instead, senior staff attorney Nancy Talner said in an emailed response to questions that “the ACLU is always concerned about situations which raise a question about the line between exercise of a person’s constitutional rights and conduct alleged to be criminal.”
A guide to protester rights published by the civil-rights organization, however, advises that demonstrators may be criminally charged if traffic is intentionally blocked as an act of civil disobedience.
In the June rally outside of Seattle’s Immigration and Custom Enforcement office on Second Avenue, pro-immigration activists locked arms inside thick plastic pipes and laid in the road, ignoring police orders to disperse. The strategy has been dubbed the “sleeping dragon.”
Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office said the charging decisions arose out of the relatively new strategies employed by protesters to block roads as a way to call attention to their causes.
“The use of extended street blockages is a fairly new type of protest in Seattle, so we typically haven’t had the option to consider filing charges,” Nolte said. Previously, he said, it was more common to see people charged with trespassing for demonstrating on private property.
In March, downtown streets were closed and traffic was backed up for hours when opponents to the new King County juvenile-detention center also used the technique. The Seattle Police Department did not at arrest those protesters and later explained that decision as an effort to observe demonstrators’ right to free speech.
“Civil disobedience is a time-honored American tradition, but part of civil disobedience is the sacrifice made when you have to face the consequences,” Holmes said. “The fact that these protests are a First Amendment exercise is not a get-out-of-jail free card,” he said.
If convicted of pedestrian interference, protesters face up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. For a conviction of obstruction, protesters face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Holmes’ office said it will not seek the maximum penalties.
The protesters are to be arraigned in Seattle Municipal Court on Sept. 12.
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