Seattle leaders worried federal presence will inflame tensions this weekend

After federal agents touched down in the Seattle area Thursday evening, city leaders scrambled to get answers from the federal government on whether they intended to engage with protesters against the will of local leaders.

Seattle’s mayor, police chief, Washington’s governor and others have made clear they do not want federal agents intervening as they’ve done in Portland, where agents have used forceful tactics against protesters, journalists and legal observers, sparking civil rights concerns and lawsuits. 

Mayor Jenny Durkan said Friday what worries her the most is that a federal presence in Seattle will only escalate tensions and violence.

“I at this point have to assume that what is happening in Portland could happen here,” she said, speaking of the nightly violence seen in Oregon’s largest city. “I think that this is two sides bent on a fight that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

After two days of riots in Seattle the past week, police are bracing for what could be a violent weekend as protesters plan to take to the streets in solidarity with Portland.

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“There’s definitely an increase in energy on the streets here in Seattle,” said Omari Salisbury of Converge Media, an on-the-ground journalist who has covered daily protests in the city. His documenting of the ongoing Capitol Hill protests and later, the occupied protest, has captured global attention. 

He recalled the resolve of protesters after the first major standoff on Capitol Hill June 1, when protesters tear-gassed a largely peaceful crowd near the East Precinct. 

“They got tear-gassed, they got pepper sprayed the first day — they came back,” he said. “They got tear-gassed, pepper sprayed, hit with rubber bullets the second day — they came back. They kept coming back.”

Salisbury said he expects the same determination if federal forces engage with protesters, just as he saw in Capitol Hill night after night as police attempted to protect the East Precinct. 

The role of federal agents in Seattle is also to safeguard buildings, according to U.S. Attorney Brian Moran. He said in a statement Friday that they are assisting existing federal security at courthouses and other federal buildings, noting that the Nakamura Federal Courthouse was damaged in protests this past week.

Durkan said she received assurances from the federal government that they would notify her and Police Chief Carmen Best first if the role changed for federal forces in Seattle.

Until late Friday night, Chief Best and the Seattle Police force thought they were going into a big protest weekend without the crowd-control tools they've used to quell disruptive demonstrations in the past.

The Seattle City Council unanimously passed an ordinance last month banning SPD's use of tear gas, pepper spray, blast balls and other crowd-control measures. 

It was supposed to take effect early Saturday morning, but the U.S. Department of Justice challenged the law and on Friday night, a federal judge granted the government's request to block the ordinance from taking effect. 

The Justice Department, citing Seattle’s longstanding police consent decree, argued that banning the use of crowd control weapons could actually lead to more police use of force, leaving them only with more deadly weapons.

Best said Saturday that officers will be carrying pepper spray and blast balls when they respond to protests this weekend. 

SPD said rioters injured a dozen officers last week. Best said police will be adjusting how they respond to violence this weekend. 

“You know, a lot of people believe that a firmer response will lead to restoration of peace,” Durkan said. “What we’ve seen in Portland is that’s not the case.”

As businesses across downtown boarded up windows and entrances Friday afternoon in anticipation of more destruction, the Downtown Seattle Association said officials need to draw a firm line for those intent on causing damage. 

“We expect our local and state leaders to establish policies and laws that protect the First Amendment while also protecting residents and businesses from targeted and organized vandalism, destruction and looting,” Downtown Seattle Association said in a statement. 

Business and city leaders continue to stress that the majority of protests in the city remain peaceful but point to a small faction "bent on destruction," saying their actions distract from the overall message of demonstrators pushing for law enforcement, criminal justice and investment reforms.