Did The Seattle Police Actually Instigate The Vandalism That Occurred At The George Floyd Protests?
In my previous post on the Saturday May 30 George Floyd Protests in Seattle, I addressed the issue of whether the police warned the crowds prior to shooting tear gas at them. They did not.
I was embedded in the protest at Fifth Avenue and Pine St during the protest, and in this post I want to examine the timeline of the images I took to explore whether or not the police actually may have instigated the vandalism and violent crowd actions that captured the headlines the following days.
While no single photographer can cover every aspect of an event, after sorting through my 1,200+ images taken between 2:30PM and 5:00PM on Saturday, one thing is absolutely clear:
The use of tear gas that started at approximately 3:35PM turned a loud and boisterous -- but peaceful -- crowd into a frenetic one that effectively pushed the event into chaos and vandalism.
In fact, several of my images suggest a capricious and unwonted use of tear gas that did not seem to serve any tactical or strategic purpose.
My documentation of the event does not "prove" that the police actions caused the vandalism, but it offers a compelling argument that the police over-reacted, and at the minimum, a formal investigation into the event should take place.
The Event: 2:30PM to 3:55PM
Let me walk through several images chronologically to show you what I mean.
At 3:00PM,this is the scene at the police line. Highly engaged protesters and professionally engaged police. This is one of manyy similar shots I took during this time.
Taken at 3:15, this crowd shot is pretty typical of the images I captured of the crowd away from the police line. This shot is taken at Fifth and Pine.
At about 3:30 PM, the demonstrators who had gathered for speakers in Westlake Center had started to march south on Fifth Avenue toward Interstate 5, which they would ultimately shut down. I didn't have a birds-eye view of the crowd, but a large portion of the demonstrators who were surrounding me at Fifth and Pine started marching south on Fifth Avenue with the demonstration and away from the police line.
This is my first capture of tear gas, taken on Fifth Avenue, south of the intersection at 3:39 PM. Remember: At this time the crowd had started to move away from the police line. Many of those in the foreground had been in the process of marching southbound, away from Nordstrom, to join the march. The explosions turned many around, back toward the intersection.
By 3:46 when this shot was taken, the gas had completely dispersed the crowd.
And a minute later, at 3:47PM, despite the intersection being completely emptied, the police threw another canister of tear gas, which is clearly visible at the base of the fire hydrant.
The smoke cleared within a minute or so and revealed the space that the tear gas activity had cleared out in front of the police line. Notice also that the police have not moved the police line forward. I admittedly know little about crowd control, but I can't understand the purpose of the tear gas if the police are not then taking over the newly cleared space. There is nothing of interest or value behind them that they were preventing the demonstrators from accessing, so what was the point of clearing the crowd?
By 3:55PM, twenty minutes after the tear gas was first used, things were back to "normal." The space the police had cleared was filled with demonstrators again.
So at this point -- at 3:55PM -- where are we?
From 2:30PM - 3:30PM, the Fifth and Pine crowd generally engaged in a peaceful political protest, and the police generally responded in kind with curt professionalism.
At 3:30PM the Westlake Center crowd began marching south on Fifth Avenue, with many of the Fifth and Pine demonstrators joining them.
At 3:35PM, police threw their first rounds of tear gas into the crowd and cleared a half-block space in front of the police line.
Within twenty minutes, by 3:55PM, demonstrators had repopulated that space and were pressing up against the police line as before.
During this entire time, there was absolutely no communication from the police to the crowd.
The Police Car
Probably the most potent symbol of the Saturday protest was this police car, which for unknown reasons was parked directly in front of Nordstrom, about 200 feet from the the police line. This image was taken at 3:48PM.
The police bicycles in the upper right corner of this image is the police line I've been referring to. The car had been clearly vandalized by this time. (Again, why did the police park a car so close to the protest zone when they were clearly prepared for a confrontation?)
I did not notice the car earlier because the entire area surrounding it was shoulder to shoulder with many hundreds of demonstrators.
Taken at 3:55 PM, the police officer here has just launched a tear gas canister toward the car, which by now had gotten the attention of demonstrators. But again, given that the car was within a "softball toss" of the police line, why didn't the police simply take over the area around the car after they had dispersed the crowd with gas? Why did they let demonstrators return to the area, and then try to "protect" the vandalized vehicle from further vandalism with a second round to tear gas?
The Chaos and Vandalism
Immediately after the fumes dissipated, these are the scenes that unfolded around the car.
And soon thereafter, the property damage began:
In the hour or so that transpired between the first image of the vandalized car and this vandalism of Nordstrom, the police threw tear gas several times into the crowd, temporarily dispersing them, only to have them return once the fumes dissipated. And as the event continued, a higher percentage of the crowd had gas masks; they were fully prepared for this kind of activity so the gas had a less effect on their activities.
From my vantage point, the gas had the contradictory effects of thinning out the crowd of protesters to some degree, but increasing the veracity of those who remained and who were prepared for the confrontation, and drawing a larger crowd of curious onlookers.
Of my many images from the event, I have dozens that show the police acting courteously and professionally; protesters acting irreverently and obnoxiously; protesters chanting about the George Floyd Killing and racial justice; protesters calling all police "bastards"; police macing unarmed protesters; protesters and police engaged in constructive dialogue.
In other words, the protest was an emotional and complex event.
What I did NOT see was overt acts of aggression or violence that would have warranted the tear gas activity. Nor did I see a clear and strategic methodology to the police activity.
Unfortunately for the health of our community and businesses, the physical well being of peaceful protesters, and the reputation of the police force itself, I saw what appeared to be a capricious use of tear gas and tactics that -- from what I can tell through these images -- facilitated chaotic and violent activity in an otherwise peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights.