Yes, Mayor and Chief of Police, Your Police Did Not Warn People That Tear Gas Was Coming (20 Times)
On May 30 from 2:30PM to 5PM, I was on a freelance assignment covering the George Floyd protests in downtown Seattle. It was a remarkable event on many levels, but in this post I want to answer one primary question:
Did the Seattle Police warn protesters before using tear gas?
I want to do this because during today's (June 1) press conference with Seattle Mayor Jennie Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, this very question was asked by a reporter.
The answer that the mayor and police chief gave was brief: the police followed protocol and warned people properly before employing tear gas.
I will not call our city officials out for false statements, because they were not at 5th and Pine where I was embedded. So perhaps they have received faulty information from their sources. But based on my observations and experience that afternoon, my answer to that question would have been this:
At no time on Saturday May 30 at 5th and Pine in Seattle did the Seattle police warn people before shooting canisters of tear gas at them -- 15-20 times, by my estimate.
Before I continue, I want to explain who I am. I am a marketing professional of 15 years and a freelance photographer. I am not an activist. I was at the event to document it for Real Change, a newspaper I respect for its community-based journalism and involvement with the homeless community. (These views here are my own, and not the newspaper's. I was asked on a freelance basis to help document the event.)
In my capacity at the event, it was my job to document, and not to judge how the police (or the crowd) performed during the protests. The police are in an excruciatingly difficult position that I respect. However, when the mayor and police chief gave their answer, which I know to be wrong, I have an obligation to share what I know.
Simply put, the police gave absolutely no warning prior to dispersing tear gas (or pepper spray) throughout the afternoon.
Let me walk through my answer with the help of several images.
For a perspective of where I was embedded, the next few photos give you a good idea.
This shot was taken at 3:46 PM. This is just north of Nordstrom on 5th Avenue, downtown Seattle. The first round of tear gas of the afternoon had just been deployed. I had spent much of the previous hour fighting the crowds that had filled the intersection shoulder to shoulder (there was absolutely no social distancing, although most of protesters wore masks).
By 3:30 PM, the vast majority of the protesters who had congregated by Nordstrom, and those who attended the rally at Westlake Mall, had started to march south on Fifth Ave to shut down Interstate 5.
Several hundred others remained around the Nordstrom building after 3:30. When the tear gas was first used at about 3:40, there had been absolutely no violence that I could see, aside from vandalism of a police car and occasional water bottles thrown across the police line.
(In my photo time lines, the massive vandalism of the police vehicle occurred AFTER the initial rounds of tear gas.)
This shot shows the line the police had created to prevent people from marching north on 5th Avenue, and the space they had carved out with the tear gas.
Within minutes of this shot, however, the fumes had dispersed. The intersection was filled again with protesters and I returned to the front line.
This is not tear gas, but pepper spray. I am shooting with a 35mm prime lens, which means that this image is capturing what I am seeing with my eyes. I am literally an arm's length from the canister of mace.
The protester, not wearing glasses or having any kind of weapon or device on him other than his cardboard sign, was hit with the mace without any warning. The man was verbally engaging with the officers when the mace was deployed.
On that same police line were the canister guns used to shoot the tear gas into the crowd.
The shots that came from this officer's smoking gun were not preceded by any warning to the crowd.
Canisters were also thrown into the crowed the old fashioned way.
These series of canister shots were aimed toward individuals that were vandalizing a police car that was parked directly in front of Nordstrom. (I am very curious why the police parked a car within the perimeter of the protest. They had dozens of bikes, motorcycles and vehicles parked well outside of the perimeter; this was the only one within the protest zone.).
From the moment the police first deployed tear gas at about 3:40 PM (remember, the vast majority of protesters were marching toward the interstate by then), the afternoon devolved into a series of cycles in which the police dispersed the crowd with tear gas, the fumes dissipated, the crowds returned to the police line to re-engage, the police retreating a half block before using tear gas to disperse the crowd again, and so on.
This cycle went on a few rounds before all that was left in the area were hard-core, angry demonstrators who turned to vandalism and whose actions and messaging got further and further removed from the original intent of protesting the murder of George Floyd.
And many tear-gassed individuals.
During one of the tear gas episodes around 4:20PM, as I was retreating from the police line, I saw that this journalist was being assaulted on the ground by a demonstrator. (This picture was taken earlier in the afternoon; I was unable to capture the assault with my camera.)
As I pulled the man off the woman, a canister, thrown by a police officer who had a direct line of site to us, exploded at my feet. The right side of my face, my neck and my right hand were burned. I could not open my right eye for the rest of my assignment. The journalist was later seen receiving medical treatment.
Again, no warning was given to us before the tear gas was used.
By 5PM the area had devolved to this state. My initial intent in covering the event was to document how Seattle was responding to the murder of George Floyd. Shortly after taking this shot, I realized that the crowd, which at the start of the day was hugely diverse, emotional, angry, and political, was now almost entirely white and most of them seemed to be either curiosity seekers or instigators of some type. The "original" protesters were almost entirely gone.
At this point I left the area to nurse my eye back to health, so I missed most of the looting and vandalism that followed that evening.
To summarize: The police used tear gas extensively on May 30, and not once did I see an act of violence that they were responding to, and not once did I hear them give anyone a warning.