Seattle police turned out in force early Wednesday at the city’s “occupied” protest zone, tore down demonstrators’ encampments and used bicycles to herd the protesters after the mayor ordered the area cleared following two fatal shootings in less than two weeks.
Television images showed police, many in riot gear, confronting dozens of protesters at the “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest” zone that was set up near downtown following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Wearing helmets and wielding batons and rifles, officers converged on the area at dawn. Officers stood shoulder-to-shoulder on several streets while others created a makeshift fence with their bicycles, using it to push protesters back away from the center of the zone.
As residents of the neighborhood near the city’s downtown watched from balconies, police cleared out the protesters’ tents from a park within the zone and made sure no one was left in the park’s bathrooms. At one point, a loud bang was heard in the park, followed by a cloud of smoke.
One protest organizer, Derrek Allen Jones II, said some demonstrators attempted to stay put but were surprised by the early intervention by officers who were “trampling everything I seen in sight, flipping tables.”
“People were trying to hold their ground but you could see the cops literally storm through people’s beds while they were sleeping. And literally say ‘If you don’t get out, we will force you out or arrest you,’” he said.
One man dressed in black was peacefully lead away in handcuffs and other demonstrators sat on the wet ground until their small group was handcuffed and detained.
By late morning, police said 32 people had been arrested for failure to disperse, obstruction, assault and unlawful weapon possession.
“Our job is to support peaceful demonstration but what has happened on these streets over the last two weeks is lawless and it’s brutal and bottom line it is simply unacceptable,” Police Chief Carmen Best told reporters.
Police also tore down fences that protesters had erected around their tents and used batons to poke inside bushes, apparently looking for people who might be hiding inside. One officer took down a sign saying “we are not leaving until our demands are met: 1. Defund SPD by 50% now. 2. Fund Black Communities. 3. Free all protesters.”
After police dispersed the protesters, heavy equipment was brought in to remove the concrete barriers that demonstrators had erected to block roads. Debris from the encampments was carted away on flatbed trucks as officers strung yellow caution tape from tree to tree warning people not to reenter.
During the operation to clear out protesters, officers investigated several vehicles that circled the area after police saw people inside them “with firearms/armor,” police said in a tweet, adding that the vehicles did not appear to have “visible license plates.”
The protesters had occupied several blocks around a park for about two weeks and police abandoned a precinct station following standoffs and clashes with the protesters, who called for racial justice and an end to police brutality.
Police acted after Mayor Jenny Durkan issued the order for protesters to leave.
“Since demonstrations at the East Precinct area began on June 8th, two teenagers have been killed and three people have been seriously wounded in late-night shootings,” police tweeted. “Police have also documented robberies, assaults, and other violent crimes.
The tweet added that “suspects in recent shootings may still be in the area, and because numerous people in the area are in possession of firearms.”
Best said she supports peaceful demonstrations but that the zone had “become lawless and brutal. Four shootings–-two fatal—robberies, assaults, violence and countless property crimes have occurred in this several block area.”
There had been mounting calls by critics, including President Donald Trump, to remove protesters following the fatal shootings.
A group of local business owners sued the city, claiming that officials abandoned the area and made it impossible to run businesses because there was no police or fire protection.
After police cleared out the zone, U.S. Attorney General William Barr praised Best for what he called “her courage and leadership in restoring the rule of law in Seattle.”
“Chief Best has rightly committed to continue the substantive discussion while ending the violence, which threatens innocent people and undermines the very rule-of-law principles that the protesters profess to defend,” Barr said in a statement.
Protesters have said they should not be blamed for the violence in the area.
Associated Press video journalist Aron Ranen contributed to this report.