Nonviolent Protests at Officials’ Houses Are Protected Speech. Political Leaders Want to Shut Them Down.

“Pyrotechnic explosives” recovered by police executing a search warrant after recent protests

Elected officials and the police chief of Seattle, who holds the most powerful unelected position in city government, have come together in opposition to a form of behavior that all agree is inexcusable, reprehensible, and violates “every democratic principle that guides our nation.”

No, I’m not talking about teargassing and shooting rubber bullets into the bodies of protesters, or the fact that the budget for the police department dwarfs that for human and social services. I’m referring to the fact that protesters are showing up at officials’ homes—specifically, the homes of most city council members, the mayor, the county executive, and Police Chief Carmen Best—to demonstrate for police defunding and against police violence, including the violence against protesters that helped spur the current protest movement.

Over the last few weeks, the mayor, council members, and their surrogates have suggested repeatedly that protesting outside these officials’ houses, in and of itself, is a violent act that exists beyond the bounds of “decency” and civility. They have maintained, further, that spray-painting the street in front of people’s homes—an act that has recent local precedent at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, where slogans briefly filled pavement and walls in a neighborhood where hundreds of people live—is an act of violence. (The fact that people in the CHOP area live in apartments, as opposed to the officials who own one or more houses, speaks volumes about which Seattle residents these officials believe have a right to peace and quiet in their homes.)

This weekend, the Seattle Times also condemned the protests, saying that “nighttime marches to council members” are not a legitimate form protest but a form of “bullying” and “intimidating” that is “downright Trumpian.”

To give just one example: A recent email from the Neighborhoods for Safe Streets PAC, which was originally formed in opposition to bike lanes on 35th Ave. NE, suggested that protesters who left “‘defund the police’ literature” at Juarez’s doorstep were “trespassing” and engaging in “illegal intimidation tactics.” (For the record, leaving campaign or other political literature at people’s doors is very common, especially during elections, and is not illegal.)

This weekend, the Seattle Times also condemned the protests, saying that “nighttime marches to council members” are not a legitimate form protest but a form of “bullying” and “intimidating” that is “downright Trumpian.”

And just yesterday, police Chief Carmen Best applauded residents of rural Snohomish, some of them reportedly armed, for blockading roads with pickup trucks and prohibiting protesters from walking down public streets toward “a residence” she owns in the town.

“My neighbors were concerned by such a large group, but they were successful in ensuring the crowd was not able to trespass or engage in other illegal behavior in the area, despite repeated attempts to do so,” Best wrote in a letter demanding that the city council denounce the protests. “These direct actions against elected officials, and especially civil servants like myself, are out of line with and go against every democratic principle that guides our nation.” Best’s letter concluded by accusing protesters of “engaging in violence and intimidation.”

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In fact, the practice of protesting at powerful elected and unelected officials’ homes has a very long tradition in the United States, going back at least to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The principle behind protests of this kind over the decades has been that people feel unable to access their leaders through “ordinary” means, such as requesting meetings and showing up at City Hall, so they take the protest to their houses.

In Seattle, the tradition of protesting outside leaders’ homes has recent precedent in the SHARE/WHEEL protests of 2009, when activists demanding funds for bus tickets camped overnight at city council members’ houses, in 2012 when homeless advocates showed up at then-mayor Mike McGinn’s house, and in 2016 when Black Lives Matter protesters set up shop outside former mayor Ed Murray’s house to protest his support for a new youth jail.

Then as now, some officials—including then-council member Bruce Harrell—came out to talk to the protesters and listen to their concerns, an act that defused the situation considerably, since, again, one motivation for showing up at people’s houses is frustration at not feeling heard.

Today, protests at elected leaders’ homes aren’t just normalized—they’re typical. As much as Seattle likes to see itself as unique in both our political progressiveness and our collective response to injustice, protesters are gathering outside the homes of local officials in cities across the country—from St. Petersburg, FL to New York to San Francisco. To watch these protests is to watch a norm shifting in real time: Standing outside elected officials’ houses and waving signs or painting on the street was a phenomenon that wasn’t all that common—until now, when it very much is.

Some of the things that protesters have spray painted have been misogynistic or violent, which is unacceptable. It is never okay to threaten violence against elected officials or use misogynistic or other hate speech to target people at their homes or anywhere else. Historically, this language has been used by the political right to bully women, people of color, and LGBTQ people on the left, but it’s equally unacceptable coming from the left.

Similarly, the small amount of actual vandalism on elected officials’ property, such as the messages scribbled on the glass of council member Alex Pedersen’s front door, is not okay. These actions, particularly the use of hate speech, threaten to diminish the voices of the vast majority who are exercising their right to protest on public streets.

It is unnecessarily incendiary to refer to nonviolent, disruptive protest as “intimidating” or threatening in the context of recent protests in which crowds of people, and the residents of a dense urban neighborhood, were indiscriminately tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, targeted with flash grenades, and shot with rubber bullets by Seattle police.

That said, the point of the Every Day Movement protests is to make voices of dissent heard—not in a way that’s convenient to elected officials, or within a city-designated protest area, or within a curfew that would restrict protests to daylight hours. (Although Best said the protesters showed up in Snohomish “late [at] night,” photos and video of the protest clearly show that it was still light out when the demonstrators were turned away by the truck blockade.)

Moreover, it is unnecessarily incendiary of Best, the Safe Streets PAC, and the Seattle Times to refer to nonviolent, disruptive protest as “intimidating” or threatening in the context of recent protests in which crowds of people, and the residents of a dense urban neighborhood, were indiscriminately tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, targeted with flash grenades, and shot with rubber bullets by Seattle police officers night after night.

In particular, the police chief’s characterization of a group of frequent protesters known to be nonviolent as a “violent” “mob” must be viewed in light of her reaction to last month’s protests against police violence on Capitol Hill. Then, police attacked protesters—there is no other word for it—justifying their actions on the ground that some in the crowd were throwing plastic bottles, rocks, and an “incendiary device” which turned out to be a candle. Weeks later, the police department held a press conference in which officials described sparklers and smoke toys that can be purchased in grocery stores around the Fourth of July holiday as dangerous “pyrotechnic explosives.”

These and other statements from police exaggerating the threat posed by protesters calls the credibility of other statements from the police department about the threat posed to police officers, the chief, or elected officials like Juarez and Pedersen into question. The eagerness of Best and her police department to define “violence” down to include spray paint on streets and plastic bottles tossed over barricades should alarm anyone observing the current debate over whether and how to defund the police department in Seattle and in cities across the country. 

 

13 thoughts on “Nonviolent Protests at Officials’ Houses Are Protected Speech. Political Leaders Want to Shut Them Down.”

  1. The comfortable need to take their collective heads out of the sand and pay attention to the cries for a more humane city and world.

    Not a city just for the wealthy, well to do, and powerful.

  2. The police terrorize poor and unhoused people daily when many have to live in tents because the cost of housing is incredible. The police force people out of the pathetic shelter they have and many have died in the streets.

    Best is an abusive and sociopathic cop and couldn’t care less about the suffering her police force has caused the poorest people in this city. And is ok with her lies she told about the protestors.
    Durkan and Best should be removed for the brutality they have enacted. They have violated the trust of the city’s inhabitants.

    We need humane solutions to the dire poverty and illness many are facing. The demands by the protesters should be awarded for a more decent and compassionate city now. Social workers not police and decent housing for the unhoused should be our standard.

  3. >just yesterday, police Chief Carmen Best applauded residents of rural Snohomish, some of them reportedly armed, for blockading roads with pickup trucks and prohibiting protesters from walking down public streets toward “a residence” she owns in the town.

    The Best residence in question was on a private road. This changes the interactions with the homeowners ( dismissing them as rural residents is funny) significantly and changes the premise of the actions being protected speech.

  4. “Washington’s constitution, Wash. Const. art. I, § 7, explicitly recognizes a right to individual privacy in its text.1 This law has been interpreted to protect a person from invasions of privacy into their personal affairs by the State (e.g. interference through government action), and not by other private parties. The law is mostly referenced in cases centered on alleged warrantless searches. This constitutional clause recognizes a right to privacy with “no express limitations” and “places greater emphasis on privacy than does the Fourth Amendment.” ”

    https://withoutmyconsent.org/50state/state-guides/washington/statutory-civil-law/

    1. Wow – thank you for pointing this out! My old site generated bylines automatically, but this template does not, and believe it or not, I had not noticed. (This is Erica, btw, and the post is by me.)

      1. “Washington State Constitution, ARTICLE 1, SECTION 7 INVASION OF PRIVATE AFFAIRS OR HOME PROHIBITED. No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” – Protected speech only is guaranteed in certain settings, and the State Constitution makes no room for your position. That SHARE and/or others did it doesn’t make it protected.

      2. @Bill Kirlin-Hackett:

        Your reading of article I, section 7 is wrong for two reasons.

        One, article I, section 7 only applies to the State. It does not apply to acts by private individuals at all.

        Two, standing in a public street outside a private residence is not an invasion of privacy. The constitution does not prohibit private individuals from standing on public streets and sidewalks anymore than it prohibits cops from staking out a residence from the street.

        Constitutions are designed to be broad and to leave a lot of room for interpretation in individual cases. This means that you have to know how the courts have interpreted the constitution to understand what it means practically.

    1. Could not disagree more. People are not being denied a chance to voice their opinions to City Council. This is simple mob intimidation. That it is becoming normalized does not make it the right norm. We need to all lower our voices and have a rational debate. Mob intimidation will make it more likely that poorly thought out policies will be enacted.

    2. I don’t know . . . I’m certainly not comfortable with mass visitations of private homes; but isn’t there something a little skewed about the idea of ‘comfortable’ confrontation? It’s been established for quite some time that it is not illegal for groups of people to walk on suburban streets and holler outside a house belonging to a public official. I’m sure I’d feel threatened if it were my house, I’d feel disagreeable pressured, too. But shouldn’t I ask myself why people feel the need to pressure me? Is there something about me that makes them feel threatened? Come on, Carmen. It’s so obvious you’re trying to distract the rest of us, and so, so lame to ask the council to apologize to you for the behavior of third parties.

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