By Paul Kiefer
Late at night on September 11, during the worst of the past summer’s wildfire smoke, a driver pulled over in a Bothell parking lot. Less than an hour earlier, the driver – who asked to remain anonymous because of pending felony charges – had been a part of the Car Brigade, a group of drivers who use their cars to protect Black Lives Matter protesters from attacks.
That night, the group had formed a protective perimeter around a relatively small and subdued protest march in Seattle. Driving at a walking speed, the motley crew of luxury cars, nondescript sedans and massive SUVs maneuvered to keep other drivers from entering alleyways, parking lot exits and intersections.
After months of practice, angry honking from inconvenienced drivers doesn’t phase the Car Brigade. The protest ended with no police in sight, so the drivers went their separate ways, expecting to make it home without issue. But when he reached Bothell, the driver saw police lights in his rear-view mirror. “There was never a siren,” he said. “It seemed like they had just silently followed me all the way to Bothell.”
“SPD thinks drivers are somehow involved in organizing the marches or have a hand in what marchers do,” one driver told PubliCola. “Really, when I’m driving, I don’t even know where we’re turning next.”
To his surprise, the officer who approached his window was from the Seattle Police Department. According to the driver, the officer “told me I had three seconds to open my window or he would smash it. I didn’t really have time to react or think. I was still trying to remember where the door handle was when another officer walked up and smashed the window. The funny thing was that my doors were unlocked anyway.”
That night, the driver was booked into the King County Jail for allegedly obstructing a public officer at a protest several days earlier. He was released only a few hours later, but SPD had impounded his car and was waiting for a warrant to search it. Without his cell phone—which SPD had also seized—the driver spent the early hours of Saturday morning searching for some way to make his way to his home in a suburb east of Seattle. “I’ve never been so happy to see a yellow cab,” he said.
The arrest in Bothell was not an isolated incident: between August and mid-October, arrests of Car Brigade members were an almost weekly phenomenon. In total, SPD detained drivers on more than a dozen occasions and impounded 13 drivers’ cars; some, like the driver arrested in Bothell in September, were arrested more than once.
Incident reports and search warrants obtained by PubliCola offer a glimpse at what might lay behind the arrests: A larger SPD investigation into the Car Brigade’s connections to property damage and arson at last summer’s protests, driven by the department’s belief that the volunteer drivers are not good Samaritans, but accomplices who provide cover and support for property damage, arson and other crimes.
Five Car Brigade drivers who spoke to PubliCola believe that SPD has an ulterior motive for the arrests, impoundments and investigation. They describe SPD’s treatment of the Car Brigade as a “scare tactic” intended to punish drivers for protecting marchers, undermine marchers’ safety, and finally bring an end to the nightly marches. And the tactic may be working: drivers say that a dwindling number of drivers are willing to risk losing their vehicles, and potentially face felony charges, in order to protect protesters.
SPD did not respond to questions about specific arrests or the broader investigation, so the details of arrests included in this story reflect the drivers’ own accounts, as well as SPD incident reports.
The Car Brigade formed earlier this year in the wake of the the July 4 attack on I-5 that killed Summer Taylor and injured Diaz Love. In the weeks that followed, one organizer told PubliCola, marches were flooded with volunteer drivers. “There were 40 or 50 drivers a night,” she recalled, “but it was chaos. The only coordination came from one person running from car to car to relay directions.” The playbook the Car Brigade now uses was the brainchild of a group of former marchers and new volunteers, she said. The team developed nicknames, a weekly driving schedule and an emergency fund to cover gas and window replacements; by August, the Car Brigade was a well-oiled machine.
Over those months, the Car Brigade drivers maintain, their presence at marches has served one purpose. “What we do is protect protesters – that’s the entire reason we’re there,” the driver arrested in Bothell said. Continue reading “Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters”