Tag: graffiti

Burgess Threatened US Post Office Over Graffiti; OPA Clears Officers Who Arrested Protesters for Using Sidewalk Chalk

1. Earlier this year, as part of the the city’s efforts to spiff up downtown Seattle in the runup to MLB All-Star Week, Mayor Bruce Harrell wrote the US Postal Service with an urgent request: Let the city cover the outside of your building at Third and Union with murals or wall banners to help “improve conditions on the street.” At the time, there were several large graffiti tags on the outside the building along with someunpainted plywood panels.

“The City wants to make sure our downtown looks clean and feels safe. However, the current condition of the Post Office is inconsistent with our goal,” Harrell wrote on June 2, in a letter hand-delivered to the local acting postmaster. “The City will pay all costs associated with the murals or wall banners.”

As anyone who frequents downtown Seattle knows, the city plastered the neighborhood with large paste-up portraits of players in the weeks before the All-Star Game; for a while, working in the area was a bit like living inside a promotional installation for baseball.

When the USPS declined the city’s offer to decorate their building, mayoral advisor Tim Burgess responded by threatening legal action.

“The City may be compelled to take action regarding the graffiti on the building, violating the city code,” Burgess wrote on June 20. “Your building looks terrible and contributes to blight.” In a copy of the letter PubliCola received through a records request, those two lines were highlighted for emphasis.

One week earlier, US District Judge Marsha Pechman had issued an injunction barring the city from enforcing its law against graffiti, agreeing with several protesters arrested for chalking outside SPD’s East Precinct that the law is overbroad and likely unconstitutional. However, the mayor’s office noted, Burgess’ threat referred to civil action, which is different than the criminal charges at issue in the federal case.

“I would also point out that the University District post office has a mural painting on it that the UW completed. So permission can be and has been granted in the past,” Burgess’ email continued.

The US Postal Service responded to Burgess’ threat by, in effect, rolling its bureaucratic eyes. “Considering how agitated they are about the exterior, is there a reason we cannot get a coat of paint put on the outlined areas right before the all-star game next month?” a local USPS customer relations manager wrote to USPS higher-ups. Six days later, the postal service sent its response to the city—photos of the building, its exterior wall painted flat government gray and “ready for All-Star game this week.”

The mayor’s office confirmed this sequence of events.

2. Speaking of the graffiti injunction: On August 1, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) dismissed a series of complaints against six police officers who arrested the four protesters who subsequently sued the city, concluding that the arrests did not constitute biased policing or retaliation against the protesters for chalking messages that criticized police.

In the report, OPA director Gino Betts agreed with the arresting officers that the arrests had nothing to do with the content of the chalked messages, which criticized police, but were “based on property damage—which [an officer who witnessed the arrests] described as a crime—and the cleanup efforts that would ensue rather than the community members’ positions.” At the time, Betts’ report notes, the law banning any kind of alteration to public property was in effect, so the protesters were breaking the law by chalking messages on the temporary walls surrounding the East Precinct.

Additionally, according to the report, at least one of the officers who made the arrests didn’t see the specific messages, “undermining the allegation that [one of the officers] retaliated based on the political message inscribed on the wall.”

In her preliminary injunction against the city, Judge Pechman wrote that the officers clearly retaliated against the four protesters, using the “astonishing degree of discretion” police have under the current law to “to retaliate against criticisms written by Plaintiffs, four peaceful protesters who Defendants arrested for writing political messages in ordinary charcoal and children’s sidewalk chalk in an open and traditional public forum. Defendants selectively enforced [the law] against Plaintiffs’ criticisms while tolerating politically neutral and pro-government chalking,” such as pro-SPD messages chalked on sidewalks by police supporters. “Such viewpoint discrimination,” Pechman wrote, “the Constitution does not allow.”

City Appeals Graffiti Injunction, Council Restricts Public Comment, Candidates Include Lots of Landlords

1. City Attorney Ann Davison announced Wednesday that her office will appeal an injunction that prevents Seattle police from arresting people for violations of the city’s anti-graffiti law. However, given the broad sweep of the injunction—and the judge’s rejection of an earlier motion to dismiss the case—the city’s appeal seems unlikely to succeed.

Last month, a federal judge, Marsha Pechman, issued a ruling in a a case brought by four people who were arrested in 2021 for writing messages including “peaceful protest” in sidewalk chalk on concrete barricades set up outside the Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct. In her ruling, Pechman found that that the four plaintiffs were likely to prove that the ordinance “violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being both vague and overbroad.” One week later, Pechman rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case.

In her June 23 order declining to dismiss the case, Pechman said the city failed to prove that the four protesters lack standing to file a claim under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. In addition to the reasons laid out in the original injunction, Pechman rejected the city’s claim that the police who made the arrests had qualified immunity because they believed the arrests were allowed under the ordinance’s “ban on drawing.”

“We have to have the ability to arrest people for unwanted graffiti. If we lose the lawsuit, we go back to the drawing board and figure out what the deficiencies are in the law, and we fix it or remedy it.”—Mayor Bruce Harrell

“The injunction restricts the City from appropriately addressing the growing problem of graffiti,” Davison said in a statement announcing the appeal. “The victims of graffiti—the public as a whole, business owners, property owners, and others – must have a voice. Graffiti is a crime that has an enormously negative and costly impact.”

During an event last week announcing details of his downtown revitalization plan, Mayor Bruce Harrell told PubliCola, “We have to have the ability to arrest people for unwanted graffiti. …. If we lose the lawsuit, we go back to the drawing board and figure out what the deficiencies are in the law, and we fix it or remedy it.”

2. Next week, the Seattle city council will consider new rules for council committee meetings that restrict public comment explicitly to items on a meeting’s agenda, unless the council member chairing the meeting specifies that people can comment on additional items or issues and provides “prior notice” that additional comments will be allowed as part of the meeting agenda.

Over the past several years, public comments at city council meetings have broadened in scope, as more people have shown up to committee meetings to talk about issues that fall under the committee’s purview (addressing the public safety committee about police brutality, or the sustainability committee about climate change), even when there isn’t a specific item about that topic on the agenda. Under the new rules, a committee chair or the council president will be able to cut a speaker off if they go off-topic.

Of the two dozen or so homeowners with active city council campaigns, seven are landlords.

The new rules also spell out more clearly what kind of conduct will get someone kicked out of a meeting, including “threats, personal attacks, or the use of racial, misogynistic, or gender-related slurs, or abusive language or other disorderly conduct,” and give the committee chair sole discretion to decide whether a person is violating the rules.

3. Although the majority of Seattle residents are now renters, the City Council has long been the purview of the property-owning class—people who either come onto the council with property and wealth, or are able to buy property once they start making a council salary.

This year’s council candidates reflect that trend—a large majority of the 30 candidates with active campaigns are homeowners, and only about eight are renters who do not own any property, such as a house that they don’t live in. (These numbers are approximate because state election disclosure records do not require reporting of property owned out of state.)

Of the two dozen or so homeowners with active campaigns, seven are landlords who earn a portion of their income renting residential property. This group includes District 4 candidate Kenneth Wilson, who owns a large coastal property in Florida; District 4 candidate Maritza Rivera, who rents out a Seattle townhouse; and District 5 candidate Cathy Moore, who owns a house in Burien. Most of the landlord candidates make less than $30,000 a year from their rental properties.

The one exception: District 7 candidate (and Piroshky Piroshky owner) Olga Sagan, who reported making between $90,000 and $159,998 last year from her two rental properties in Seattle.

Candidates’ financial disclosure forms and campaign finance data are available at the Public Disclosure Commission.

“Downtown Is You”: Harrell Unveils New Downtown Plan Against Backdrop of Anti-Sweeps Protest

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks to a crowd of supporters and press at Westlake Park

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell gathered supporters in Westlake Plaza Wednesday morning to announce his latest downtown activation plan, officially titled “Downtown Is You.” But the press event was initially sidelined by a group of anti-sweeps protesters holding signs and chanting, “stop the sweeps” and other slogans from a few feet away. After halting his prepared remarks, Harrell hopped down from the stage and attempted to get the protesters to be quiet, but gave up and returned to the stage after several responded that they didn’t trust his offer to talk to them in a different venue.

“Westlake Center is a center for civic engagement,” he told the audience. “Unfortunately, that’s not civic engagement—that’s just yelling.”

“These [unsheltered] folks you see down here, they’re not strangers to me. I grew up on these streets,” Harrell continued. Gesturing toward the group of young activists, he added: “How dare anyone say I’m going to sweep anybody. I don’t see anyone over there I grew up with.”

Under Harrell, the city has dramatically increased the speed and frequency of encampment removals.

The seven-point downtown plan Harrell announced Wednesday does not directly address encampments. However, it does envision a downtown occupied by shoppers, sports fans, and residents of new high-rise apartment towers along a section of Third Avenue between Stewart and Union Streets, where drug users and unsheltered people frequently congregate. The proposed upzone includes the block that includes a McDonald’s and a check cashing outlet as well as the block anchored by Ross Dress for Less.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, mayoral advisor (and soon-to-be deputy mayor) Tim Burgess said “several” developments in the area were “ready to go” once a proposed upzone goes through. The proposal would increase the maximum height for new buildings from 170 feet to 440 (460 if new developments include child care or education facilities) on about five blocks that are adjacent to a area where 450-foot-high buildings are already allowed. The city’s land use database does not include any active permits for these blocks.

On Tuesday, Burgess said the proposed rezone reflects “a recognition that we need to make some dramatic changes in order to shift what’s been several decades now of problematic street uses and disorder.”

Police almost outnumbered protesters during a demonstration at Mayor Bruce Harrell’s announcement of his downtown activation strategy.

Harrell’s plan also includes legislation to allow a broader mix of uses on the ground floor of buildings (apartments or conference spaces instead of retail, for example) and throughout buildings themselves, in the form of “vertical residential neighborhoods within buildings” that allow residents to access everything they need, from child care to retail stores to pickleball courts, inside their buildings.

The idea is a nod to the fact that—Harrell’s back-to-work order and admonishments notwithstanding—many people have continued to work at least partly from home, leaving significant vacancies in downtown office buildings. “I don’t think this is a philosophical shift away from retail” serving downtown office workers, McIntyre said Tuesday. “It’s embracing some flexibility and some new ideas and wanting to encourage a different mix on the ground floor area as the as the city continues to change.”

Another piece of legislation would make a half-block of Pike Street between First and Second Avenues pedestrian-only, connecting Pike Place Market Market to—well, one half-block of downtown directly adjacent to, but not part of, the market. (Asked whether the mayor would consider prohibiting car traffic in Pike Place Market—where pedestrians compete for space on the historic brick streets with exhaust-spewing cars—Office of Economic Development director Markham McIntyre said the city was still “talking to Pike Place Market … to figure out what what that might look like,” but had no immediate plans to get rid of cars in the Market, a change pedestrian advocates have been demanding for decades.


Beyond those concrete legislative proposals, the plan consists mostly of expanded pilot projects (doubling the number of businesses participating in Seattle Restored, a pop-up project that fills empty storefronts), initiatives that are already underway (reopening City Hall Park, “more murals” downtown), and ideas that are still very much in the whiteboard stages. It also incorporates many aspirational ideas that would require significant additional funding, such as completing the downtown streetcar, putting a lid over I-5, and creating a new “arts district” from South Lake Union to Pioneer Square.

Mayor Bruce Harrell speaks to a group of Stop the Sweeps protesters at Westlake Park.
Mayor Bruce Harrell briefly spoke to protesters before returning to his press event.

And, of course, it assumes a heavier police presence downtown—a mostly unspoken, but bedrock, element of the proposal. “Make Downtown Safe and Welcoming” is actually number one on the plan’s list of seven priorities, starting with arrests of people “distributing and selling illegal drugs” (and, presumably, using them—Harrell mentioned that a bill criminalizing drug possession and public use will likely pass in July). The safety plan also includes a number of initiatives to address addiction that Harrell announced in April, along with a plan to help private property owners remove graffiti—a particular burr under Harrell’s saddle.

Earlier this month, a federal judge issued an injunction barring the police from arresting people for tagging or graffiti, finding that Seattle’s broadly worded law “likely…violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being both vague and overbroad.” On Wednesday, I asked Harrell—who had just expounded on the difference, as he sees it, between “art” and “graffiti” (“One word: It’s unwanted”)—what he would do if the judge overturned the law.

“We have to have the ability to arrest people for unwanted graffiti, so if there’s precise language in the law that is unconstitutional, that is vague, that’s ambiguous, we have to fix it,” Harrell said. “If we lose the lawsuit, we go back to the drawing board and figure out what the deficiencies are in the law, and we fix it or remedy it.”

“This graffiti stuff just drives me nuts,” Harrell added.

Federal Judge Issues Injunction Barring Seattle from Enforcing Its Anti-Graffiti Law

By Erica C. Barnett

US District Court Judge Marsha Pechman issued an injunction yesterday barring the city of Seattle from enforcing its ban on graffiti in a case stemming from protests against police violence in early 2021. In the order, Pechman writes that the four plaintiffs—who wrote in “ordinary charcoal and children’s sidewalk chalk: on a temporary concrete wall outside SPD’s East Precinct—were “likely to prove that the Ordinance… violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being both vague and overbroad.”

The chalked messages included, among other slogans critical of police, “peaceful protest,” “Fuck SPD,” and “BLM.”

Seattle’s municipal code says a person is guilty of “property destruction,” a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to 364 days in jail, if “he or she… [w]rites, paints, or draws any inscription, figure, or mark of any type on any public or private building or other structure or any real or personal property owned by any other person.”

On Wednesday evening, the city and plaintiffs agreed that the injunction only applies to the part of the property destruction law that pertains to graffiti.

In her injunction, Pechman wrote that the current law threatens people with arrest for exercising their right to free speech under the guise of “preventing even temporary visual blight,” as the city attorney’s office wrote in its defense of the law.

“While there is allegedly a policy not to arrest children drawing rainbows on the sidewalk, the Ordinance itself allows the police to do just that and to arrest those who might scribe something that irks an individual officer.”

“On its face, the Ordinance sweeps so broadly that it criminalizes innocuous drawings (from a child’s drawing of a mermaid to pro-police messages written by the Seattle Police Foundation that can hardly be said to constitute ‘visual blight’ and which would naturally wash away in the next rain storm,” Pechman wrote. As written, Pechman continued, the law could allow police to arrest people for “attaching a streamer to someone else’s bicycle or writing a note of ‘hello’ on a classmate’s notebook without express permission.”

“While there is allegedly a policy not to arrest children drawing rainbows on the sidewalk, the Ordinance itself allows the police to do just that and to arrest those who might scribe something that irks an individual officer,” Pechman wrote. In other words, the law as written allows officers to arbitrarily decide what speech is illegal based on their own personal views.

“Although the Ordinance also criminalizes ‘property destruction,’ it equally targets speech. As such, it has a close enough nexus to expression that it poses a real and substantial threat of censorship.”

The lawsuit was filed by four people who were arrested outside the East Precinct in Capitol Hill on January 1, 2021, a time when the precinct was surrounded by large temporary walls made of concrete “eco-blocks.” According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs—Derek Tucson, Robin Snyder, Monsieree de Castro, and Erik Moya-Delgado—were arrested in retaliation for criticizing SPD, in violation of their First and Fourteenth amendment rights protecting free speech and due process.

The lawsuit gives several examples in which the police department has encouraged and even participated in sidewalk-chalk events when they approved of the message.

For example, police participated in a Seattle Police Foundation event in 2017 where supporters chalked “WE ♥ SPD” in huge letters on public sidewalks, and chalked pro-police messages such as “LIBERTY IS ESSENTIAL” and “DEFEND SPD” on the ground outside City Hall during a “Back the Blue” rally in July 2020. 

Additionally, in 2015, SPD’s official Twitter advised a comedy festival organizer that “the use of sidewalk chalk doesn’t constitute graffiti.”

Mayor Bruce Harrell has focused heavily on graffiti as part of his plan to “beautify Seattle,” promising in 2022 to “increase enforcement of graffiti offenses, striking a balance with larger penalties for the most prolific taggers and expanded diversion options for low-level offenders.” That year, the city arrested two “prolific” taggers who they accused of causing more than $300,000 in property damage under a separate “malicious mischief” law that remains in effect.

Harrell also attempted, unsuccessfully, to add more than $1 million last year’s budget to set up new teams of city employees to respond to graffiti.

In a statement, Harrell’s office said he “remains committed to swift and sustainable action to prevent and remove graffiti and property damage through a comprehensive One Seattle Graffiti Plan—focused on a holistic strategy to break the cycle of tagging and abatement through law enforcement, community engagement, artistic expression, and collaboration. We will continue to activate our neighborhoods with positive, community-led art and abate actively harmful and malicious tagging including hate speech.”

City Attorney Ann Davison’s office said they would file a motion asking Pechman for an expedited reconsideration of her order, and that the office “will not be filing property destruction charges under this law for the time being.”

SPD issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying they have no choice but to abide by the injunction. “We know, as evidenced by the thousands of calls for service we receive each year reporting acts of vandalism and other forms of property damage that property damage is, in fact, a crime that is of significance to community members,” the statement said.