Complaint to City Council From Journalist: May Day Crowd Control

Concerns about some of the crowd control measures used by police:

  • Protecting Members of the Media and Ensuring Freedom of the Press

  • Avoiding Crowd Control Methods Which Could Potentially Endanger Bystanders

  • Protection of Freedom of Speech and Assembly

  • Protecting Members of the Media and Ensuring Freedom of the Press

The editors at Democracy Watch News (I am a contributing editor) are very concerned about the treatment of members of the press by police during the May Day protests on Capitol Hill. Even reporters with clearly visible press credentials were blocked, herded and subjected to crowd control devices.

I was subjected to flash bang grenades while reporting on the protest march.

Question #1: Is the protection of journalists even considered when city and police officials decide to deploy crowd control devices including flash bang grenades, pepper bombs or other so-called “less lethal” weapons?

Question #2: Is it acceptable or legal for police to block members of the press and local residents from entering areas where a demonstration is happening and news is breaking? (I ask this because apparently, no official “state of emergency” was ever declared by either Mayor Ed Murray or Governor Jay Inslee.)

Freedom of the Press

When reporters are arrested, blocked from reporting on events, or are subjected to the indiscriminate use of crowd control devices, these actions challenge our reputation as a nation which traditionally supports freedom of the press. The incidents are duly noted by international press freedom organizations including:

Reporters Without Borders

The Committee To Protect Journalists

Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press

Free Press

Much of my own journalism has focused on reporting news stories about restrictions on freedom of the press in the US and all around the globe. I can only speculate as to why most news agencies fail to file lawsuits over the mistreatment of their reporters, photographers and camera crews. In many cases, I suspect that management considers obstruction by police, and these physical risks to their employees as merely a part of the “cost of doing business”.

Here’s A Startling Fact: Reporters Without Borders ranks the US as 49th in the world in terms of press freedom. According to RWB there are currently 48 other nations in the world where you will find more freedom of the press. As a US journalist, I am not proud of this steady decline in our ranking on their World Press Freedom Index.

In 2011 I was lead plaintiff in a successful federal class action lawsuit regarding issues of freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.

My Eyewitness Report: Seattle May Day 2015

I suffered from the effects of the crowd control devices while conducting my duties as a journalist. My job was to document and report on what was happening that night on Capitol Hill. I tried to stay on the sidewalk and away from the police line while still attempting to film the events.

My live video report posted on Youtube shows Seattle police officers throwing a large number of concussion/flash bang grenades in front of the police line. At the beginning of my footage, there were only a half dozen or so people in the street at that location, including camera operators, independent citizen journalists and press reporters.

Most of the few protesters still located in that area seemed to be on or near the sidewalks. The rest of the marchers had already dispersed or were moving eastward up the hill towards Broadway and the Seattle Central College campus.

At the time I filmed multiple grenades going off, most of the marchers had already moved up the street and away from the police line.

I was subjected to the effects of the grenades while trying to report from the sidewalk as police pushed the marchers back up to Broadway on Capitol Hill. These incidents began around East Olive near Melrose and Bellevue Avenues.

At least one grenade landed very close to me and I suffered pain from the pressure wave and from the loud volume of the sound of the explosion. It was a very frightening experience. Sparks flew from the grenade, and a gas cloud was released.

I witnessed many of these explosions during my coverage of that push up the hill by police. I was surprised at how many grenades were launched. I counted at least six grenades going off nearby, and I heard several more later.

I had arrived at that location just before the grenades were thrown into the street, so I don’t know what was happening earlier or what might have precipitated the use of these devices.

My ears rang for a long time and I lost some of my ability to hear clearly. While this was going on, people were moving up the street, some running to avoid the effects of the grenades.

I also suffered from some kind of irritant in the gas clouds that were drifting across the street. My eyes burned and teared up, I couldn’t see for a while and my nose and throat burned.

Avoiding Crowd Control Methods Which Could Potentially Endanger Bystanders

In addition to my worries about the safety of reporters, I have always been concerned about the potential danger that these “less lethal” weapons pose to elderly residents, disabled folks, bystanders and children, etc.

It’s clear that police officers want to protect themselves from an angry mob, but I’m thinking that there must also be a way to protect press observers and bystanders from the effects of the crowd control devices.

Sometimes the use of these crowd control devices seems indiscriminate. It’s pretty clear that once law enforcement agencies decide to “clear the streets” or force demonstrators away from an area, anyone on the streets or nearby at that time is subjected to “less lethal” weaponry, regardless of whether or not they are violating any law, and even if they are reporters, photographers, or just residents of the neighborhood going about their daily business.

Protection of Freedom of Speech and Assembly

I also wonder about the use of riot police and bicycle officers to block off Seattle Central College after the use of these grenades. As a reporter, I was unable to get onto the campus due to the police lines which blocked both vehicles and pedestrian traffic. By the time the local TV stations did their “live” reports, the demonstrators had dispersed and mostly what one saw were streets lined with police officers.

Before that, it was impossible to observe or report on what was happening on the campus. What about the right of the press to report the news while it’s breaking? I saw no police officers checking press credentials or allowing reporters into the site while I was filming the scene around the college. In my report, all I can say is that I can’t see what’s happening there.

The protest at SCC was effectively shut down by the Seattle Police Department, so it could also be argued that people’s right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech was violated at that time. What if protesters from the neighborhood wanted to gather together there peacefully?

As far as I could see, people in the area were not given the option of gathering back at that location again because it was blocked off by police. So, I assume that law enforcement officials justified stopping the protest because of the unruly behavior of folks who had acted out earlier in the evening.

The Youtube video of my May Day report is obviously now a public record.