Try this new narrative on for size: Not only are the violent riots in cities like Seattle really just “peaceful protests,” but the “excessive” police response is also a form of invidious class discrimination, aimed at preventing the poor from protesting. A new lawsuit claims that Seattle effectively levied a “protest tax” by allowing police to use “military-grade munitions” to break up unruly crowds. Only people who are rich enough to buy armor have a First Amendment right to protest, or so the argument goes.
This argument is absurd from top to bottom. In fact, the lawsuit focuses on alleged incidents of police violence that came on July 25 — amid a violent riot that injured 59 police officers and landed one of them in the hospital. Rioters had fired mortar fireworks at the cops. Yet the lawsuit twice claims that police acted “in the absence of an immediate safety threat.”
The “protest tax” lawsuit
Five protesters — Jessica Benton, Shelby Bryant, Anne Marie Cavanaugh, Alyssa Garrison, and Clare Thomas — had the gall to make the outrageous “protest tax” allegation in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Monday. They claim that Seattle violated their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights by allowing the police to use “excessive” force. Yet the most eye-catching claim involves discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.
“Only those who have the means to purchase extensive protective gear can engage in 1st Amendment speech in the streets of Seattle, where its police force is not a source of protection but of antagonism for protesters,” the plaintiffs allege.
The police’s “noxious gases, ‘blast balls,’ chemical sprays, and projectile weapons rendered a public street wielded by the community as a protest path into a war zone. Because protestors now must purchase expensive equipment to be assured that they will be able to protest safely, the indiscriminate use of weapons by SPD implicates equal protection.”
“Because the Seattle Police Department has acted above and outside the law in dispensing its unbridled force, and the City has failed to prevent same, the government effect is to establish a de facto protest tax: individual protesters subjected to SPD’s unabated and indiscriminate violence now must purchase cost-prohibitive gear to withstand munitions – even when peacefully protesting – as a condition to exercising their right to free speech and peaceable assembly,” the plaintiffs allege.
The lawsuit claims that “the continued misuse of war munitions by SPD against civilians turns the streets – a public forum and site of protest – into a pay-to-protest racket where only a privileged few who are wealthy enough or popular enough to crowdsource funds to purchase gear akin to that used by the police department they fund can truly be in the streets.”
The plaintiffs also echo antifa agitators, claiming that police use of force “converts those protests into a police playpen where dangerous toys are wielded at will against a population questioning the necessity of this force. It is not hyperbole to note this is the soil in which fascism is tilled: police met out violence and chill speech such that civilians feel they must be outfitted as soldiers before they can exercise speech.”
Violent riots on July 25
Yes, the specter of fascism is looming and the government is slapping a “de facto protest tax” on citizens … by protecting themselves and others amid violent riots. On July 25, a mob terrorized the streets of Seattle, setting a Starbucks on fire, smashing windows, and using a van filled with explosives to supply rioters who blew an 8-inch hole through a wall of the Police Department’s East Precinct. Rioters also attacked police with bear spray.
“In all 59 officers were injured throughout the day with one of those being hospitalized. Injuries ranged from abrasions and bruising to burns and a torn meniscus,” the police reported. The department released a short video compilation of rioters’ attacks on police officers. The video shows mortar fireworks exploding in close proximity to officers, who get struck and wounded by the mob’s munitions.
The riots on July 25 were so destructive that Mayor Jenny Durkan (D-Seattle) and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best addressed the aftermath at a press conference the following Wednesday. They said police investigated a van that followed a group of rioters and reportedly stocked them with explosives.
Police impounded the van. After obtaining a search warrant, they discovered “firework pyrotechnics, smoke bombs, stun guns, bear and pepper spray, makeshift spike strips and gas masks.”
Best expressed the obvious, saying the van provided “evidence that not everyone who comes to these protests [is] peaceful. Peaceful protesters do not show up in a van full of … explosives.”
Durkan later insisted that most of the crowd protested peacefully, but even she admitted that the antifa rioters seemed “well-organized with this kind of destructive power.”
The bear spray “is causing burns and itching and stinging to (officers’) face and exposed skin,” Sgt. James Lee, who works with the city’s arson/bomb squad, said at the press conference. “This lasts much longer than the … type of pepper spray that police use and is much stronger. It is not safe for use on humans.”
During the previous weekend, antifa rioters tore a devastating path through Seattle, smashing windows at the municipal courthouse and at various businesses — including storefronts for Amazon Go, Starbucks, and Walgreens — they targeted both the West Precinct Police Station and the East Precinct Police Station (the site of the Capitol Hill
Autonomous Zone Occupied Protest last month). They fired mortar-style fireworks at both stations, causing a fire in the East Precinct station.
Seattle Mayor Again Blames Trump After Rioters Blew Open a Police Station Using a Van Full of Explosives
Crafting a narrative
While Durkan did condemn the “arson, destruction and violence,” claiming that they “undermine the push and need and voice for systemic change,” she also blamed President Donald Trump. She said the violence is “sowing those divisions that the president wants” and “playing right into his hands.” Later, she insisted that Trump’s initiative to send federal officers to help cities facing a terrifying crime wave is a “dress rehearsal for martial law.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan: "I hate to say it, but it looks like this president is doing a dress rehearsal for martial law." pic.twitter.com/AUHkb82wPC
— Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) July 28, 2020
This Orwellian narrative covers for the protesters in their ridiculous lawsuit.
The plaintiffs claim that Seattle is violating their Fourth Amendment right by allowing police to use “less-lethal weapons to control and suppress demonstrations in the absence of an immediate safety threat constitutes excessive force.”
“The City’s policy, practice, and custom of allowing the SPD to deploy less-lethal weapons to control and suppress demonstrations in the absence of an immediate safety threat reflects deliberate indifference to protesters’ rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free from excessive force,” the lawsuit claims.
It is patently absurd to claim that police officers who are facing bear spray and mortars exploding next to their bodies are somehow acting “in the absence of an immediate safety threat.” Yet Durkan and other Democrats have insisted that the riots are really “peaceful,” instead demonizing Trump and federal officers as if law enforcement were responsible for the violence.
The plaintiffs claim that “the purpose and effect of this excessive force … has been to restrict, frustrate, and deter protesters from exercising their rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to peacefully assemble, petition for redress of grievances, exercise freedom of speech, and exercise freedom of the press—and the Fourth Amendment to be free from unwarranted seizures by the government.”
The lawsuit argues that police have targeted civilians, medics, journalists, and peaceful protesters in efforts to disperse the mob. While police should not have used any force against innocent bystanders, some use of force against the violent mob was certainly justified, and the convoluted logic of this lawsuit relies on the absurd claim that no force was justified at all.
This lawsuit should get laughed out of court, but Democrats, activists, and news outlets that routinely brand destructive riots “peaceful protests” have given it a veneer of respectability.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.