Anti-war Rallies: Seattle Needs Sensible Policies for Handling Demonstrations

News Release: 
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Honorable Greg Nickels
City of Seattle
1200 Municipal Building
600 – 4th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

The Honorable Peter Steinbrueck President, Seattle City Council
1100 Municipal Building
600 – 4th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

Re: Policies for Handling Demonstrations

Dear Mayor Nickels and Council President Steinbrueck:

The response of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to anti-war demonstrations on March 22, 2003, provides one more reminder of the City's need to have in place sensible crowd control policies for major events.

Ever since the WTO Conference in 1999, the ACLU has called upon the City to put into effect policies that properly accommodate political speech and dissent, but the City has not done so. The approach used on March 22 was harmful to both safety and freedom. As a result, the crowd management tactics on March 22 relied primarily on police lines at intersections that blocked peaceful and lawful sidewalk use. This did not contribute to public safety, interfered with constitutional rights, and, as a practical matter, raised the level of tension in ways that generated needless arrests.

We urge you, our elected, civilian officials, to take an active role in developing policies on crowd management at political demonstrations. Because both public safety and individual freedom are implicated, their development should not be left to the police alone. The policies should protect both public safety and the ability of ordinary people to exercise their constitutional rights. This means that while police should ticket or arrest those who endanger public safety, they should leave alone those who do not. Peaceful demonstrations should be accommodated, even when events don’t go according to plan. Police must be flexible enough to put up with crowds that don’t fit on the sidewalk, and they must be forbearing of demonstrators who noisily express views that are contrary to those of the officers.

Saturday's events involved two very typical and foreseeable scenarios -- crowds that became too large for their originally intended locations and crowds that wished to march to a different location on short notice. The City needs a policing philosophy that deals sensibly with these predictable events. When thousands of baseball fans overflow Safeco Field and move through the streets at the end of a Mariners game, the SPD handles the traffic concerns with professionalism and respect. The same should occur when crowds gather to express their opinions about political matters of public importance.

Overflow Crowds

Despite best efforts to predict the size of the crowds, it is impossible for organizers or police to know in advance how many people will arrive. It is quite common for a crowd to be too big for the small plazas that are available in downtown Seattle, so large crowds will inevitably overflow into the surrounding street.

In these situations, police will best serve public safety by accommodating the larger crowds, temporarily re-routing traffic, and allowing demonstrators to spill into portions of the street. Hemming the crowd into a "pen" creates more tension and potential for physical confrontation between officers and demonstrators. It sends a chilling message that free speech is a public nuisance that needs to be contained. The best course of action is that which police use at Mariners games: recognizing that vehicle traffic will need to change its usual course for a while in order to accommodate the larger-than-usual volume of pedestrians.

Over several days in the past week, the ACLU has heard reliable reports that police formed lines in order to prevent people from reaching the area of the federal building plaza. While this approach will reduce the number of people at the plaza, it needlessly infringes on the rights of citizens to assemble and speak in groups. Rather than place obstacles in people's paths, which make the demonstration smaller than it otherwise would be, police need to plan methods in advance to accommodate sizeable crowds.

Impromptu Marches

It is preferable for event organizers to arrange a parade route in advance, but impromptu marches will occur, and police should be prepared to respond in a way that doesn’t escalate tensions. Impromptu street marches should be accommodated whenever possible, perhaps by escorting the march onto the street to prevent traffic hazards. If the group is too large to fit on the sidewalk, letting them use the street will be safer and will also allow non-participants to stay on the sidewalk rather than being swept into protest groups against their will (which unfortunately occurred recently as a result of police containment practices).

Allowing an impromptu street march may be the best approach regardless of whether the group has (or wants) a permit. If the group is determined to move, both public safety and free expression benefit from not placing arbitrary lines in the path of the marchers.

On March 22, hundreds of marchers walked down the sidewalk, for which no one needs a permit. Nonetheless, police staked out arbitrary lines that they ordered people not to cross. Unless there is a genuine safety issue (as happens, for example, during a fire, earthquake, gas leak, or hostage situation), police should not declare the traditional public forum of the sidewalk off limits to anyone. The creation of the arbitrary police lines was the main source of arrests on March 22, when citizens got into confrontations with police after being told -- for no discernible public safety reason -- that they must give up their right to walk on city sidewalks or cross intersections with the light. The SPD should develop sensible and clear policies regarding when and why police lines will be established.


Earlier this month, the City Council affirmed by resolution “the City of Seattle’s commitment to protecting the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of all Seattle Residents.” We ask the City to make good on its commitment by ensuring that our police department has appropriate policies, and is properly trained, to accommodate political demonstrations with respect. Such policies must reserve arrest and dispersal powers for situations with a genuine impact on public safety.

The longer we go without such policies, the harder it will be for police to do their jobs, and the more difficult it will become for people to engage in peaceful demonstrations -- which are the type the City should encourage.


Kathleen Taylor
Executive Director

cc: Chief Gil Kerlikowske
City Council

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