Every time a conservative or alt-right group plans a so-called freedom rally in Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray receives a considerable number of requests to keep them out.
Those calls for action, however, will never be heeded, as the city of Seattle remains firmly committed to protecting the First Amendment for all groups that want to rally here, even when the messages coming from those events do not reflect those positions taken by local government officials.
“The courts have been very clear about this over the years,” said Joe Mirabella with Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, out of which the Special Events Office operates. “In fact, the ACLU sued on behalf of the protesters in Charlottesville and won.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has been taking sharp criticism for representing Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler in a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville that led to the white nationalist group being allowed to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the downtown area.
Immediately after the events in Charlottesville, which resulted in one woman being killed by an alleged white supremacist who drove a car into a group of Unite the Right counter protesters, the “Patriot Prayer” group held a “Freedom Rally” in Westlake Park.
“The city of Seattle is pretty clear that the First Amendment is what it is,” Mirabella said. “We’re not endorsing it. We all can find Nazism reprehensible.”
Around 50 people showed up for the freedom rally, while more than 1,000 showed up to Denny Park for a counter protest that aimed to march to Westlake to oppose the alt-right messages being espoused by the Patriot Prayer people.
Seattle Police Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said individuals were able to go to Westlake Park to object to the rally, however, officers did prevent the counter protest march from entering due to concerns it would lead to a violent clash.
“We just weren’t going to let 1,000 people march into Westlake against a crowd of 50,” he said.
That same tactic was taken by SPD during a “March Against Sharia” that took place in June at City Hall Park, after organizers were discouraged from holding it in Portland by Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Mirabella said there is no law in Seattle city code that explicitly requires people requesting event permits to provide their own security, however, organizers for large events like SeaFair and Bumbershoot are asked to have a security plan as part of their permit application. That covers issues, such as exits and adequate management of space for crowd sizes.
“Most of the time, for small free speech events, it’s Seattle PD that’s there to make sure people have a safe, fun experience,” Mirabella said.
One concern often expressed regarding alt-right protests is that they provide their own security, which often consists of supporters wearing their own versions of riot gear, some carrying firearms or keeping them at the ready in holsters.
“When it comes to open carry, that is something that is outside of our purview,” Whitcomb said, “and Washington state open carry is completely permissible, and even in our city we’ve seen a number of people attend demonstrations with weapons.”
As long as demonstrators are not behaving in a threatening manner, such as pointing their firearms at others, SPD will not take action, Whitcomb said.
Whenever there is a large gathering, he said, SPD will provide security to ensure the public’s safety.
“We provide a much higher level of public safety than any security person could,” Whitcomb said, “because we’re operating within the authority of the state of Washington and the city of Seattle.”
Makeshift weapons more often associated with the anti-fascist (Antifa) demonstrators that respond more aggressively at alt-right demonstrations than some other counter protesters are confiscated by police, and that often results in rallies being dispersed.
Each year after the peaceful workers and immigrant-rights march, anti-fascists and anarchists meet up in Westlake Park for a May Day march that always results in property damage.
Last year SPD acted more quickly than in May Days past, pushing protesters away from Downtown and into Seattle’s industrial district.
“We knew before that march even started there was going to be trouble,” Whitcomb said. “That’s why in 2016 we dispensed with formalities.”
While the Seattle Police Department has been working during recent alt-right rallies to keep counter protesters from descending on demonstrators, the department did not interfere with plans for a pro-Trump rally to coincide with this year’s May Day.
Opposing sides in Westlake Park mostly attacked each other’s political positions, however, there were still several arrests, and SPD did end up ordering all people in the park to disperse around 7:40 p.m. after fighting broke out.
Whether it’s a left- or right-leaning rally or march, Whitcomb said, there are other players that enter the equation, especially if the event is loosely organized or decentralized.
“One person might be willing to work with us, but some might not be,” he said. “We’re willing to work with anyone and everyone.”
Whitcomb said people can expect to continue seeing this blend of protests and counter protests in the future.