A federal district court in Washington upheld a lawsuit against the city of Seattle on Friday, ruling the plaintiffs “plausibly” present a case that they were harmed during the organized protests there in June.
More than 20 businesses and individuals sued the city on June 24, alleging they suffered severe economic losses and were forced to live in fear and among filth for weeks when protesters took over several blocks not far from City Hall, and city officials effectively ceded authority and control to the protesters.
Protesters dubbed their zone the “Capitol Hill Official Protest,” or CHOP. The unrest surfaced days after George Floyd died while in Minneapolis police custody, and became one of the first and biggest of many urban protests over alleged “systemic racism” that often included arson and looting.
The city had moved to toss the lawsuit, but with the exception of an equal protection violation allegation that was dismissed without prejudice, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly upheld the suit’s other sections and declined to reject potential class action certification of it.
“Plaintiffs plausibly allege that the City’s actions — encouraging CHOP participants to wall off the area and agreeing to a “no response” zone within and near CHOP’s borders — foreseeably placed Plaintiffs in a worse position than they would have been in absent any City intervention whatsoever,” Judge Zilly wrote.
“Their allegations are also sufficient to show that the City acted with deliberate indifference to that danger,” he wrote.
While the situation in Seattle unfolded, Mayor Jenny Durkan tweeted praise and encouragement to protesters, and told national media it could signal a “summer of love.”
Almost as soon as the protest began, Seattle police abandoned their East Precinct with the zone, and authorities’ response times to the zone lengthened. Piles of garbage and feces mounted, graffiti covered the walls and protesters with bullhorns and fireworks were active virtually around the clock, the lawsuit said.
Former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best seemed to differ with Ms. Durkan at times, as Ms. Best was sharply critical of officials’ apparent unwillingness to secure public property and lives within the 7-acre zone.
Within two weeks, incidents of sporadic gunfire erupted in CHOP, leaving two people dead and several wounded.
City officials can hardly claim ignorance of the potential repercussions of their decisions and statements last June, Judge Zilly ruled.
“Rather, Plaintiffs plausibly assert that the City’s endorsement of, and the provision of material support to, CHOP set in motion a series of acts by certain CHOP participants, who the City knew or reasonably should have known would deprive Plaintiffs of protected property interests,” Judge Zilly wrote.
The Seattle City Attorney’s office did not respond to an email asking if it had any comment on Friday’s ruling.
Angelo Calfo, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he remains incredulous at the decisions City Hall made last June.
“It remains hard to believe that the city abandoned this neighborhood, left it without police or emergency services, and yielded control of it to some segments of protesters who defaced, damaged, and destroyed it,” Mr. Calfo told The Washington Times.
“This diverse and culturally and economically rich neighborhood continues to feel the effects of the city’s endorsement of the CHOP,” he said. “The Court’s thoughtful decision allows our lawsuit to proceed and we aim to require the city to make this neighborhood and its citizens whole again.”
The lawsuit offered numerous examples of the losses and hardships endured by residents and businesses as protesters, some armed, milled about the street, and a tent city bloomed at Cal Anderson Park within the area, which was also known as the “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone,” or CHAZ.
For example, a tattoo parlor’s owners allege the city’s lack of action forced it “to close its doors and prevent[ed] it from generating any revenue.”
Similarly, a labeling company said it suffered sharp declines in income from both its core business and rentals, and business declined as employees became increasingly fearful of coming to work.
A local liquor store said its revenues declined 70% during the protests, while a physical therapy outfit and a locksmith said they saw revenue drop by 60%.
As this unfolded, Ms. Durkan tweeted that CHOP, “is not a lawless wasteland of anarchist insurrection — it is a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief and their desire to build a better world,” according to the lawsuit.
While Judge Zilly did dismiss a claim of equal protection violations — noting among other things that all parties profess support for the Black Lives Matter movement — he did so without prejudice.
Judge Zilly said it would not be proper for a district judge to rule out a potential class action lawsuit, and wrote that, “plaintiffs’ evidence could plausibly show that the city adopted a policy and practice of endorsing CHOP, or that the city knew or should have known that its action would result in harm to the plaintiffs.”