Jan 19, 2024 - News

Why WSP took so long to shut down freeway-blocking protest

Photo illustration of a Washington State Patrol cruiser with lines radiating from it.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Washington State Patrol

The response by the Washington State Patrol (WSP) to the protest that blocked Interstate 5 on Jan. 6 was slowed by weather, a lack of advance intelligence and a commitment to de-escalating tensions, according to state police.

Why it matters: The highly coordinated protest shut down the freeway in Seattle for five hours, causing a 6-mile backup that frustrated drivers and angered many who saw the police response to the protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza as lenient and lethargic.

  • The level of fury was such that WSP spokesperson Chris Loftis said people asked police to use water cannons, sticks, hoses and dogs to clear the road.
  • "I said, 'No, we are not going to revert to tactics that scarred America in the '50s and '60s,'" Loftis told Axios.

Driving the news: State Rep. Andrew Barkis (R-Olympia) introduced a bill last week to toughen penalties against people who intentionally block highways.

  • If passed, people who block traffic on state highways could be charged with a gross misdemeanor, an increase over the misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges protesters would face now.
  • If the freeway obstruction creates a risk of injury or impedes an ambulance, or if people refuse to disperse after police give a lawful order, they could be charged with a Class C felony and face more significant fines, per the proposal.
  • People with prior convictions for similar offenses could face a mandatory minimum fine of $6,125 and a 60-day jail sentence.

What they're saying: "It is time to reclaim our roads and send a clear message to those who wantonly break the law and endanger others: Washington will not tolerate anarchy," Barkis said.

  • He told Axios he's heard from hundreds of people who want those involved held accountable.
  • No arrests concerning the protest have been made so far, though WSP says that is still a possibility.

What happened: WSP, which is responsible for policing state highways, received one tip the day before the event that there would be a road-blocking protest that weekend. But, according to an after-action report, there was no location, date or time given.

  • At the same time, a storm dumped snow in the mountains and freezing rain in the lowlands, which required troopers to be on other roads, Loftis said.

Details: Around 1pm, a group of protesters drove cars onto the freeway, stopping in coordination on northbound I-5 near Pine Street and blocking all lanes of traffic, per WSP.

  • Hundreds of protesters on foot then entered the road through a hole in a fence.
  • Eight protesters encased themselves in a "sleeping dragon," in which participants form a human chain with arms linked inside a piece of PVC tubing.
  • Some confusion arose when Seattle police and WSP incorrectly said on social media that a dispersal order had been issued, per WSP.

WSP called in their "CUT team," which is trained to safely extract people from sleeping dragons, and called the King County Jail to see if it could accept mass arrests, per WSP, but by the time police had clearance to issue a dispersal order and make arrests around 4:30pm, hail and heavy rain had started falling.

  • Protesters left the road then, but left behind 12 cars that had to be towed before the freeway reopened around 6pm, per WSP.

Of note: Loftis would not answer whether the protesters in the sleeping dragon could have been carried off the road on stretchers and placed gently on a sidewalk.

Plus: The Police Executive Research Forum's document on best practices says it's critical that law enforcement's response to mass protests is measured and proportionate and that officers take steps to avoid even inadvertently making things worse.

The bottom line: Loftis said it was "not an overly satisfying chain of events for anyone" and that WSP could have perhaps moved faster, but not while ensuring the safety of all protesters, drivers and troopers.

  • "Safety takes time and we are not going to apologize for that," Loftis said.
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