The authors of this editorial were arrested, prosecuted, and tried for blocking a Seattle freeway on Martin Luther King Day. A jury recently acquitted them, with on juror saying their actions were protected free speech. Seattle has a history of protesters blocking freeways, including this 1970 protest against the Vietnam War.
The authors of this editorial were arrested, prosecuted, and tried for blocking a Seattle freeway on Martin Luther King Jr. Day as part of a Black Lives Matter demonstration. A jury recently acquitted them, with one juror saying their actions were protected free speech. Seattle has a history of protesters blocking freeways, including this 1970 protest against the Vietnam War. Courtesy of MOHAI, Seattle P-I Collection

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Not guilty. That was the verdict a jury delivered to us in response to the City of Seattle’s charge against us. We are four white Jews and queers who protested on Highway 99 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 19. This action was part of a response to calls from national and local black leaders to stop “business as usual.” We joined Black Lives Matter protesters across the country to bring attention to state violence and demand local government accountability for policy brutality.

The City of Seattle brands itself as a progressive city emblematized by Chief Sealth on the city’s official corporate seal. Yet, like other American cities, Seattle’s police department and our local criminal justice system disproportionately target people of color. According to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) arrest figures, the total black drug arrest rate was over 13 times the white drug arrest rate in 2006. As of 2014, the King County Juvenile Detention Center was locking up more black youth than white youth, although there are six times as many white children in Seattle as black ones. The City of Seattle has neglected to listen to persistent demands from community members and local youth-of-color-led organizations to work with King County to halt the $210 million construction of a new juvenile jail in Seattle. In our action on MLK Day, we protested to uplift the demands coming out of Ferguson as well as local demands to take action against white supremacy and white complacency.

The city charged us with pedestrian interference, which came with a potential punishment of 90 days in jail and $1,000 in fines. The day of our acquittal, City Attorney Pete Holmes said: “I respect the judgment of the jury, but respectfully disagree with its decision." Holmes intends to prosecute the remaining seven protesters, who have identical cases to the four of us ruled not guilty. Holmes continues to prosecute other Black Lives Matter protesters, including people of color, who face a higher risk of arrest and conviction when participating in protests.

Prosecutorial decisions are political, and the City Attorney’s Office is revealing itself to be a shield for police, covering up police abuses and attempting to silence those who try to hold police accountable. As the city aggressively pursues charges against Black Lives Matter protesters, biased policing and excessive force continue to show up in SPD practices. Among a few recently documented incidents: Seattle officers arrested William Wingate for using a golf club as a cane, an officer punched Miyekko Durden-Bosley in the eye and fractured her orbital socket, and the city defended an officer who shot a man in the face until it was forced to settle for nearly $2 million—money coming out of the pockets of Seattle taxpayers. Why are protesters of police brutality spending time in court and jail while police who use unnecessary force against residents and the general public go largely unprosecuted?

During our trial, the prosecution depicted us as dangerous extremists and went so far as to make links between us and the white supremacist killer in Charleston, the Oklahoma City bomber, and the Boston Marathon bomber. This moment lifted a veil off of the prosecutor’s office and revealed their true motivations: to make the public afraid of dissent through the criminalization of protest.

The city’s efforts to suppress Black Lives Matter protests are backfiring, further highlighting patterns of racism within the SPD and overzealous prosecution by the City Attorney’s Office. Charges against protester Jorge Torres were quietly dropped as video evidence uncovered an officer on the scene referring to Torres with a racial slur.

The city poured resources into our two-week trial to argue that our message that Black Lives Matter was inconvenient for drivers who likely had no interest or involvement in that message. But it took our jury—made up of everyday people in Seattle—less than 45 minutes to see that our first amendment right to protest allows us to fight in the streets against white supremacy for a world where black lives matter. We must continue to fight until there is more than just lip service to overcoming our country’s legacy and institutionalized racism. Pete Holmes’s determination to continue to prosecute protesters can only be seen as a tactic to silence a palpable movement demanding real change in our city and country.

In 2011, Pete Holmes said it was his “obligation as a prosecutor to fight against institutional racism” in the criminal justice system. In 2015, he’s prosecuting nonviolent activists who seek to hold city government accountable for police violence against people of color. If he is truly a public servant, he must stop prosecuting the people engaging in constitutionally protected acts of civil disobedience to bring about that change.

We are fighting for a world where all people can live without fear of police brutality. Today, we ask Pete Holmes: How are you using your position to challenge white supremacy? Silencing a movement that is holding your office accountable perpetuates institutional racism. We call on you to drop all charges against Black Lives Matter protestors, including people arrested on Thanksgiving, December 6, and MLK Day.

Cat Cunningham, Beck Gross, Eliana Horn, and Gillian Locascio were arrested for blocking Highway 99 on Martin Luther King Day and acquitted by a Seattle jury on July 1.