This week, the Seattle City Attorney's office dropped criminal trespassing charges it had filed against five activists who held a sit-in at a bank in July to protest a South Seattle man's foreclosure and eviction.
"We looked at the cases again after your inquiry," says John Schochet, the city attorney's deputy chief of staff, "and determined that they didn't meet our standards for civil disobedience/protest charges." Pressed to explain why the city would initially believe it had the basis to press charges and later retract them, Schochet said that even if a crime was committed, "our office is exercising its discretion not to pursue these charges here."
Some of the activists suggest they were charged—and then let off the hook—because Wells Fargo is the city's bank, and prosecution would entail political undertones. "They realized a trial where they are representing their bank's interests against three senior citizens and two young teachers wouldn't look too good in the eyes of the public," says Kailyn Nicholson, a teacher who participated in the sit-in. "I'm glad they came to their senses."
It's a surprising and sudden reversal. The activists, including 87-year-old Dorli Rainey, were summoned to court this month for arraignment. Prosecutors offered to drop the charges if the defendants performed 48 hours of community service and promised to stay away from Wells Fargo for two years. "We all refused," Nicholson explains.
The activists had been protesting a foreclosure by Wells Fargo against Jeremy Griffin, a construction worker who lives in South Seattle. Griffin had attempted to pay the bank for months, but it refused to take the money since foreclosure had already begun. "After watching Jeremy try and fail to get Wells Fargo to even talk with him about working out a payment plan," Nicholson says, "we were simply trying a new approach to get them to consider his proposal."
The five activists walked into the bank on July 2, read a statement, and sat down facing the tellers, until police calmly lead them into paddy wagons. Later that month, King County Sheriff officers arrested protesters, including Seattle City Council candidate Kshama Sawant, for blocking the entrance to Griffin's home.
According to the real-estate firm Zillow, 17.5 percent of all Seattle homeowners are underwater on their mortgages (they owe more than the house is worth), meaning they're at risk of foreclosure. At a candidate forum on October 28, Council Member Nick Licata said he intends to propose a bill to give large-scale relief to struggling Seattle homeowners early next year, potentially by using eminent domain to write down their debts.