Kent Thomas is easy to spot in a pink Planned Parenthood t-shirt in this CNN video. He's the guy who gets plucked from the crowd and thrown to the ground by police around the :50 mark.
Thomas, 26, was part of a small group of protesters who remained at SeaTac Airport in the early morning hours Sunday after a 3,000-person-strong pro-immigration protest had dwindled. The group that stayed blocked exits and chanted for the release of people detained by federal authorities under President Donald Trump's executive order. Thomas and several other protesters who were in the crowd say they knew they'd face arrest if they refused to leave but were surprised by how quickly officers turned to force. The Port of Seattle Police, who oversaw the response to Saturday's protest, is now conducting a review of uses of force that night.
In an interview with The Stranger, Thomas, who got to the airport around midnight, said things "escalated quickly." The scene went "from police not responding to any of our questions to saying, 'You'll get arrested,' to them being violent, pepper-spraying, and grabbing people."
"When the police actually started to push," Thomas said, "it was pretty mind-blowing to me that it was happening because we were being peaceful." (
The officer who grabs Thomas in the CNN video appears to be wearing a Renton Police Department badge. A spokesperson for Renton Police was not available for comment by deadline, but I'll update if I hear back. Renton Commander Dave Leibman confirmed to The Stranger that a Renton officer made the arrest shown in the video. Leibman said “what isn’t shown in the video is that when [officers] were trying to push everyone back, [Thomas] tried to push back” at an officer and “at that point the decision was made that he would be arrested.”)
When officers grabbed Thomas from the crowd, they detained him and about 25 others, he said, with zip ties, then led them to a bus and drove them to the Tukwila light rail station, where they dropped them off and told them they might get a citation in the mail. Four protesters who spoke to The Stranger described a similar experience and none were sure when they left the airport whether they would actually face charges or not.
In total, police from 10 jurisdictions in the region detained 33 people at the airport Saturday, according to Sea-Tac Airport spokesperson Perry Cooper. Cooper says all of those detained will be cited, one for assault and the others for disorderly conduct. A spokesperson for the King County Prosecutor's Office said the office hasn't yet received the citations from Port Police or decided whether to issue them.
Jordan Lyles, 24, said she was part of the crowd that got pepper-sprayed and detained, but she had no idea whether to expect a citation or charges. Lyles said that while she and others were being taken by the police to the Tukwila light rail station, an officer told them, “Congratulations on being arrested for something you believe in” and indicated they wouldn’t be cited if they didn’t return to the airport that night.
Soon after Saturday's action, Seattle Police said they did not make any arrests or use pepper spray at the airport.
The Port of Seattle said its officers didn't use pepper spray on protesters, either, but photos clearly showed a port officer spraying the crowd. CLARIFICATION: The Port of Seattle first said it was "unaware" of any of its officers using pepper spray on protesters. Later, photos clearly showed a port officer spraying the crowd.
. @heidigroover Well— just remembered that @photogenna had a photo of a pepper spraying. Appears to be Port police sergeant Jason Coke? pic.twitter.com/nACMwEy1CD
— Lindsey Wasson (@lindseywasson) January 30, 2017
Now, Cooper acknowledges that port officers did use the pepper spray because the crowd that stayed at the airport into the early hours of the morning "became much more aggressive, blocking exits and entrances… impeding the operation of the airport." Cooper said airport employees were "trapped" in a break room and feared for their safety. (Protesters describe the scene, even in the later hours, as peaceful and escalated by officers.)
As is standard procedure, the port plans to do a review of uses of force that night. Seattle City Council member Lorena González, who chairs the council's public safety committee, said she doesn't intend to hold any meetings on the response since she doesn't believe Seattle officers were at fault. Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire said she would wait for the results of the port's internal review before deciding whether more action is necessary.
Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant has raised questions about the police response and why Seattle Police officers were on site at all. This week, Sawant called it "a political act" to choose whether or not to deploy officers. “You just have to pick a side," she said, "and we know what side has been picked so far.”
Mayor Ed Murray's office has defended the choice to send officers as part of a standard mutual aid agreement, in which it assists other departments when they've exhausted their resources.
Thomas, the protester in the CNN video, said he hopes to talk about police force on protesters "won't distract from what we were protesting."
But as Trump's agenda draws more first-time protesters into the streets (and airports), casual activists are beginning to get a sense of the police tactics familiar to regular protesters.
"What occurred on Saturday is completely out of character for me," Thomas said, "but I’m realizing it looks like it’s going to have to become more of a regular thing for us to stand up against these things."