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Seattle activists tangle with City, SPD over encampment barriers

Seattle police stood behind barricades Tuesday while the city swept an illegal encampment. (MyNorthwest)

Kara Sweidel brought latex gloves in hopes of helping clean up in the latest SoDo homeless encampment sweep. She’s attended other sweeps around the city and wasn’t deterred by the idea of handling used heroin needles in the muck or a rat infestation. She wanted to help pack people’s belongings and move them forward in some way.

“I don’t have any concerns for my safety in there,” she said. “It’s any concern I would have for anywhere in the city. There’s rats all over the city. I almost hit them on my bike every time I ride on the Burke-Gillman Trail. Mud, this is a rainy place, there’s mud everywhere. I’m not really concerned. I brought the latex gloves so that I could pick up trash without my gloves getting wet. I don’t feel like it’s a safety issue at all to help people.”

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But when Sweidel saw the police perimeter around the encampment known as the Triangle, she knew it was a lost cause.

“Looking at them as I walk toward the barricades I kind of see in their face that that’s what they’re going to tell me so I thought I’d kind of walk around the perimeter and do a perimeter check before trying to get inside,” she said, noting that friends at a similar sweep a week ago had a “more positive” effect on the situation. “You can just tell just by the police standing around that it’s totally closed off, no one can get in or help.”

While the approximately 80 people and their belongings were swept Tuesday from the illegal homeless encampment known as the “The Field” and “The Triangle,” some supporters came to help the campers leave. Some wanted to help them stay. Some wanted to film the police.

Considering the rainy conditions Tuesday, police on scene thought the cleanup went relatively well, but directed questions to the City. Chris Potter, Director of Operations for the city’s Finance and Administrative Services department, said he expected the SoDo camp to be cleared within two or three days. But it certainly wasn’t pretty. While exploring and documenting items in the tent, Potter said he saw a bucket of needles; blood-soaked and rotten blankets and mattresses. He estimated about one-quarter of the tents had people inside, with a majority simply used as storage. The hazards make the cleanup a somewhat dangerous process. And he said the activists nearby were not making things easier.

However, those individuals were hoping for more. Standing on the sidewalk in the cold, a group huddled and discussed how they wanted to properly observe, and show their support. They came up with some chants, including: “Who’s streets? Our streets” … “Let them in” … “Stop the sweeps.”

Joe Garn said he and others with the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition were denied the right to observe and hold police accountable. He and others complained that they were barricaded away from the grassy strip immediately outside the encampment — instead forced across the street behind passing traffic.

“My hope was to get inside and film up close what the cops were doing. And every instance at least I’ve been to where concerned citizens show up and are observing and keeping on an eye on the cops, they act a lot more humanely,” Garn said. “They don’t take people’s stuff, trash people’s stuff that they otherwise do. They don’t even sweep when they otherwise would.”

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Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission “Love” rescue van was on scene inside the barricades Tuesday and reportedly had 50 overnight shelter beds available.

Potter said he hadn’t heard of any private citizens asking to help. When asked if help would be welcomed, Potter responded: “If we were approached in advance, it’s possible that that might be helpful. It’s certainly something we would consider.”

Lack of trust from Seattle activists

There is a definite lack of trust among the activists when it comes to Seattle police.

“First of all, any time there’s police around, to me that’s unsafe,” Garn said. “To me, I’m worried about what could be happening but especially if they’ve set up this barrier around this entire camp and they aren’t letting anyone in to observe, to see what’s going on. And to me, that makes me wonder, what’s going on in there?”

Garn said the Neighborhood Action Coalition had done as much coordination as it could with campers in the encampment but that they didn’t have time to coordinate with the police.

“There’s a lot of stuff we’ve got on our hands; there’s another sweep that we just stopped up in Ballard so that’s what was leading up to this week. And then there’s another sweep also going on in the Central District that we’re trying to work with,” he said. “What we tried to do is … get here early to coordinate with the campers and the police lied. They said the sweep would start at 9 o’clock, so we tried to get here at 8 o’clock, and there were already cops here and they were already sweeping well before 9. So we tried to be in communication but the police illegally went against what they said and started sweeping before the posted time.”

Rebekah Liebermann, with City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office, was among the activists at the scene. She pointed to a letter campers presented to the Seattle City Council that asked to hold off on the eviction for a week so that the inhabitants could try to clean it up. She decried the Mayor’s willingness to sweep homeless people from one spot to another and the SPD’s unwillingness to work with them.

“I’ve been to multiple sweeps before. The police show up early and then they say, ‘Oh, the activists didn’t tell us ahead of time that they were gonna be there,'” Liebermann said. “They know that we’re gonna be here. They get here early because of that and time and time again, they take people’s possessions and the reason it’s so important is that we have people here is so we can actually see what’s going on is because after this happens, then residents write to us and activists write to us and to the council office and tell us we’re not able to get our possession back I was only able to get part of them, a lot of my property was destroyed in the process. We hear this over and over again.”

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