Busted: Seattle Police Spread Disinformation During Anti-Racist Protests
The latest police scandal in Seattle provides a crystalline example of how local law enforcement authorities have become toxic entities in modern urban areas—largely because it demonstrates, once again, that the city’s ranks have become populated with right-wing extremists who share an abiding contempt for the citizens they’re supposed to “serve and protect.”
An investigation by Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) reported this week that city police, during George Floyd-inspired June 2020 protests against police brutality, engaged in a campaign of disinformation over police radio intended to convince leftist activists who had created an “autonomous zone” in the Capitol Hill neighborhood that a phalanx of far-right Proud Boys were marching around the city. The radio chatter heightened tensions within the encampment that eventually erupted in real-world gun violence.
The investigation, spurred by social media reports from leftist activists, found that on the night of June 8, 2020—just after police had abandoned its East Precinct Station on Capitol Hill and as activists were creating what they called autonomous zone they later renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP)—deliberately broadcast false verbal reports of a gang of Proud Boys marching around the downtown area.
The participating officers traded the false reports over the radio, saying: “It looks like a few of them might be open carrying,” and: “Hearing from the Proud Boys group. … They may be looking for somewhere else for confrontation.”
Activists monitoring police radio raised the alarm on social media, leading some of the CHOP participants to arm themselves. OPA Director Andrew Myerberg noted that while some of them may have brought guns regardless of the warnings, the disinformation “improperly added fuel to the fire.”
Moreover, key police leaders were aware of the disinformation campaign, even though it violated department policy. However, Myerberg also concluded that the four officers who participated may have used “poor judgment,” but were following guidance from their supervisors, who the report blames for spreading the false story.
The two supervisors it identifies as organizing and overseeing the disinformation network, as it happens, have both left the department in the intervening months. Chief Adrian Diaz will review the activities of the remaining employees.
Prior to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, many police departments—including Seattle’s—had generally amicable relationships with the Proud Boys, leading many of them to conclude that they could behave with impunity in those jurisdictions. This was notably the case in Seattle, which had been the scene of a number of Proud Boys protests before 2020, resulting (as in Portland) mostly in the arrests of leftist counterprotesters and relatively few far-right street provocateurs.
Seattle activist Matt Watson (who uses the nom de plume Spek on social media) first reported the police-radio hoax shortly after it happened, and was able to document the fake reports. His reportage went largely unnoticed until early 2021, when activist Omari Salisbury began digging into the matter. Salisbury’s requests for body-camera footage of the purported Proud Boys sightings led OPA to open its investigation.
Even after the police hoax in early June, real Proud Boys (led by Portland agitator Tusitala “Tiny” Toese) showed up at the CHOP and engaged in harassment of the activists there, as well as of residents in the surrounding neighborhood. Toese and a gang of his Proud Boy and white-nationalist associates entered the zone on June 15 and attempted to start fights and were largely prevented from doing so; they later were videotaped assaulting a man and destroying his cell phone on a neighborhood side street near the zone.
Seattle citizens’ fraught relationship with the city’s police department goes back decades, but has intensified since 2011, when the Justice Department opened an investigation into complaints by community leaders about its excessive use of force and its biased behavior while policing minorities, resulting in a federal consent decree under which the department has been operating since 2012. City officials moved in early 2020 to lift portions of that decree, but pulled back on those efforts after the June riots on Capitol Hill.
The presence of right-wing extremists on the force became an acute matter of public concern after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol—largely because six Seattle officers were identified as participants in that day’s “Stop the Steal” protests. Two of them were fired after an investigation found they had entered the Capitol that day.
“Misinformation, especially of this inflammatory nature, is totally unacceptable from our Seattle police officers,” newly elected Mayor Bruce Harrell said in a statement lamenting the “immeasurable” harm caused by the scandal. “This kind of tactic never should have been considered.”
“This misinformation from SPD led to a fortification of the East Precinct and weeks of violence against the people of Seattle,” Seattle City Council member Tammy Morales wrote on Twitter. “As @Omarisal says, it was a ‘strategy planned by the higher ups.’ We need an investigation outside City process and we need real accountability.”
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos