February 17, 1970: SLF vs. SPD

Same as it ever was: police vs. protesters in downtown Seattle, February 17, 1970
Barry Sweet (BarrySweetPhotos.com)

What follows below likely might agitate longtime acolytes of the classic Akira Kurosawa film Rashōmon. Much like that legendary cinematic masterpiece, the story below comprises wildly conflicting accounts of a contentious event given respectively by the event organizers, the Seattle Police Department (SPD), and Seattle’s two leading contemporary daily newspapers.

The story indeed resembles Rashōmon, wherein a similarly contentious event is retold by four of its witnesses in four wildly conflicting versions, leaving the ideal of a genuinely objective account washed away like a fragile sand sculpture after a violent rainstorm — much like the storm that crucially frames Rashōmon‘s famous finale. While Rashōmon takes place in eighth-century Japan, the story below took place in Boeing Bust-era Seattle, when and where the controversial verdict in the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial was crucially expected there as well as nationwide on the date in focus here.

All involved in the story below likely would agree that the Chicago Seven trial was at the heart of the clash that shook Seattle on that fateful day. In mid-February 1970, the trial of the seven infamous defendants charged with interstate conspiracy to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was obviously winding down towards a greatly anticipated verdict. The Seven in question, cueing America’s anti-Establishment masses, had then called for their many disparate supporters to organize local demonstrations nationwide on “The Day After” (TDA) the impending verdict.

Enter the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF).

The SLF was a brazenly radical organization formed one mere month prior to the impending Day After, inspired by a provocative public appearance on January 17, 1970, by Chicago defendant Jerry Rubin. The SLF wasted no time in planning a TDA demonstration to be held at Seattle’s William Kenzo Nakamura United States Court House downtown at Fifth Avenue and Spring Street — never mind the inconvenient mystery of the Chicago verdict’s exact date.

Seeking to effectively promote Seattle’s TDA, one member of the SLF, Charles Clark “Chip” Marshall III, approached the office of Helix — then Seattle’s leading countercultural newspaper — with a copy of a manifesto calling for a “Stop the Courts Day” at 2 p.m. in front of the courthouse on the still-unknown day of the verdict, seeking its publication in the paper. As Helix editor Walt Crowley (1947-2007) would later sadly recall in his 1995 book Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, “While Marshall’s [manifesto] never explicitly called for a violent action, it all but invited it, and this made us very nervous.”

The manifesto was published in Helix on February 12, but not without an editorial disclaimer. Crowley’s anxiety, along with that of his kindred Helixistas, would soon prove well founded.

On the Saturday prior to TDA, Julius Hoffman, the presiding judge in the Chicago trial — already then loathed by much of America’s radical youth — sentenced all of the Chicago Seven, along with their attorneys, for contempt of court. This was before the Chicago jury had yet reached a proper verdict. For the Chicago Seven’s nationwide supporters, Hoffman’s abrupt action served as both a deadline cue and an inflammatory catalyst for the impending Day After. Despite several pacifist pleas for strategic restraint — such as, in Seattle, the earlier, written pledge of SLF co-founder Michael Lerner “that we have no intention of introducing violence into [Seattle’s] demonstration” — Hoffman’s pre-emptive legal strike apparently infused the nation’s antiwar movement with a collective rage that no naïve pacifist sentiment could possibly contain.

When 2 p.m. on Tuesday, February 17, arrived in Seattle, roughly two thousand agitated activists — many more than expected, and most ranging in age from juvenile to twentysomething — had assembled downtown in front of the federal courthouse, obviously ready for a confrontation. SPD, meanwhile, had concealed several squads of riot officers across the street inside the Seattle Public Library. SPD’s acting chief Frank Moore would later describe the situation for Seattle’s mainstream news media with standard escalatory rhetoric:

“The demonstrators came prepared for war . . . They were armed with pipes, clubs, chains, paint, and tear gas . . . and they used them all.”

Thus, what could have been a relatively peaceful demonstration against injustice in the American legal system became instead an anti-everything free-for-all, with protesters tossing rocks and paint bombs, breaking windows, and violently scuffling with police from the courthouse to the Federal Office Building at 909 First Avenue, and vandalizing several downtown storefronts in between.

One major point of contention between the protesters’ accounts of the melee and those of The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concerned the massive use of tear gas, which was plentiful enough for clouds rising over downtown to be seen from Interstate 5. While SPD officially denied using tear gas, and the Times and the P-I both dutifully reported SPD’s allegation that it was the protesters who had brought the tear gas with them, eyewitness accounts published in Helix two days later declared the opposite: the police had used the tear gas, and one sole demonstrator at one point lobbed a tear gas bomb into the courthouse — after it had been thrown outside by police inside the building.

Additionally, despite initial statements from SPD and the Mayor’s Office commending the officers on the scene for their “restraint,” the degree of police violence was allegedly drastic enough that the P-I soon joined Helix in reporting several instances of police recklessly attacking protesters and innocent bystanders alike.

When the smoke finally cleared — literally and figuratively — up to eighty-nine persons had been arrested, scores were injured, and an estimated $75,000 (US$500,000 in 2020 dollars) worth of property damage had been done downtown. Among the other results of Seattle’s TDA fiasco, our city would soon claim its own anti-Establishment “Seven,” as that same number of persons would soon be named as protest organizers allegedly responsible for the riot. The Seattle Seven would then be indicted, arrested, and put on trial during autumn 1970 in an uncanny local microcosm of the Chicago trial. And, unfortunately, the whole affair would give the collective reputation of Seattle’s antiwar movement a political black eye that would not soon heal.

Sources: “bertold brecht” (a.k.a. Charles Clark “Chip” Marshall III), “Stop the Courts,” Helix, February 12, 1970; Larry McCarten, Don Carter and Craig Smith, “U.S. Courthouse Attacked; 80 Arrested, Score Injured,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 18, 1970, p. 1; “Gas Lingers, Charges Filed,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 18, 1970, p. 3; Don Hannula, “Rioters’ Damage Put At $30,000; 75 Arrested,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970, p. 1; “Uhlman Praises Police Conduct, Warns ‘Hooligans’,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970, p. 1; “14 Juveniles Are Arrested,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970; “Window Glass Is Major Casualty,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970; Lou Corsaletti, “Hospitals Too Close For Gas — Moore,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970, p. A4; “Militants Vow More Protests,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970, p. A4; Don Hannula, “Demonstrators Were Prepared For Battle,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970, p. A5; “Police Praised — Witness Tells of Officer’s Restraint,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970, p. B1; “Who Is The Real Conspiracy? This Is!” Helix, February 19, 1970, p. 2; Larry McCarten, “Outside Leaders Hinted Behind Seattle Violence,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 19, 1970, p. 1; “Mayor Warns Future Confrontation ‘Hooligans’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 19, 1970, p. 4; “Stiffer Laws, Stronger Protest Reaction Urged,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 19, 1970, p. 4; Frank Herbert, “UW Students Reflect Confusion, Anger at Protest Violence Here,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 19, 1970, p. 5; “49 Adults, 13 Juveniles Charged in Protest,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 19, 1970, p. 5; Don Hannula, “Tuesday’s Trouble: Public Defender Asks Probe Of Reported Police Excesses,” The Seattle Times, February 19, 1970, p. A8; “Out-Of-Towners May Have Led Demonstration, Says Uhlman,” The Seattle Times, February 18, 1970, p. A8; Larry McCarten, “Youths March To Clean It Up,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 1970, p. B; “Tigar for the Defense,” Time magazine, December 14, 1970, p. 55; Susan Stern, With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman (Doubleday & Company, 1975; Rutgers University Press, 2007); Dennis P. Eichhorn with Cynthia King, “Seven-Up Seattle style,” The Rocket, May 1987, p. 23; Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (University of Washington Press, 1995).

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